PBS head of news Natalino Fenech (left) interviews Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. PBS said Gonzi featured in less news features than Labour leader Joseph Muscat.
Labour MP Gino Cauchi has accused the Public Broadcasting Services head of news Natalino Fenech of presiding over a deliberate campaign of broadcasting imbalance against the Labour party.
Cauchi, a former TVM news anchor, pointing fingers at Fenech, as well PBS chief executive Anton Attard and the board of directors and editorial board, of having used public broadcasting to shore up the government between January and March, specifically when talk of early elections was prompted by the Franco Debono crisis.
Cauchi singled out breakfast show TVAM as having invited more government ministers throughout the first three months of 2012, without an Opposition counterpart, saying the effect was to prop up the government during its internal troubles.
"I am not passing judgment on the presenters of the programme... because everything that happens in PBS, especially when it comes to the guests that are featured, must carry the stamp of approval of Natalino Fenech," Cauchi said.
In statistics he presented from parliamentary questions, Cauchi said the national broadcaster featured 86 programmes between October 2011 and April 2012 where ministers, parliamentary secretaries and Nationalist MPs were invited, compared to 56 in which Labour MPs were invited. 33 of these programmes featured PN exponents alone.
Cauchi said that between October and May, 24 news services featured on the PBS news bulletin included comments by the Prime Minister as against 18 that featured comments from the Opposition leader. Additionally, there were 97 news services with comments from government ministers, as against 10 where Labour MPs' comments were taken.
"But the largest discrepancies were registered in the first three months of the year, and this was when the speculation over early elections was at its loudest. It confirms that PBS was being used as a tool in the upcoming electoral campaign to unashamedly bolster GonziPN," Cauchi said.
Cauchi also said PBS news reports often neglected to report political replies from the Opposition to government statements, citing as an example a recent press report on the issue of university stipends.
"While Joseph Muscat's statement that stipends would be left untouched was not the main angle of the news bulletin that reported his speech, Lawrence Gonzi's declaration that stipends were guaranteed were given main attention without Muscat's own statement," Cauchi said.
The MP was taken to task by the manager for Friday primetime show Xarabank, Norman Vella, over statistics that presented an incorrect picture of the programme's guests. Referring to reports by General Workers Union daily l-orizzont, Vella argued that there were cases in which Labour MPs sent their political aides to appear in their stead, but the PQs referred to by Cauchi only featured specific appearances by government ministers and their Opposition counterparts.
On its part, PBS issued a statement expressing concern at the "campaign" directed at the national broadcaster.
"In 1997, the TVM news bulletins were dominated by reports on the Labour government... between January-May 2012, Labour MPs featured in 200 news items while Joseph Muscat appeared 107 times in these reports, while the prime minister appeared in sixteen features less.
"Statistics from the Broadcasting Authority shows that in 1997, TVM broadcast an average 183 news stories every month over six daily bulletins, dealing with news concerning the then-Labour government. Today, the average is 34 stories featuring government news, or just over one story every day."
PBS also denied ignoring Opposition statements, and said it only reported such replies to the Sunday political activities when they concern a state of fact and not simply a rehashed political comment.
PBS accused Labour of manipulating the data which was provided in a parliamentary question from information supplied by the Broadcasting Authority - specifically having been asked for information on the number of MPs featured in TVM programmes. "Labour is quoting data that does not reflect the vast majority of Labour exponents sent by the party as TV guests," the station said, referring to non-parliamentary figures and other political candidates.
PBS reiterated the precise example provided by Xarabank's Norman Vella earlier in the day during Cauchi's press conference, saying Labour deputy leader Anglu Farrugia had been officially invited to Xarabank but instead sent a political candidate to represent the party.
"This manipulation is unacceptable... PBS believes Labour's campaign has nothing to do with imbalance but with the audiences that TVM commands and its ill-effects on advertising revenues for the party's TV station. PBS's audience has recently doubled and its viewership of its news bulletins is three times the size of One News's bulletin."