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The media's role is also to engage

Muscat may well have a point when he talks of an ‘existentialist crisis’ affecting the media, but his polarised example of a straight choice between ‘campaigning’ and ‘reporting’ is a misrepresentation of this dilemma. 

18 August 2015, 9:09am
Managing editor Saviour Balzan and MaltaToday journalists at their meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
Managing editor Saviour Balzan and MaltaToday journalists at their meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
On his recent visit to our offices, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat raised interesting questions concerning the role of the media in today’s society.

Referring to an “existentialist crisis” affecting the media on an international level, Muscat questioned the fine line that separates journalism from activism in the local context (with particular reference to this newspaper).

“If I may criticise, at this point in time you’re campaigning as part of civil society, rather than being the media which has a critical point of view,” he told the MaltaToday staff. “At one point in time you will have to decide between the two… where does the campaigning stop, and where does the reporting start?”

These are certainly valid questions which are, in fact, being asked about the media in other countries too. But they also indicate a lack of awareness about the role of the media in a changing world. 

Muscat may well have a point when he talks of an ‘existentialist crisis’ affecting the media, but his polarised example of a straight choice between ‘campaigning’ and ‘reporting’ is a misrepresentation of this dilemma. 

Traditionally, the ‘role of the media’ is often defined as ‘to inform the general public of things which are of direct concern to them’, and subject to the norms of impartiality. From the outset this is a narrow and simplistic view: it overlooks, for instance, that newspapers have always been expected to take clear, unequivocal editorial stances on individual issues. 

In other countries, this has traditionally included political campaigns. The extent of the involvement varies from country to country (in the UK, for instance, media influence is often a determining factor in election results) but in no part of the democratic world is it regarded an ‘existentialist crisis’ for a newspaper to openly back a political party and/or movement.

MaltaToday has from its inception championed a number of individual causes, as evidenced from the many media campaigns it has run on a wide variety of topics: EU accession, divorce, spring hunting, electoral reform, party financing, and many more. It is, in fact, part of our identity as a media brand: we pride ourselves on taking clear editorial positions on issues on which others (including political parties) tend to be non-committal. 

Far from seeing this as a ‘crisis’ or conflict, we view it as part of our raison d’etre. It is well within the media’s remit to engage in such issues; indeed it would be considered a dereliction of duty not to, in most other parts of the world.

It is also significant that the Prime Minister himself did not criticise past MaltaToday campaigns from before his own tenure of office: such as during the divorce referendum campaign in 2011. There was no difference between that campaign and the more recent spring hunting one (except, of course, the outcome of the referendum). 

Another example Muscat highlighted was the ODZ issue, for which he felt ‘condemned’ by the media. Yet MaltaToday has long argued against unbridled development outside the development zones: it was a battle-cry we also took up against the preceding Gonzi administration in 2005, without raising any questions about our role in society. 

One might reasonably ask, then, why the Prime Minister is uncomfortable with media campaigning only now. 

But the reality is more complex than that. In the wake of a global digital revolution that has reduced the mainstream media to one of several possible sources of information, its traditional role has had to be redefined. Today’s media are expected not only to provide accurate information, but also to give voice to issues that might otherwise not be raised at all. 

This secondary role can only assume greater importance, in an environment where a number of serious issues remain outstanding, while national discontent grows apace.

On one level, however, Muscat does have a point. It remains debatable to what extent the media should embrace this role, in Malta and elsewhere. We acknowledge that this is a grey area. 

But it is an area that concerns more than just the ‘fourth estate’. The other pillars of the State are also factors, in the sense that their actions (or inaction) are often the main causes of activism in any country.

The spring hunting referendum was a good example. Both party leaders had pronounced themselves against a ban on spring hunting, just as both parties had over the years succumbed to pressure by the hunting lobby. This created a vacuum which left almost exactly half the country unrepresented on an issue they felt very strongly about.

Part of the role of the media is also to highlight areas where other pillars of the state have failed. If politics fails to accurately reflect the full spectrum of popular concerns, it can only fall to the media to try and redress the balance. The same applies to other widely ignored or neglected issues such as electoral reform.

To put the matter simply: if we engage in such issues more than is expected, it is only because the political class has not engaged with them sufficiently. If this constitutes an ‘existentialist crisis’, the media are clearly not the only entities affected.

DealToday
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