Xarabank: end of the road...

Call me suspicious, but I can’t help feeling that two controversial decisions in a single week does not exactly bode very well for the general health of our country’s democracy

I know this will probably come across like that classic, clichéd preamble to every racist argument you’ve ever heard: ‘I’m not racist, BUT…’

And, well, that’s probably because the same dynamics apply perfectly to my own sentiments right now. I, too, feel the need to start this article off with a small disclaimer.

So here goes: I am not a fan of ‘Xarabank’; and have never been in all the 23 years that show has been airing on TVM. (In fact, I eventually got rid of my old TV set altogether… just to make sure I never accidentally stumbled on an episode, while mindlessly changing channels on a Friday night.)

I could probably fill this entire newspaper with all my reasons, too: for instance, the way it tended to reduce complex, serious issues to the most basic of binary ‘Y/N’ choices imaginable… as immortalised by that oft-repeated (and excruciating) Peppi Azzopardi catchphrase:

Inti taqbel? Cempilna issa...’

Or how it so often doubled up as the onscreen equivalent of ‘Mortal Combat’ or ‘Tekken 3’: in which divergent opinions – the kookier and more extreme, the better - were invited to simply slog it out it a gladiatorial arena, to satisfy the bloodlust of an equally combative, dichotomised audience…

Or how around two-thirds of its total running-time was invariably devoted to ‘thanking the sponsors’ – basically, the entire Yellow Pages of Malta’s commercial/industrial sector - leaving individual panellists with little more than a fraction of a second each to make their entire case (only to be incessantly interrupted by that other insufferable Xarabank cliché: ‘Fil-qosor…’)

BUT…

Actually, there are quite a few ‘buts’ I could add, at this stage: starting with the fact that my own opinion about the merit or otherwise of ‘Xarabank’ – both as a televised discussion/variety show (call it what you will), and also as an undeniable Maltese pop-cultural icon in its own right – is ultimately neither here nor there.

For one thing, I am clearly a minority in my aversion to that programme: as attested by Xarabank’s consistent topping of all the BA’s annual audience surveys, throughout its entire 23-year existence.

For another, my reservations do not translate into an automatic dislike of all the people involved in its production: starting with Peppi Azzopardi himself… who – love him or hate him - has been nothing less than a formidable television presence in this country for almost a quarter of a century. (Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that I have often brought up my misgivings with him directly, on the many occasions our paths have crossed over the years.)

Besides: regardless how the show actually handled all the individual issues it has dealt with, in its two-decade run on the airwaves… fact remains that some of those issues would probably have never been discussed at all, had they not been dragged kicking and screaming into the public domain, by the same TV show we all loved to hate so much.

I, for one, find it highly unlikely that Malta would have gone from the incurably homophobic country I remember from my teenage years, to a world leader in LGBTIQ rights – all in the space of around 20 years – were it not for the fact that ‘Xarabank’ chose to highlight this previously taboo issue way, way back in the late 1990s… i.e., a time when dinosaurs still roamed the earth; and most of them (myself included) barely knew what the word ‘homosexuality’ even meant.

Likewise, the 2011 divorce referendum might have yielded a very different result, had Xarabank not provided a public platform for people to air their views on both sides of the debate.

Not only did those discussions bring to light human stories that would radically alter public opinion on that particular issue – exposing them, it must be said, to a much wider and more diverse audience than any other Maltese media house could (and still can) muster - but they also exposed flaws and contradictions in the ‘No’ campaign, with results that are now history.

Having said all this, though: by the same token, I can also understand why a programme that has been chugging steadily away in the background of our collective consciousness for so long – often with all the grace and elegance of the archaic Maltese buses (or rather, ‘rust-buckets’) that originally gave the show its name – might eventually come to the end of the road.

Malta has, after all, changed in more ways that those can possibly be influenced by a programme like ‘Xarabank’: and one of those changes concerns precisely the pivotal role of television itself, as the dominant source of public news and information.

Yes, indeed: I can perfectly envisage that there may be valid reasons to phase out the TV phenomenon that was ‘Xarabank’… or at least, to insist that it updates its formula to something more suited to the digital age we are now living in.

The only problem – and this is the biggest ‘BUT’ of them all – is that I haven’t actually heard any such justification for the decision. Nor, for that matter, has any official announcement yet been made (at the time of writing, anyway) to confirm that the programme has, in fact, been axed as reported.

As things stand, we only got to know about it because of an announcement by Peppi Azzopardi himself, in a Facebook status update on Friday. And while there would be nothing at all amiss with that, had Xarabank aired on a private station… well, the ‘P’ in ‘PBS’ stands for ‘public’; and unlike any privately-owned television station, the national broadcaster has an added Constitutional obligation to provide a ‘public community service’.

This, in turn, is another reason why it shouldn’t matter what you, I or anyone else actually thought of that programme. To me, there is something deeply sinister about PBS’s sudden, unannounced decision to simply terminate any programme at all – still less its most successful flagship programme by far - without any warning or explanation.

At the very least, PBS should have informed its major shareholders – i.e., you, me and the rest of Malta’s tax-paying population – about both the decision itself, and its precise reasons for taking it.

This would be warranted at the best of times; but it becomes almost a fundamental necessity, when you also consider that there was (and had been, for many years) clear, undeniable political pressure – coming from the party that is now in government - to axe that particular show.

For this, we have the unequivocal word of former PL general secretary Jason Micallef himself, who in 2011 wrote: “Let us no longer beat around the bush, and I want to make it clear. Should there be a Labour government after the next general election, those entrusted with the running of PBS should ensure that Joe Azzopardi is removed from the national station…”

Admittedly, that individual threat is unlikely to be the sole driving force behind a decision that was only taken this week: a full seven years after Labour won that election, and when Jason Micallef himself is no longer ‘part’ of the resulting government.

But placed in the context of other, equally bizarre actions taken recently – such as the Broadcasting Authority’s astonishing order for PBS to censor journalists’ questions, during live transmissions of public health press conferences – it can only add to a niggling suspicion that ‘Xarabank’ might have been axed for similarly censorial reasons.

Just like those press conferences, ‘Xarabank’ also provided a platform – of which, let’s face, there are hardly a great many others - whereby people in power could somehow be held accountable to the public: if nothing else, by simply throwing politicians into the same old gladiatorial arena as everyone else… where they, too, had to put up (however briefly) with the discomfort of actually having to answer the questions of a live, televised, and sometimes hostile audience.

Call me suspicious, but I can’t help feeling that two controversial decisions in a single week – both concerning public broadcasting, and both seemingly geared towards shielding politicians from ‘excessive’ public scrutiny – does not exactly bode very well for the general health of our country’s democracy: which, as we all should now know by heart, hinges precisely on the two things that are clearly absent from this particular episode.

Transparency, and accountability.

All things considered, then: no, I wasn’t a Xarabank fan. And no, I won’t be shedding too many tears for a television programme I never really watched anyway (and yet, strangely, always somehow found out what it was about the following day.)

But at the same time, I just can’t bring myself to do what so many other people seem to be doing at the moment… and ‘celebrate’ the demise of a TV show that (for better or worse) has had such a profound, formative impact on the country we live in; and whose overall influence, I would say, has generally been more positive than negative.

For what it’s worth, I happen to share the misgivings of my former colleague Tim Diacono (not exactly a Xarabank fan, either). Like him, I can’t help but feel that ‘Malta’s TV landscape is poorer as a result’...

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