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We are the Beothuks

Perhaps the Institute of Maltese Journalists, instead of the Department of Information, could serve as a registration body for recognising people who are and who are not journalists

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan
19 December 2016, 8:00am
It comes at a time when the profession of journalism is seriously facing extermination, just like the Beothuks did
It comes at a time when the profession of journalism is seriously facing extermination, just like the Beothuks did
Today Monday, the IGM, the organisation that represents journalists in Malta, will be discussing a draft code of ethics for journalists. It has been drafted by Dr. Carmen Sammut, herself a former journalist and now an academic. It aims to serve as the Bible for good behaviour for Maltese journalists.

I cannot see any issue with the code, but I would say it comes at the wrong time and it is also a feeble attempt to indirectly address the culprits who denigrate journalism – at least that journalism that is self-regulated and paid for.

It comes at a time when the profession of journalism is seriously facing extermination, just like the Beothuks did. The Beothuks were one of the first indigenous American races to disappear, after the first Europeans arrived in Newfoundland and did what Europeans have been very good at doing. 

Everyone today has anointed himself a journalist with the freedom to scribble any of his or her awful thoughts on the social media network.

It comes at a time when the media does not make ends meet, when people have abandoned newspaper print in droves, when financing the media is next to impossible, when the media environment is fighting off an overbearing political class and the canards planted by their party media, and the competing influence of the church in its only little corner of the garden. And more seriously, challenged by the need to be more vocal on reporting the truth where it has become secondary to abusing people.

In the media, the established journalist is not always handsomely paid, works long hours and is up against an avalanche of defamation cases in a court of law (which is constantly questioned for not being fair).

On the other hand, the churnalism and poison-pen commentary on lone wolf blogs and other forms of social media is dominated by individuals who want to foment gossip and fabricate the most spurious kinds of stories, while not even having to worry about a revenue stream to survive but an everlasting source of vitriol to fill up the time spent on the laptop.

We could say that the IGM is trying to control the few last Indians who are trapped on an ever diminishing reserve. At this rate the extinction of the journalist as a race will make the code of ethics an irrelevant document, for the simple reason that there will be no more journalists to practise good ethics.

If the IGM wanted to specifically target the problem they raise they should have mentioned the journalists who break the code of ethics, those who record people’s conversations without authorisation, or taken on Daphne Caruana Galizia for her scurrilous and fascist attacks on people who are not even public figures but simply associated with the people out of favour with her – indeed taken on the people who sustain and support her.

I have no qualms with the code of ethics. But the first thing that needs to happen is for a greater appreciation of how important good journalism is. 

When I hear the deputy leader of the Nationalist Party, Beppe Fenech Adami, cite a blogger inside the House of Representatives, using his privilege to put on the parliamentary record something whose source is not bona fide, I start to wonder if our MPs understand what good and bad journalism is all about.

Readers will certainly understand this, but there is also a vast majority who couldn’t give two hoots about intelligent and well-researched pieces. Most want to read gossip and the more slanderous it is, the better. And if people don’t read, then they are simply scanning the glut of news items on their smartphones and simply reading headlines. They believe what they see, not read, ‘repeating’ the misinformation with a Facebook like.

In a world where good journalism faces the yoke of an unfair defamation law and has to fend off the gossip and puff-pieces, the prospects do not look good.

And the IGM is forgetting another important element to this incredible, big mess – the media in other parts of the globe are not editorially driven but determined by what the shareholders think. No matter what the journalists say. You will never see a word against the shareholder’s interest or those of their partners.

So what is the solution? That, I am afraid, is not something we can reinvent. Abroad, just like political parties are state-funded, the media is also state funded. It does not mean that they become subservient to the State. But in all democracies, the role of the media is seen as fundamental.

There is nothing wrong in having more Ivan Camilleris as long as you know how they think and act. The problem is when you have an Ivan Camilleri and you do not know what his agenda is.

We must determine who is a journalist and who is not. And perhaps the IGM, instead of the DOI, could serve as a registration body for recognising people who are and who are not journalists. That is: they must be people who prove they are actually earning a living off journalism, and to be recognised as such they would have to be willing to be regulated for what they do.

Discussing a code of ethics inside the House of Representatives is also very significant. MPs and the Speaker probably hope to have a language and style from journalists that can be structured and controlled. But that kind of sanitisation is not what journalism needs. Journalists who are mavericks and who worship at nobody’s altar need to be irreverent in the pursuit of truth.

Which is why I am very proud to work with such remarkable journalists at MediaToday. 

The IGM should talk about the future of the media, the need to invest in the career of journalists, the need to make our profession a respectable one, where people can look towards us as trustworthy interlocutors in this democratic space, mediating on their behalf and putting the question to power.

***

Perhaps everyone was scanning through their Facebook monitoring the unbearable voyeurism that has struck the Maltese nation on social media. But last Tuesday our President delivered a speech that made us all very proud.

It touched on every subject, from the economic model, the deportations, ‘the blogger’, the minimum wage, solidarity and the environment.

But I will only take one cue from her speech: her plea to the government to renege on the deportation of Malians after a deal coordinated with the EU, Mali and Malta. And it brings me to the broken record of our government and the previous administration too, when it comes to standing up to the EU. 

On tax harmonisation, even deputy PM Louis Grech, who always retains a sense of correctness, is still willing to lift his tiny middle finger to the EU and say no, no way. When it comes to hunting and trapping the same thing happens. But when it comes to French-speaking Malians who have been living in Malta for over five years, we agree to deport them “because the EU says so”.

I say f*** the EU. The President stood up to say this was wrong and we should show solidarity. On the online version of MaltaToday a posse of fascists posted racist comments under the President’s story. These are the Maltese who gauge people by the colour of their skin, by an incorrect appreciation of their religion or their culture.

I am proud to have this President, much more than the sobriety of Eddie Fenech Adami and George Abela. 

We need her to lead the country where everyone else is blinded by ignorance and myopic vision. Not everyone wants to look to the Church for guidance, with the lopsided objectivity of Archbishop Charles Scicluna. Before I say Happy Christmas, I must also say… long live the Republic!

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan is the founder and co-owner of MaltaToday. He has reported on Maltese poli...
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