Why axing Joe…I mean, Peppi, was wrong

Xarabank was a programme that reached most homes across the island, used its influence to marshal nationwide charity appeals, and became a port of call for all those hoping to become a household name. The programme was a winner

Granted, over the years I have been a harsh critic of Xarabank. At times, it was a veritable freak show of opinionated bluster and a cacophony of mediocre voices given a seat on that very Maltese of discussion programmes. With its brash style, and its apparent bias in the way it handled political establishment types, it is easy to be cynical about Xarabank.

But there are realities that I cannot deny.  Xarabank’s creator and presenter Joe Azzopardi was born into TV; he understands media and was a natural for the average television viewer.  His programme reached most homes across the island, retained the top TVM spot for years on end, used its influence to marshal nationwide charity appeals, and it became a port of call for all those hoping to become a household name. The programme was a winner.

Before rechristening himself as Peppi, I knew Joe back in the days of Tan-Numri, an NGO that took to the streets in protest at the excesses and repression of the Mintoff years, and as a co-founder of the Green party, Alternattiva Demokratika. The 1980s as we knew them, were truly days of unabashed repression. Joe was then a natural leader, certainly hardworking, fiery, creative and resilient. With a charisma that few people had, he inspired many.

When in 1987 the Labour government was unseated, TVM changed tack of course. Out went Eileen Montesin, and in came new TV programmes. Joe Azzopardi, again still a few years away from his Xarabank creation, came along with the satirical classic, Ahna Ahna Jew M’Ahniex. Laughter and political satire seemed utterly unimaginable a few years earlier, and Joe was pioneering it in a classic mark of Malta’s new direction into liberalism, even though it was secretly making fun of Maltese society and its political class.

For some time, Joe drifted into politics, but it was clear that his life was made for TV, and his exit from politics allowed him to start a new kind of TV interview – Bir-Rispett Kollu. With Lou Bondì, a one-time PN campaign manager, a new media powerhouse was born. With a mix of talent and political patronage, they enjoyed the lion’s share of media contracts for years to come. But it did not mean that they were not good at what they did. And even when Joe would be accused of political bias, he had undeniably never refused a platform for so many different voices.

I thought at one time that I could emulate him, but it was simply impossible. Joe understood the pulse of viewers like nobody else, a gift that at times may have taken his productions down a more tabloidish direction. He gave the people what they wanted.

Xarabank has now been axed from its Friday primetime post, and it is widely understood that it is the first excellent cadaver from Robert Abela’s early missives during his campaign for Labour leader. Azzopardi has always elicited suspicion in the average Labour voter, redolent of the programme’s role in shrugging off attacks from Alfred Sant and a Labour boycott back in the days of Malta’s EU membership drive. Like Azzopardi, other media moguls (who can do their job well) like Anton Attard, who arguably has had deep ties with the PN establishment, enjoy a strong foothold in PBS thanks to outstanding productions but have little favour from elements in the Labour administration.

But it is undeniable that both Azzopardi and Attard have a lot to offer when it comes to TV. Putting aside Attard’s own prowess at mounting TV spectaculars, Azzopardi himself has championed the poor and emarginated, minorities, and those on the losing side, for ages. He championed causes that have also rankled with the establishment. And for all accusations of political bias, Azzopardi was not just a Green voter or a PN voter… he actually voted for Sant’s Labour. Typically, he did the things he believed in. Whatever embrace he might have given Labour at the time (Xarabank was born in 1997, towards the end of the Sant administration), it was a short-lived one. His detractors took note, and for years on end Azzopardi would be considered a committed Nationalist. In reality, he is a maverick, as many in his line of work tend to be: he happened to question Labour’s intentions at some point in time but that label stuck. And if someone’s disapproving words were to be defended to the death, I would have taken a hit for Azzopardi’s outspokenness to remain on TVM.

Now if that was what finally cost him his Friday slot – some Abela promise to his voters to deliver their beloved public broadcasting from the brain-addled show that Xarabank was – I just wonder who will be taking up Azzopardi’s place.

To me Xarabank should not have been axed, at least from where I sit today. They did to Joe Azzopardi what they did to my programme in 2009 when I was seen as too critical of the PN.

Certainly enough, my own presence on TVM will be less eventful without Joe: it means I have to rise high above the rest to make sure the agendas Joe championed in his programmes, return to the national broadcaster. But I hear that there will be major changes at PBS. I hear people at the top will be asked to move on, at a time when PBS has registered a €600,000 profit amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The media company that employed Joe will still be having a programme, but it has to be seen if Joe himself will be its host. And here we are, asking whether the state broadcaster is truly about informing its viewers, transmitting the truth, educating and entertaining without fear or favour. I think Joe did that, not always to my heart’s content but that’s beside the point.

I hope Joe will return in some way or form to our TV screens.