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Saviour Balzan's Saying It As It Is - his favourite vice is memory

Saying It As It Is will entertain readers with its personal insight into Malta’s ‘enfant terrible’ of journalism, MATTHEW VELLA (a disclaimer of bias is not required here...) tells MaltaToday readers.

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella
17 February 2013, 12:00am


Saviour Balzan, founder and long-serving managing editor of MaltaToday, was given some rarely-heard acclaim on Friday evening.

At 50, my employer shows no signs of slowing down at the helm of one of the finest newspapers and agenda-setters of the island. His memoirs and reflections over the past 30 years or so have come together - penned in his typically breakneck style - in Saying It As It Is, published by Mediatoday's Choppy Books. And it's the first volume... so brace yourselves.

His supporters and some benign critics toasted Balzan at the Corinthia Hotel - media expert and university lecturer Carmen Sammut dubbed him a Rottweiler to the establishment, former Times editor Laurence Grech personified him as the proverbial elephant armed with an unfailing memory, and the former minister cum columnist Michael Falzon offered him a kind slap on the wrist: "a man in an unattainable quest for accountability" - injecting a dose of realism into proceedings.

Balzan's campaigning spirit stems from his years in the environmental movement as it morphed into a political force in the 1980s, under the trying circumstances of the regretful thuggery of the Labour administration of the time. He wears his scars proudly, standing at the margins of a media world that is often too happy to rub shoulders, elbows, and other limbs with the establishment - political, clerical, and business.

A nonconformist inspired by the Panella party of Italian radicals who founded the Maltese green party and then flirted with the Nationalists in the quest for EU membership, to find himself at loggerheads with the social conservatism of the Gonzi government - perhaps this is how Balzan would like to sum himself up in a nutshell at this point in time.

But Michael Falzon threw down the gauntlet on Balzan's "emotional reflection" throughout his career. Cherry-picking through history, and emphasising what impacted upon him in his journalistic life, Balzan may be guilty of failing to give history the thorough appraisal it merits.

But perhaps it's this bloody-mindedness that drives Balzan, even till this day. Perhaps he is less the editor meticulously poring over copy behind his desk, than Malta's most assiduous of newshounds, as MaltaToday's unveiling of corruption inside the fuel procurement at Enemalta in 2013 has confirmed.

So said Falzon of speculation about the Enemalta 'deep throat':

"As he recounts, dispelling claims that the Enemalta story was handed by a Labour Party official, it turns out that the most unlikeliest of sources handed him the documents personally at eleven in the night. Is this Malta's version of Watergate?"

Laurence Grech chose a more fitting description of Balzan's crusading spirit. "He certainly is the enfant terrible of Maltese journalism," he said, after suggesting that Saying It...'s alternative title might as well be "A history of scandal... or maybe The Black Book - of names taken down by Saviour."

"Balzan has been a crusader, with his own objectives, and one of these has been to uncover maladministration, corruption, even in private business."

And as Carmen Sammut said in her opener, challenging the elite "certainly requires unbounded confidence".

"Balzan's book is a page-turner that says much about our lives on an island where relations between people can often be incestuous."

Like Balzan, Sammut was raised in the heightened polarisation of the 1980s, her own journalistic career advancing into the period of Maltese media's late commercialisation, and herself having participated in the adventure that was the green party's newspaper Alternattiva - one of the finest examples of advocacy journalism - put together by one expensive Macintosh computer, a Gestetner printer, and manually putting the newspaper's pages together, one by one.

Much of the values of that newspaper live on in MaltaToday - treading the fine balance between an independent editorial agenda and commercial interests; pushing for quality but profitable journalism under the rigours of a 'shoestring' budget; and maintaining the irreverent stance towards social and political elites often untouched by news organisations and the world of public relations and advertising firms. And always questioning, never accepting the sanitised, official, doctored version of the truth that is hidden from a public we have elected ourselves to mediate for.

"His memoir of stories that rocked the establishment is a valid document of lived experience inside the Maltese newsroom, and it's a glimpse of journalists struggling to escape the pressure of politicians and businesses, backed up by an army of public relations companies."

At his venerable age, Balzan is a father of two, and late parenthood has now given him new perspective on what others 'out there' find hard to do: speak up. "Am I a nonconformist?" he asked himself in a reply to a question from a member of the audience. "I know I have given up on changing the world, but the campaign is to improve the quality of media, strengthen its ownership, improve its regulation, and all in the name of enhancing the democratic process.

"But compromise is a fact of life, especially when you have family and children. Many people feel they are scared of talking about certain matters in public, simply because they fear for the consequences on their children."

Balzan has however chosen his direction in his career. His unsparing treatment of his journalistic nemeses of yea-sayers and log-rollers who pander to the establishment shows that he is not for turning. And so be it: MaltaToday's values are safe. As he reminded his audience yesterday, he has shunned the kind of intimacy that can be dangerous for journalism, by avoiding social events and business freebies. On Friday he let his guard down to celebrate this milestone in his career with some flowing wine.

Saying It As It Is by Saviour Balzan is published by Choppy Books and is available in all leading bookstores, or available to be ordered online from MaltaToday.com.mt or by going directly to this link: http://bit.ly/YxoRHy

Call on 21382741 to enquire about copies and distribution.
matthew_vella
Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.