Shedding crocodile tears over a programme many loved to hate

Those who are gnashing their teeth and wringing their hands over the end of the Xarabank era should be honest and ask themselves when was the last time they actually watched the programme?

I distinctly remember the last time I was a guest on Xarabank. The year was 2011, and the divorce referendum had just been won by the ‘Yes’ vote. I was there along with other panellists to speak about the result which, for many people who had completely lost touch with what was happening on the ground, was a complete shock.

Inevitably, it descended into a screaming match and a battle of “whoever shouts the loudest wins”. I seriously expected to have my eardrums burst by the loud volume of some of the other guests yelling (rather than debating) with each other. Getting a word in edgewise was a feat in itself. As usually happened every time I appeared on that programme, I ended up only saying about 25% of what I wanted to say. And, as usual, the next day I was met with remarks that, “they hardly gave you a chance to talk”.

When the producers emailed me the next day to thank me for my participation and for feedback about my ‘Xarabank experience’, I told them that I would be not be accepting any more invitations to appear on the programme. What is the use of sitting there for over two hours trying to speak only to be cut off in mid-sentence just when you are about to make your point? And how could this be called a talk show when it would be better described as a scream-fest which often resulted in viewers at home not understanding a single word?

Yet, for some reason, when the news broke that Xarabank had been given the axe after 23 years on the air, suddenly many were shedding crocodile tears about this programme whose presenter had become synonymous with the catch phrase “fil-qosor” (make it brief). The narrative which began being spread all over FB by certain people was that this was an attempt to suppress free speech which, for a programme which made it impossible for people to have a mature civilised debate, is an oxymoron if there ever was one.

Those who are gnashing their teeth and wringing their hands over the end of the Xarabank era should be honest and ask themselves when was the last time they actually watched the programme? While they are trying to recall this distant memory I would also like to ask them: what exactly did Peppi Azzopardi’s show contribute to improve the way we talk to each other when we disagree?

Over the years, this programme, which originally started off with such potential, disintegrated into the equivalent of a gladiators’ arena, with the audience members it attracted acting like Roman spectators, baying for blood, booing and cheering accordingly.

This is a point I have brought up with the presenter himself in person several times and he knows it. It is a shame that such a hugely popular (and thus influential) programme did not use its clout to show that it is possible to disagree with someone without biting their head off. It was a wasted opportunity and quality was soon sacrificed at the altar of sensationalism and ratings, which shot through the roof every time there was a full-blown argument on Friday night. Undoubtedly, there are viewers who relish this kind of thing, so I was never surprised by the high ratings and advertisers quickly began clambering over each other to book a primetime slot.

But, in the 23 years it has been on the air, Xarabank did nothing to elevate political discourse and it simply ended up glorifying stupidity, bad manners and ignorance. Guests did not win their arguments by expressing a valid opinion but by screaming like banshees, waving their hands in the air, and feeling triumphant if they managed to drown out someone else’s voice. I know many very articulate people, experts in their field, who have always refused to be guests on the show for this precise reason. This led to a vacuum which was filled by those who turned out to be what I call ‘professional Xarabank guests’ who could always be counted on to show up and say something outrageous and controversial to please the insatiable viewership beast. Please enlighten me: where does freedom of speech fit into all this?

Someone pointed out that Xarabank simply held up a mirror to show us “who we really are”… and to a certain extent yes, it did give exposure to elements in Maltese society which are definitely a part of our social fabric. But over the years, the very word Xarabank also took on negative connotations.

For example, in a poll by Malta Today in 2012, “807 of the 1,080 interviewed said that mediocrity, provincialism and the Xarabank-isation of television is proof of Immanuel Mifsud’s bold claim that the Maltese do not think a lot, while another 81 respondents said they agreed that the Maltese do not exactly have critical minds.”

What has annoyed me the most about all this angst over Xarabank’s cancellation is the hypocrisy. Some of the very same people who used to openly sneer and jeer at the programme, are now championing it as some kind of great loss to broadcasting. Oh, please. The least you can do is show some consistency.

The truth of the matter is that had Xarabank moved with the times, cleaned up its act and not remained stuck in the same old rut of pandering to the lowest common denominator, it could have easily used its high ratings to polish the quality of its own content and re-gain the respectability it had at the very beginning.

Instead, Peppi Azzopardi clung on year after year, becoming more ungainly, wild-eyed, dishevelled and unkempt with every season (if society expects women to look their best for TV, then men too should be well-groomed). The new presenter, the one with all the hair, who sometimes took over the show, was hardly the best replacement either, and simply emulated his mentor in the way he conducted the show and spoke to guests.

Like food, even TV programmes have a “sell by date” after which they not only expire but become extremely stale. That was the mistake which the Xarabank media machine made – not knowing when to call it a day, and simply regurgitating the usual format season after season. When viewers needed to be jolted out of their stupor, they would drag out the old standbys: Giga and the mystery of who murdered her son, Anġelik and his supposed visions of Our Lady, or by sensationalising often very delicate social issues from homosexuality to prostitution to abortion.

Obviously all of the latter required discussion, but it was the way they were handled and discussed which often jarred and trivialised them unnecessarily. How to best tackle a topic is the kind of crucial decision which is taken by the producer and which shapes the very nature of the message, and on the national station the onus of responsibility is even greater.

When it came to political debates, the considerable clout wielded by Xarabank meant that if you refused an invitation (like Alfred Sant had famously done), it was as if you had refused a meeting with the Pope. But how can the same programme possibly be a jack of all trades, veering from a debate between the PM and the Opposition Leader one week, and something silly and innocuous the next?

Some are predicting that Xarabank has been axed to be replaced by a programme which will be presented by a government lackey – time will tell if their prediction is correct. Meanwhile, what we should be doing is demanding more programming across the board which respects viewers and does not ‘dumb down’ its audience as Xarabank used to do.

We should be advocating for talk shows where people can disagree without blowing a fuse, and where they will actually listen to each other rather than simply go on TV to hear the sound of their own voice. There are many ways in which national broadcasting can make a positive difference to political discourse; it can show that it is possible to handle criticism without having a meltdown and demonstrate how to discuss national issues of the day without turning them into a version of The Kardashians reality show.

Does that mean that such programming won’t have the sky-high ratings which Xarabank used to have? Probably. But just like we could do with a lot less razzle dazzle and much more substance in our politicians, so too should the country’s national station also concentrate in giving us better quality content.