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Carmen Sammut

Leaving the Press Ethics Commission: my real reasons

The orchestrated responses that followed the Mizzi vs Farrugia case were further evidence that Maltese journalism has not reached the degree of maturity and professional standards needed to justify self-regulatory structures.

Carmen Sammut
12 September 2011, 12:00am
We are fast approaching an election and the media are becoming more and more polarized and less inclusive. This cyclical madness is not merely evident in the stridency of the party media. Pressure also mounts on non-party media players. One can observe musical chairs being played between and within newsrooms. Foot soldiers are carefully placed and unnecessary or inconvenient pawns discarded.

In this context I must state that my recent resignation from the Press Ethics Commission (PEC) was not triggered by the outcome of the Mizzi vs. Farrugia case per se.

My colleagues in the Commission can vouch that I participated in the deliberations and decisions with a clear conscience. My resignation was triggered by media orchestrations that followed the decision and because I felt I did not want to partake in the charade.

I have closely collaborated with the Malta Press Club (which later became Institute of Maltese Journalists) for over fifteen years. I also collaborated with the Committee of Journalists, a second journalists’ organisation, when it was set up. As a media researcher and academic I always wished to contribute to the journalistic community as I believe that professional organisations are important to trigger the reflexivity needed to improve standards. Moreover, on top of my other work, I still enjoy writing and broadcasting and so I never left the field altogether.

I must state, that the only people informed of my resignation were the Chairman and Secretary of the PEC and the Chairman of the IGM. In my letter, I stated my reasons. I only disclosed my move with one other trusted person and at that point I had no clue that Mr Charles Abela Mizzi, a most respected broadcaster, had also left.

I resigned on the eve of a two-week trip to the United States. That weekend, hurricane Irene hit the US East coast, including New York. Friends and family fretted about the safety of my trip even when I tried to reassure them that the climatic turmoil would not affect a flight into Chicago over Canada. Little did I know that back home someone had leaked the resignation and that there was a storm brewing in a tea cup.

My visit to the wonderful engineered city of Chicago with its awesome architecture was followed by a great personal and professional experience at Michigan Technological University, where I enjoyed lecturing and meeting inspiring faculty members. Our host, Professor Mary Durfee and her husband Don, took excellent care of us throughout our stay. We found the small community of Houghton extremely warm; our participation in a few public events immediately made us feel welcome. Houghton with its unspoilt environment and great lakes is indeed a pleasant place to stay.

My perfect peace was broken when I opened my eyes one morning and was informed that my resignation had been leaked to the press. That day I did my best to answer the one and only journalist who contacted me for a comment. Nevertheless, uninformed media speculation continued as it seems that some editors and commentators do not even bother to closely read other newspapers.

I flew back home on 9/11 and what followed is my jet-lagged and final explanation of the reasons why I decided to step out. I am publishing my statement here because this is where I blog and so I can rest assured that it will be published in full and without distortions.

The Press Ethics Commission is a self-regulatory body. Self-regulation implies an effort by the media industry and journalists to safeguard their autonomy from the state and other institutions by adhering to a Code of Ethics. Ethical journalism is deemed to be necessary to increase public trust in the profession. So, whenever the Code of Ethics is breached, journalists appear before peers and after due deliberation, decisions are published. Of course the PEC does not replace the role of law courts.

Over the years, some Maltese journalists chose to ignore this system and even ridiculed requests to appear before the Commission. But other journalists accepted the reasoning behind self-regulatory structures and they participated in proceedings.

Malta’s Press Ethics Commission was first set up in the 1980s. Throughout the years there were efforts to improve its Code of Ethics but hardly any efforts to reform its structure. When I accepted to sit on the Commission, I also accepted to chair a sub-committee that worked to draft a revised Code of Ethics and at a later stage we planned to revise the structures. Revisions were aimed to reflect modern Maltese society and took into account the technological advancements that have revolutionised the media industry in the past two decades.

However, revisions in self-regulatory structures are only legitimate when the media industry partakes in the establishment of ethical parameters and accepts to adhere to self-imposed principles. In the past months, our effort to engage in a debate with newsrooms received a poor response. A few newsrooms and well-meaning individuals did give thoughtful and positive contributions. But many were either apathetic (they promised to send feedback but never delivered) or they merely chose to publicly challenge IGM’s representativeness and the PEC’s legitimacy without showing any willingness to take a leading role in reforming or strengthening it.

All this coincided with the Mizzi vs. Farrugia case. To me the controversies and the orchestrated responses that followed were the straw that broke the camel’s back. They were further evidence that as yet Maltese journalism has not reached the degree of maturity and the professional standards needed to justify self-regulatory structures. The events of the past weeks have shown that we are not yet ready. Like everyone else, I need to manage my time efficiently. After all these years I felt now was the time to step out quietly, without the fuss that ensued.

Next week I will embark on a lengthy academic assignment and life experience at An Najah University in Palestine. I will get there just two days before Palestine submits its application to become a member of the United Nations. I am happy to say that my country is among the EU members that support its bid and I am so very glad that this seems to be one position that does not seem to divide us.