Mission Im-'peas'-able | Emmy Bezzina

‘Il Parlament Tal-Poplu’, hosted by the flamboyant Dr Emmy Bezzina, has risen to quasi-cult status among a population increasingly disillusioned by politics. Is there more to the attraction than simply ‘peas’, ‘onions’ and ‘mouse-droppings marinade’?

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
27 March 2016, 9:15am
Last updated on 28 March 2016, 8:37am
Emmy Bezzina
Emmy Bezzina
Emmy Bezzina has been described as many things, but to me he represents an unfathomable enigma. Eloquent, undeniably witty and (at times) eccentric to the point of being a downright oddity, he is the natural stuff of comedy. He even looks like he might have been a third Ronnie: roughly halfway between Corbett and Barker.

Yet it remains highly debatable whether his insanely popular TV show, ‘Il-Parlament Tal-Poplu’ – recently investigated by the Broadcasting Authority over its host’s colourful expletives – is intended to be comical at all. Part of Bezzina’s stage presence has always concerted his penchant for the serious. For a man who laughs so much off-screen, his television persona has all the equanimity of a bored weatherman.

It is, however, the things he says that clearly account for the show’s ratings. And his audience ranges from small children (who now repeat phrases like ‘basla immarinata fil-hmieg tal-grieden’ on the school playground) to adults of all ages and hues. This naturally raises a question: how much of his own popularity stems from the ‘message’ (he will describe it as a ‘mission throughout this interview), and how much from the vulgarity and toilet humour?

Then there’s a paradox. Emmy Bezzina’s self-avowed ‘mission’ is (in part) to raise the standard of critical thinking, among a people he scornfully derides as ‘goats’ and ‘sheep’. Yet at the same time, he himself seems to be debasing public discourse through his own programme… which ultimately resorts to insults far more often than to persuasive argument.

Which is the real Emmy Bezzina? And would he agree that ‘Il-Parlament Tal-Poplu’ may actually be lowering the standards of public broadcasting instead of raising them?

“No,” he replies after a split-second pause. “I disagree with you that this is some lowering of standards…”

We are seated across the desk in Bezzina’s compact legal office in Valletta. Every conceivable surface is impossibly cluttered with box-files and piles of papers… every space on the wall occupied by a framed diploma or photograph. But from the moment I start recording, he immediately lapses into character. Stately delivery, pauses for effect, suddenly dramatic amplification… the works.

“What we are doing is revolutionising the concept of a TV talk show. When you experiment and are prepared to accept live calls on a live programme... the reality is that our dear people, the Maltese and Gozitans, do not really have the knack of what contributing to radio and TV discussion programmes entails. Most of my country-folk do not read, are not up to date on what is occurring, and do not see between the lines. They are literally goats, herded like the sheep of Gianni Attard in Gozo. Fortunately (or unfortunately) not many of them are culled...”

As with his televised insults, the punch-line is delivered stony-faced. 

“Aside from that I think we have now reached a stage where we have to think about how to discipline the logic, mental outlook and thinking of my country-folk. This means that those who, because of their obvious inferiority, cannot communicate or form an argument in any form of logic… they have to be psychologically shocked, by harsh words in the vernacular… whereby they realise that, if they are not going to grasp what is really hitting them in terms of revolutionary broadcasting, they have to be chided publicly…”

In recent programmes, however, Bezzina seems to have upped the ante: by divulging the home telephone numbers of certain callers at the end of the show…. 

“Yes, I am now announcing the telephone numbers of people who communicate with an effort to be as low as their pea-sized brain allows them to be. We don’t accept calls from private numbers… we only accept those that in fact have an ID number registered on our ID caller. Those who abused in the last two programmes were informed that I would broadcast their numbers at the end of the show. I did this yesterday (Thursday, March 10), and the previous Thursday, March 3.”

Is he concerned with data protection issues?

“There are no data protection issues on this matter, because data protection signifies that you are trying to protect the identity and details of some particular individual in accordance with the law. When this individual identifies him or herself, the only defence the broadcaster has – in the light of the Broadcasting Authority’s recommendations, in the aftermath of some comments made earlier – is to identify those who are trying to undermine it, or in any way disrupt it.”

Either way, the upshot is that ‘Il-Parlament Tal-Poplu’ is currently the most followed talk-show in Malta. How does its host account for its success? Is it down to the confrontational impulse that also fuels other shows such as Xarabank? Or do people really tune in to listen to what Emy Bezzina has to say?

“Yes, I must say that ‘Il-Parlament Tal-Poplu’ not only has the largest following in Malta – having surpassed even Xarabank – but people in certain strata of our society, such as prominent businesspeople, and also politicians: including the idiotic ones at that place called ‘Parliament’… most of whom are not really suitable to be representatives of the people… I find that not only are a lot of them following, but I am actually being egged on, urged, to keep up the style. They want the people to know that this country is not divided into red and blue… nor yellow and white, representing the Vatican. There is the mind, the culture of the Maltese and Gozitan people that has to be respected. We must now teach these so-called politicians that this country is not to be dictated to by the reds and blues… but by the people who really love their country, who want to be independent, who want to be able to use their own minds. If we are to have representatives in Parliament, then we want the role of these idiots to really be representative… and not that of a dictatorship. That is what we are getting at the moment, and that is why the programme is becoming more and more assertive in its revolutionary message. Though with good intentions…”

At the same time, Bezzina himself is also adding fuel to the flame of political confrontation. Is this an intentional irony? Is it a case of, if you can’t beat their confrontational politics… join it?

“No. The tragedy of this country is… you are younger than I am, but surely you will know, because you are well-read, that there was a time when our house of Parliament had five or even six parties represented in it. Whatever was wrong in that system, we had a spectrum of Maltese society. I remind you also that in 1943, when broadcasting in Malta was commencing, we had a Broadcasting Council which imposed that it had to include representatives of various strata of society. Unfortunately, when we became independent and the Broadcasting Authority was formed, it became limited to the whims of the two major political parties. These two political sharks – literally, social suckers – have made it a point not only to dominate the country, but also to make it impossible for a third party to be represented in Parliament. Il-Parlament tal-Poplu, in a most realistic, but sincere direction, intends to create a mentality that will undermine this blocked façade that we have of our Parliament being dominated by these two parties; that whatever direction our country takes always has to be dictated by these two parties…”

Emmy Bezzina here reminds me that this is not the first mentality that he had helped to change through his television programmes: especially the Anima and (appropriately named) Psiko series in the 1980s and 1990s. 

“I am proud to say that I am one of the pioneers, after almost 50 years of broadcasting, to have helped immensely to break social taboos: taboos on issues that now we talk about openly. Not only about gays, but about divorce… abortion… IVF… surrogacy… so many other things, that because of opposition by the Catholic Church, couldn’t even be talked about. I must tell you that, because of my views on divorce – even when I am duly qualified, not only in Canon Law, but also Sacred Theology… in spite of all that I was literally summoned by the Archbishop of the time. I was told that unless I retracted all I had to say about divorce in public broadcasting, I would not be allowed to represent my clients before the local Ecclesiastical Tribunal. This so-called Christian organisation, the Ecclesiastical Tribunal, impeded me from doing my job. And my clients were told to their faces that unless they engaged another lawyer, they would not be able to file a case.”

These issues came to the fore during the divorce referendum, which resulted in a defeat for the Church’s position. Does he feel vindicated? 

“I have no axes to grind, because I am very satisfied with the way my career has developed. Do not forget that I am now well into my 60s. I have literally seen this country change; not in the sense that Dr Herbert Ganado illustrates in his series of books, Rajt Malta Tinbidel. But I have seen Malta undergo a complete, thorough upheaval in every single facet of life…”

He also remembers a time when his faith in the political system was higher.

“I was myself a member of the Malta Labour Party, of course, for a very short time… until I realised that politics in Malta meant nothing except backstabbing within the circles of the party. At the national level, it was: either you had horses to run the race for you, or else you were literally doped to be left behind. So I said, I must find the right formula; and fortunately for me, I did… in persons such as Joe Grima. We all have our defects, but Joe Grima  ¬– and of course Joe Baldacchino of Smash – have given me all liberty to manage this ideology of mine in the way that suits me best.

“This is not to say that these two gentlemen did not find difficulties – and real difficulties. Even when we had Toni Pellegrini: he had been instructed to ‘stop Emmy Bezzina from broadcasting’…. But Toni, with his many defects, stuck up for me by personally calling the Prime Minister – Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, at the time – in my presence, and telling him that ‘Emmy must continue with his programmes, because they are doing this country a world of good’. It was in fact this episode that got me tempted to enter the political fray as a candidate. I never intended to be a candidate. It’s just that it suited the political powers that be, so to speak. In return for having this freedom in broadcasting, I was to submit my candidature. Of course I did… but it left me immensely disappointed, and that is why at the first opportunity – that is to say once Mifsud Bonnici, whom I treasure immensely, retired from politics, I followed suit.”

This brings us to another paradox. Emmy Bezzina is not the first to try and break the two-party mould… yet his own stint in politics (with the Alpha Liberal Party) and the experience of others, suggest that Malta prefers to retain it. Having said that, Bezzina’s television popularity also underscores that there may well be a popular groundswell of feeling of disillusionment with politics at the moment.

How does Emmy Bezzina square this circle? If people subliminally want change (as he suggests they do)… why do they never vote for it?

“This is a most interesting question. The so-called two-party political mould – which, in one of your articles, you rightly said has failed – well, the breaking point has not come for two reasons. One, they are in tacit agreement between themselves not to legislate to leave a space for the third political force to come in. That is one reason, briefly put. The second is that the two main parties, against all concepts of democracy… against all broadcasting principles in the European Union... have formed their own media organisations. They peddle a lot of rubbish. Most of the discussions are not only clearly manipulated, but are viewed only through the prism of whether you are red or blue… and this means they were able to seduce, to flirt with and to sleep with influential people in the commercial world.”

The results, he adds, are all around us.

“Influential people in the commercial world are like sharks… once they smell that they can advance financially, once they smell that they can keep grasping public land… then there is a tit for tat. We give you money to publicise your party; we give you money behind the scenes, in the form of commissions that may or may not appear… or may end up as a 92 euro deposit in some Panama company… whatever. This is the reason.

“Now, the people have to realise that if they want a real change, and democracy prevails in this country by having a third political force in parliament, they must become sufficiently educationally advanced to be able to say: red and blue must not exist at all. This is the mission. I want to break into people’s minds that can speak out; that they need not be afraid to go against the current. That they are to resist any dictatorships that might be running the country. That ministers are no gods; but human beings, who shit and piss just like any other human being. To these people we must say: no sir, you are the ‘honourable’. We are the honourable people, and we will dictate to you how you will run the country as we wish.”

How optimistic is he for mission accomplishment?

“For the moment, we are not quite there. And it is much to my disappointment that I see this young Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whom I publicly backed…” he pauses. “‘Backed’, not ‘begged’. B-A-C-K-E-D… I had faith that Joe Muscat, a young politician, would come and reverse the trend. His promises were so enticing: meritocracy, transparency… that we also work with those who may not agree with us, but who are willing to work with us. All these promises have gone down the drain. This administration has been a string of one scandal after another. And I must tell you, there has been a lot of pressure, not just on me, but also the owners of the station, to try and control my output on the programmes. This is something I will keep resisting, because I believe in freedom of speech. But there is a catch…”

The catch, he explains, is that you have to find the right formula. “It is useless to go before the cameras and be dictatorial or aggressive with the people. Yes, we must have an aggressive attitude in how to impart the message. But this must come with a sense of humour. But people who are, unfortunately, not up to the level of George Bernard Shaw, or any of the great literary works…. you have to address them with something they can easily assimilate. Such as ‘peas’, and ‘onions’, and empty shells of some … erm… delicacy… or even go down to the rigorous sounds of some words in the vernacular. Yesterday I announced that what we need in this country is a ‘Socjeta Organizzata tar-Reciklagg tal-Meritokrazija u Impartiality’. Of course, it’s a long phrase to say all at once: so let us shorten it to one simple word. SORMI. Let us enjoy SORMI. Let us live by SORMI, because with SORMI, Malta will be first and foremost.”