What matters counts

Beyond Daphne, the sad truth is that there are few veteran journalists working with independent houses who have not been pushed into a corner and reduced to regurgitating the news.

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan
30 October 2017, 7:27am
The latest outburst by Former GWU chief, Tony Zarb, has perhaps shed a light on the stark reality of the current comments on Facebook and blogging in Malta. In fact, the internet has become a platform for the ‘free for all’ without frontiers. In my opinion, without any shadow of doubt, Tony Zarb has f***ed up big time. He should have known better, and his comment is obnoxious.

Having said that, his comments remind me of other deplorable commentaries by pesky pundits that may be traced in various blogs. They were not too different, not less sexist, not less chauvinistic, or cruel and insensitive and some of them were scribbled when certain people were passing through bereavement, possibly the most difficult of moments.

However, what we really need to discuss is this hullaballoo over freedom of expression.

Can we cut the crap for a minute?

The issue here is not freedom of expression and I really do not believe this is the issue. This is a country where everyone says what one likes, when he or she likes, invents stories and, more importantly, disseminates hate talk as if there is no tomorrow.

Over the last years many people have been tolerant enough to say and do nothing in the face of constant abuse, false and defamatory statements. Some have even had to accept the fact that they were lied about. And here I am not referring only to Joe citizen but even to individuals higher up in the socio-political strata that are in the limelight and are fully protected by the law, such as the President of the Republic Marie Louise Coleiro Preca.

Instead of talking about freedom of expression perhaps we should be talking about the level of investigative journalism.

Most journalists in Malta do not carry out investigative journalism. They usually receive information or documentation or fact or gossip or unconfirmed reports from persons who have an axe to grind. Only in some cases do we come across documentation or paper work or emails or word files which give us some insight into a story.

The real journalist does not publish without confirmation or without verification. However, the whole truth is that most publish without verification, and others ask for comments and receive none.

The real investigative journalist is one who researches a lead and builds a narrative based on the facts that are collected through tireless and painstaking work.

Unfortunately, believe it or not, there are very few Maltese journalists who fall into the last category and before anyone, locally and abroad, starts pontificating about the need for freedom of expression in Malta, I think we should be discussing and focusing on the first things that we really need: media houses and editors who encourage their journalists to be enterprising and irreverent when it comes to putting a story together.

There is also another very important element which seems to have eluded the whole debate over journalism. A journalist must be objective and willing to write about all the subjects and people under the sun without fear and favour. And here again there have been very few journalists who have been willing or able to do this. Most look at a story from their political stable.

The debate on this has been rather stunted and it is understandable, considering the tragic murder of Daphne. The grass needs to grow, and when it does we need to start a real debate. However, I am not very optimistic.

The Maltese media is, by and large, a very disengaged grouping of hard-working people, and the turnover of journalists in media houses is abnormally high. The reasons why this is the case are clear.

Very few veteran journalists continue in the job or are willing to take the stress, long hours and unimpressive salary that comes with the job. Very few want to take the abuse even from their so-called colleagues in competing media houses.

As a matter of fact, you will find very few journalists over the age of fifty. Many journalists jump ship and take up other professions.

Daphne was an exception; she was 53 when she was killed. And older journalists are like good, aged Bordeaux. They get better with age.

Daphne Caruana Galizia worked alone, always a phone call away from a party apparatchik but always difficult to pin down. She also refused to be part of the Institute that represented journalists and she never won a prize for her works. She did not like to mix with other journalists.

Beyond Daphne, the sad truth is that there are few veteran journalists working with independent houses who have not been pushed into a corner and reduced to regurgitating the news.

This is the great challenge and no one, it seems, is realising where the problem lies. We do not have many good journalists because most of them cannot live on the wage that is offered them. The media is a struggling business and the social media has killed the traditional media houses.

Caruana Galizia did not live off journalism. Her blogging hardly covered her initial legal fees and her opinion published twice a week in The Independent would have partly covered her legal costs.

Her income derived from her marketing and PR work and from her coffee table magazines.

The fundamental problem is, therefore, not freedom of expression, but rather the availability of a medium to transmit the news and opinion and the person to deliver the news.

The media is interspersed with real news, subjective analysis, copy and paste news and sponsored content or advertorials. We are facing irrelevance.

I know most politicians would be very content to see this happening. Because without us, they would not have to contend with the minutest of probing.

---

And let us not believe for a moment that this is a problem which is endemic to one political party. It is an issue which cuts across party lines and commercial interests.

It seems as if the problem with the police started two weeks ago and that the Attorney General is a problem now. But this is so far from the truth that I can only cringe.

This is a problem that should have been addressed a long time ago and now it has come to a head. Muscat cannot simply promise a reform, but he also has to implement it within a stipulated time period.

The other consideration is that without a professional prosecuting team and well trained ‘investigative’ magistrates there is no point in choosing an attorney general that is chosen by two thirds of the house.

After all it is a well-known fact that magistrates may be brilliant legal minds, but they may be hopeless investigators.

The same applies to the police force, which really needs a revamp, an injection of human resources, money and innovation. Again, the choice of Commissioner of Police is important, but it should not be the top priority.

Indeed, this is a vibrant time for journalism, albeit a tragic one as well. It is also an important juncture in our democracy for both the government and the opposition. They both should rise to the occasion. But I believe they will not. The PN is too busy in its internecine war and Muscat is probably pondering over his next chess move.

That said, I really cannot say what will happen next.

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan is the founder and co-owner of MaltaToday. He has reported on Maltese poli...