The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

‘Different beliefs are far better represented on TVM than they were before 2013’ – Carmelo Abela

Albert Galea Sunday, 21 November 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 13 days ago

Beliefs different to those of the government – be they from the Opposition or from NGOs – are far better represented on state broadcaster TVM than they were prior to the PL’s election to government in 2013, Minister within the Office of the Prime Minister Carmelo Abela said.

Giving his views about the state of Malta’s national broadcaster – which has attracted controversy in recent months for not being as independent as it should be – Abela told The Malta Independent on Sunday in an interview that the Nationalist Party has built up a narrative surrounding the state broadcaster.

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Asked whether he believes that TVM is biased in the way it reports the news, Abela, under whose ministerial remit the national broadcaster falls under, latched onto the PN’s recent campaign against TVM and what it calls its bias in favour of the government.

Abela said that he has no input on the editorial line which the station takes, and that he does not even meet with the editorial board.  He jokes that if he did, he’d at least make sure that all the press releases issued by his ministry make the 8pm news – something which, he says, doesn’t always happen today.

The editorial board’s role has not changed since the Labour Party was elected to government, Abela is keen to point out.  He mentions at least four times throughout the interview in fact that the National Broadcasting Policy which governs the editorial board has not been touched by the PL government and that it was first written up and implemented in 2004.

“I think the PN has built a certain narrative – like it did with the [general] election, where they insisted that it was going to be called – and they’re using that spin to speak about how the news is reported.  We’ve tried to do things at the national broadcaster which are a lot broader than what the PN is talking about,” he says, before adding that he disagrees with the PN’s criticism which states that the news is being used as a government noticeboard.

“It is clear that the government has a lot more activities than the PN, and it is also clear that the Opposition is not making a distinction between party and government,” he says.

Abela continues that the Opposition itself has admitted that the national broadcaster needs to cover and report government activities, but at the same time observed that the same Opposition is not making a distinction between the PL and the government. 

“When I watch the news, I see different beliefs – even NGOs, who are quoted criticising the government – being broadcast.  Today I can say without hesitation that different beliefs are far more represented in the news that they were before 2013,” Abela says.

It is pointed out, however, that it’s not just the PN which is criticising PBS over its reportage.  The independent media and others have spoken out against the manner in which the state broadcaster handles things.

One such example, cited to Abela, is how TVM handled reportage of the Standards Committee meeting where MPs adopted a report into Rosianne Cutajar and her property dealings with Yorgen Fenech, thereby confirming that she had breached parliamentary ethics. 

Here, the state broadcaster threw the news item into the middle of the bulletin, and only said that a PN statement had said that Cutajar’s breach of ethics had been confirmed, rather than quoting it as a statement of fact. An editorial by this newspaper some days later noted how the Labour Party’s own television station – ONE TV – had actually carried out a fairer piece of reporting on the issue, even though it treated a PL MP.

On this, Abela says that he cannot answer for the editor or the head of news who would decide how such issues are reported.

It is pointed out to him that the editorial board of the state broadcaster is appointed by the government, which suggests a certain level of responsibility.

Yes it is, he notes, but the day-to-day decisions of the newsroom are taken by the head of news who is distinct from the editorial board, as per the national broadcasting policy – which Abela again reminds has not changed.

“On the specific case you mentioned, I can’t really answer on what was said – but you confirmed that what the PN said was reported, so they cannot say that they weren’t quoted, and that the issue itself was reported as well. You can ask about how it was reported, but I cannot answer on that because it wasn’t my decision, and I can only answer for what I decide,” he says.

He mentions a case from when the PL were in Opposition: when he as spokesperson for education had requested a magisterial inquiry into the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools, and implies that it had been under-reported by the state broadcaster back then as well.

“What I’m saying is that in general, different understandings to those of the government from more than political parties are featuring more.  I’m not saying that they’d be the first or second item – but they’re in the news as a whole more than before.  So the news is representing a wider spread of beliefs and ideas than ever before,” Abela states.

Asked what reforms the government has in mind to make PBS more independent – such as perhaps relinquishing some power of appointment on the editorial board – Abela says that one needs to look at the station as a whole when discussing reforms.

He goes on an explanation that the state broadcaster is more than just current affairs programmes, even though that is what attracts most attention, and that the station itself needs to be strengthened in order to compete on a global scale, not just a local one.

Abela reels through a number of reforms, such as new ways of publishing the TVM schedule to producers, a renewed emphasis on more in-house productions and hence utilising the talent working at TVM itself, and the re-branding of TVM 2 to TVM News+, which he says follows the models employed by BBC and Rai to give more emphasis to current affairs.

“There are two stations which are equally important but distinct from each other in the product they provide to the consumer,” he says.

He also mentions other reforms towards inclusivity, such as the inclusion of more programmes with subtitles, and also points out an increase in children’s programmes and sports coverage along with investment in PBS’ actual built infrastructure.

“There is a certain level of ambition.  We know the direction we’re going, and we want to get there as soon as possible,” he says before decrying “shallow” debates in Parliament which reduce the state broadcaster to just issues about the news and not ideas for a longer term vision.

Coming to the question on independence, Abela says that he can understand people pointing out that the editorial board is appointed by the government, and hence possibly loyal to that same government, but notes that he does not meet with the board and that its run in accordance with the same policy introduced by the PN.

“While I’m open to any proposal to improve things, I think there are already enough safeguards for people to get a remedy if they feel aggrieved by something which the station did,” Abela says, referring to the Broadcasting Authority – a constitutional office where both main political parties are represented.

Given Abela’s continuous reminders that the National Broadcasting Policy was penned by the PN and hasn’t been changed since, he is asked whether the government is planning on reforming it or updating it.

“At present, no there isn’t any work ongoing on that.  But in the future I would like us to sit down and look at it,” he says.

He notes that the policy has been there since 2004, and that even though it is technically a national policy, it reads more like a set of internal guidelines for how PBS should operate.  One facet of the debate to changing the policy, he says, would be whether to make it more generic and applicable to all broadcasters.

“We need to look at it without that political passion, and more with a lens on how to improve the level of broadcasting in the country so that one day the national broadcaster can act as an enabler for local productions to make it internationally too, such as on Netflix,” Abela says.

Asked about PBS’ financial situation, Abela says that it has improved significantly, and that from being years behind payments for some creditors, the company is now only two to three months behind.

“The government – even before the PL – always gave a letter of comfort to PBS for bank loans, and these are being paid regularly,” he says. He notes that PBS’ latest financial statements show that a profit of almost 1 million was registered in a year.

On the government’s increase in how much it gives PBS through its Public Service Obligation – which went up to an average of 6 million per year for five years – Abela says that this increase was to give more stability to the station.

Malta, he observed, has one of the lowest government contribution ratios in Europe.  He says that the government contributes to around 32% of the state broadcaster’s income – much less than say, the 98% which Luxembourg’s national broadcaster gets from the state.

“We gave more stability and planning.  If that’s bad, then it was bad before 2013 too,” Abela says, referring to critique from the PN on the increase in the PSO.

The difference, he says, is that the government’s economic performance now allowed them to actually increase the budget for PBS whereas the PN government could not do so owing to the deficit it was facing.

“We can’t fulfil our vision without the financial vision to back it,” he concludes.

 

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