Consistency is the key | Reno Bugeja

Is PBS being stretched out in a tug of war between government and opposition? Veteran broadcaster Reno Bugeja counters criticism of bias and imbalance by pointing towards a history of consistency

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
24 April 2016, 10:00am
Last updated on 25 April 2016, 8:34am
PBS head of news Reno Bugeja
PBS head of news Reno Bugeja
For decades now, and under various guises – Xandir Malta, TVM, TVM2, etc. - Public Broadcasting Services has always been a major battlefield in Malta’s ongoing war of attrition.

In the 1980s the national station was targeted by a sustained boycott, over accusations of gross imbalance and political gatekeeping. Similar complaints have been sustained ever since (though taken to less dire extremes). Owing to its Constitutional requirements of ‘balance’ and ‘impartiality’, higher standards of political reporting are demanded of PBS than any other station.

Nor does any other station have to contend with quite so many complaints to the Broadcasting Authority. Smash TV may make headlines when sanctioned by the BA over Emmy Bezzina’s latest slur… but the national broadcaster is subject to a veritable avalanche of such complaints on an endless basis.

PBS’s current head of news, Reno Bugeja – also one of its most instantly recognisable faces, thanks to his popular current affairs programme ‘Dissett’ – will later show me an entire boxfile stuffed with complaints over the last three years. At the moment, however, we are in his office discussing the general state of broadcasting in Malta over the past 30 years.

Bugeja has been there throughout: having started his career with PBS in the 1970s. Two things, it seems, have been consistent in all that time: its popularity with local audiences, as reconfirmed by the latest Broadcasting Authority survey published last Tuesday; and the often extraordinary political pressure piled on the national broadcaster over its Constitutional obligations.  

How much pressure is there, really? Listen to the Opposition, you’d think that Joseph Muscat personally dictated the eight o’clock news to the caster. Listen to government, and you’d think PBS was doing the nation a disservice by not informing us all about its magnificent accomplishments.

PBS itself (judging by its mission statement) considers itself to be autonomous, insofar as editorial policy is concerned. Even financially, 70% of its revenue is self-generated. But how truly ‘free’ is the national station, given the political restraints within which it operates?

“What I can say hand on heart is that I don’t have any interference from anybody,” Bugeja begins. “Attempts at conditioning happen all the time, yes, from government and opposition… and also from other entities. Everybody tries to get maximum advantage [‘kullhadd jigbed lejn xawwatu’]. But I think the final judgment is given by the people. I am pleasantly surprised that one survey after another keeps confirming our credibility, and our audience share. The latest survey shows that we have not only retained our audience, but our evening news bulletin gained 10,000 new viewers. That’s no joke: we had an unprecedented peak of 111,000 viewers… which is of great satisfaction to us.”

Certainly it bucks the international trend, where mainstream TV news audiences are shrinking steadily: because of social media, because of competition from online news portals, etc. 

“Even our news portal currently receives around 60 to 70,000 unique hits a day… you’d almost expect it to detract from our television ratings, but the opposite happened. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect, naturally… because I like to think that God egoistically kept perfection to himself. But we do the best we can. To have said everything, however: the matter of balance and impartiality, as you know, is highly subjective. It is extremely difficult to convince someone of your impartiality, if that someone just refuses to see it…”

Indeed a lot of people don’t see it, as can be attested by a constant stream of official complaints lodged with the Broadcasting Authority: mainly emanating from political parties. In recent years, these complaints have increasingly come to target not just PBS, but also Bugeja himself… 

“Let me speak from my own experience: I have a record, I think, among local journalists and broadcasters. No one else has spent 40 uninterrupted years at PBS. I served not just under ‘three kingdoms’ [to quote Emilio Lombardi] – but under all kingdoms: Mintoff, Fenech Adami, and so on. I’ve been assigned to cover everybody’s campaign at one point or another: I have letters from all campaign managers – from Joe Saliba, for instance – thanking me for my work.”

He breaks into a chuckle. “So if they see me as a devil today, well, there was a time when I was an angel in their eyes…”

But are all such complaints groundless? Let’s take the latest example: Bugeja was accused of failure to report a Facebook comment by former prime minister Alfred Sant, calling on Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi to resign. The PN argued that a former prime minister calling for the resignation of a Labour minister was ‘newsworthy’. Isn’t there some truth to that statement? 

“On top of the Constitutional values of balance and impartiality, I added another value: consistency. What does it mean? It means I have set criteria and standards that I always abide by, in all cases. They may sometimes limit or restrict the operational space of how you work as a journalist, it is true. But I believe that consistency is an important ingredient that takes us closer to balance and impartiality. To answer you about Sant’s Facebook comment: I never quote Facebook, regardless of whether what is said is ‘for’ or ‘against’ something. Sant writes a lot of opinion pieces; he sends many press releases. In the case of press releases, we carry them or not depending on their news value. In this case, he didn’t send any. Consistency demands that I do not carry controversial Facebook comments.”

He reminds me that a few days before his comment about Mizzi, Alfred Sant had written an opinion piece criticising Jason Azzopardi. “I didn’t report that either. Had I reported it… they would be right: I’d be guilty of selectivity. But this wasn’t the case.”

Complaints about ‘selectivity’ or ‘bias’ are not, however, the only source of possible pressure. The real concern arises out of the ownership model of the national broadcaster. There may be limited structures in place to keep PBS at an arm’s length from the government, but the station still benefits from a state subsidy. There is an old saying that ‘he who pays the piper, calls the tune’…

Bugeja however insists that there is no direct interference from the government either. “As you can imagine, I get sent all sorts of articles, press releases and interviews from the government. Recently I was sent the prime minister’s interview with The Economist, for instance. I didn’t report it. I imagine they didn’t take pleasure in my decision: it was an interview in a world renowned paper, and contained many comments that could be taken as ‘favourable’ towards the government. But then, I don’t report comments in foreign papers – or local ones, for that matter – which are critical of the government, either. That’s what I mean by consistency. To illustrate it with a proverb: in pottery, you can place the first handle ‘[widna’] anywhere you like on the jug. But with the second handle, you have no choice. Once you decide on the criteria, you have to stick with them in all cases…”

Could this also be one of the reasons why TVM news remains so popular among audiences? Is it possibly a reflection of a growing sense of detachment from politics?

“Perhaps, but I think the appeal has more to do with the variety of our news. We can’t fill up a half-hour news bulletin just with politics. Naturally, politicians think they are important, and try to dominate everything… it’s my constant struggle. But we try to vary the subject matter – culture, human stories, information… that, I think, is the secret…”

But in the present political climate – which has been dominated by the Panama Papers – couldn’t that be interpreted as an excuse to tone down coverage of what is ultimately a very turbulent crisis for the present government? This in fact forms the bulk of much of the PN’s recent criticism: it’s as though PBS is trying to keep up the pretence of normality, at a time when things are far from normal…

“PBS has not shied away from the Panama controversy. It gave absolute coverage to all soundbites from the prime minister, the opposition leader... and there was also, to be frank, a repetitive element about it all. If you watch the BBC, for instance – which has a global reputation and following – they had the controversy surrounding David Cameron. But it hasn’t dragged on for eight weeks, like ours has… if it did, the BBC would stop giving it prominent coverage after around three days. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any scandal; it’s just that they keep things in proportion. In Malta, we have a habit of exaggerating everything: to take things out of context, to keep beating the same drums over and over again…”

Even when giving due coverage to Panamagate, however, Bugeja still came in for some sharp criticism. His recent interview with Konrad Mizzi on Dissett was the source of yet another Opposition complaint: this time, that the programme was ‘one-sided’ (as there was only Mizzi himself expressing his views).

“It was an interview programme, of the kind I have been doing since 2008. All my interviews have always been one on one. It’s never been a problem before: I interviewed Austin Gatt one-on-one on several occasions. If you read the BA’s ruling, you will see that it acknowledges this; in fact, it found no imbalance in the programme. A one-on-one interview is an important journalistic tool. The important thing, however, is that the journalist isn’t just a platform for the interviewee… as tends to happen when political party stations interview their own leaders. People who know me, know the line of questioning I take….”

Mizzi knew this too, yet he still avoided answering many of Bugeja’s questions… this was also pointed out in the BA’s ruling.

He nods. “Yes: like all politicians, when you ask him about ‘X’, he will try and answer about ‘Y’ to change to subject. But you can watch the programme; it’s still online. I always tried to steer the discussion back on subject. It’s like having your hands on the steering wheel… with all prudence, you do your best to stay on track. The BA acknowledged this too; that is why it rejected the demand for a compensatory one-on-one with the PN…”

Would that be such a bad thing? Why not interview both?

“I have no problem with doing an interview with someone from the PN; but you have to have a topic for the interview. The hard truth is that most of the questions have to be asked of government. There are questions to ask the opposition, too; and when we can, we make the space to ask those questions. But there is no escaping the fact that most often you will need to interview a government minister. If the topic was transport, for instance… the interview has to be with Transport Minister Joe Mizzi. He’s the person I would need to press. There would be no point in having someone there only to criticise. But when, for instance, the PN came out with its governance proposals, I had an interview with Beppe Fenech Adami to discuss them. I see nothing extraordinary about that…”

Nor does Bugeja see much difference between the present crisis and all other times, when it comes to the number or frequency of complaints. “I probably have a record on this, too,” he says, pointing towards that boxfile I mentioned earlier. “These are all the complaints I’ve received in the three years I’ve been head of news. It’s an entire volume. But if you look at how many of these complaints actually made it before the BA board, it’s only a tiny fraction…

He breaks off to explain the complaints mechanism: “When there is a complaint, you first give your justifications or response; then it’s up to the complainant, if dissatisfied with the answer, to pursue it with the BA board…”

This rarely happens, then?

“Most times – and I find this very disappointing – in order to undermine our credibility, they come out saying they filed a complaint, and just stop at that. Often they don’t even bother to take it any further. You can look at the file; it indicates which complaints went before the board, and which didn’t…. “

As for the few complaints that did get examined by the board, Bugeja takes pride in noting that they all were rejected. “I have never been found guilty of imbalance. Of some shortcoming here and there, yes… like I said earlier, no one is perfect. There were times when I should have decided things differently. But imbalance is another story. The authority has never given out any remedy for imbalance in the last three years… neither on the news or on current affairs programmes.”

Would he argue, then, that these complaints are directly intended to discredit him?

“Let me put it this way: attacks on my credibility are taking place. I believe that people within the PN have expressed disagreement with these attacks. But let’s be honest, it has always been the norm for the opposition to target the national broadcaster’s credibility, whoever is in opposition. And the truth is, I’m approaching retirement age… I’ve only got a few more years left, after being here 40 years. After a while you start seeing a pattern in how these attacks work…

This week’s complaint about Alfred Sant is once more the example. “There is always a complaint when the latest BA surveys are published, especially when the reports are positive… as was the case this week. Sant made his Facebook comment on Monday, but the complaint itself was only made on Wednesday: the day after the survey results were published, to detract from the findings.”

He admits it can be frustrating at times. “You do get feedback, from extremists within the parties. It’s annoying, I’ll not deny it.”  

One other effect is to keep the two parties themselves the centre of attention. This in turn brings up a thorny issue for PBS: being the national broadcaster, it also has an obligation to broadcast for the benefit of the entire nation... not just for its two largest political parties.

In 2014, the BA came out with a directive concerning coverage of ‘fringe parties’… since then, at least two new ones have emerged: Marlene Farrugia’s party, and the Partit Patrijotti Maltin?

Does PBS live up to this part of its remit? Is it even logistically feasible to give equal coverage to them all?

Bugeja admits that the changing spectrum of Maltese politics poses a dilemma for the national broadcaster. 

“Let me be clear: we have always given space to third parties. But there are parties and parties. AD, for instance, has a track record. We do not ignore them; in fact, we’ve never had a complaint from AD in the last three years. The situation is however changing. Let me give you an example: ‘Alleanza Bidla’ has filed a complaint over Saviour Balzan’s ‘Reporter’. Has anyone stopped to consider that Alleanza Bidla – which has only contested one election – might not be a functioning party anymore? Especially at a time when we’re not even in an election campaign? And how much space should I give to it? If I give Alleanza Bidla so much space… do I have to give the same space to the Partit Tal-Ajkla? Then there’s the Partit Patrijotti Maltin, the Communist Party… It’s a dilemma. 

Well, if you ask any of those parties, they’d certainly agree with more airtime. And why not, anyway? Wouldn’t exclusion of such views – however bizarre or downright loonie some of them may be – not also mean a monopoly of public airtime by the traditional parties? And isn’t there a danger that genuine political movements may be lumped in the same category as no-vote wonders like tal-Ajkla? I interviewed Marlene Farrugia last week… she certainly doesn’t consider her new party in that category…. 

“I admit it’s a difficult situation. Where do you draw the line? As regards Marlene Farrugia, however, we did give publicity to the fact that she is forming a new party. We invited her as a guest on a wide variety of programmes. Ultimately, it boils down to the credibility of the party in question with the electorate.”