A free press?

Much has been said and written about political party TV stations. First of all it is important to emphasise that political parties should have the resources to function in a democracy. In Malta some resources are only dished out to the two usual suspects, PL and PN. From a couple of hundred thousand Euros a year to the ‘government’ and ‘opposition’ parliamentary groups, to COVID-19 aid to their TV stations. Secondly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with parties getting their message across, what is wrong is that PL and PN are allowed to hog the airwaves. It is also unacceptable and scandalous that PL and PN are allowed to run their media companies as private entities outside the scope of the misnamed political party financing law. This is a gaping loophole, probably there on purpose, which allows the indirect financing of PL and PN through uncapped and undeclared amounts of money purportedly as advertising. The €70,000 in fantom db adverts on NET is an example of this practice. There are ways and means to finance the policy work of registered political parties, through an amount of public financing per vote garnered in elections, with other donations being strictly limited. That way the amount of financing reflects the will of voters and taxpayers. Of course both PL and PN are in favour of such a system when in Opposition and against it when in Government. One wonders why! It is also rather easy to make populist and uninformed arguments against such a system. The arguments against just aid in propping up the current status quo.

That is just one problem with the media in Malta. The other is whether private media can ever be really ‘free’. Of course it goes without saying that private media should be allowed to operate. Of course it is normal for media houses to have their policies and agendas. An agenda is not a negative, if it is transparent and declared. But that does not mean that private media is some utopian ‘neutral’ oracle. Some interesting points are made in an article on the openDemocracy website about the media situation in the UK, some of which may be food for thought in the discussion on how to have a better media landscape here in Malta (read here: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/five-reasons-why-we-don-t-have-free-and-independent-press-in-uk-and-what-we-can-do-about/).

The first issue with privately owned media is that media owners set the agenda. In the UK it is billionaires, who hound and ridicule politicians and NGOs pushing for a more social economy, for environmental justice and worker rights. The article goes on to state that ‘With six billionaires as majority voting shareholders for most of the UK national newspapers, it is unsurprising that they mostly supported the Conservatives in the last general election. The Conservatives reduced the top tax rate, and want to reduce it further, giving millionaires and billionaires massive tax breaks.’ Who sets the agenda for the Maltese private press? The scenario is somewhat different here. But it is sometimes obvious that certain news items, opinion pieces and articles are refused for political reasons and certain people pushed and promoted because they spend loads of money on adverts. It is not the message, but the messenger. Owners can and do interfere. Then there is this practice in journalists signing sponsored content or engaging in public relations campaigns, including government campaigns. Has nobody heard of the difference between news, opinion and PR? The answer will probably be ‘we have to pay wages’. 

This brings me to the influence of advertisers on content. We have all seen articles, some sponsored, some not, extolling the ‘great philanthropic work and kind hearts’ of dubious characters. The reason for this whitewashing becomes obvious when advertorials aplenty advertising these people’s businesses litter the internet portals of some media houses. The openDemocracy article says that in the UK media is so heavily reliant on corporate advertising, that this ends up compromising what is and isn’t written about.

Are there any solutions? There are no hard and fast solutions. There are multiple small solutions which can go some way in improving the media landscape. The internet has surely helped in getting content out there without depending on particular companies and groups. But that also means that there is a lot of garbage content and fake content dressed up as news and the ‘truth’. A more open and inclusive access model to public TV would be another step forward. Even discussion programmes on public TV are designed to prop up the PL and PN worldview, which in turn pander to strong economic interest. Other opinions are largely ignored. Even so called ‘experts’ are chosen to broadly be Nationalist or Labour-leaning. Ways and means to support investigative journalism must be found. The difference between public relations and news and real journalism must be crystal clear. We do not live in a utopia or perfect world, nor should we expect perfection. What we should do is discuss things, uncomfortable as they might be. Solutions may work for a period of time but then need tweaking and perfecting. That’s the nature of policy and of democracy. Debate, discuss, find solutions, which are always partial and incomplete. There is no one ‘truth’. Party TV stations should go. Public broadcasting should be representative of the diverse society in which we live, its journalists should be protected from partisan pressures. But, harsh as it may sound, this doesn’t mean that the private press is some kind of utopian antidote and some beacon of democracy.

Ralph Cassar
Secretary General
Published in the Maltotoday – Sunday 13 September 2020