Spinning reports for a price

But am I the only one worried with the fact that there are people who believe that the press can be asked to spin stories – for a price, of course?

Gianluca Caruana Curran (left) with Yorgen Fenech. (C) Times Of Malta
Gianluca Caruana Curran (left) with Yorgen Fenech. (C) Times Of Malta

With the size of Malta being what it is – in contrast with what the national imagination perceives – everybody practically knows everybody else and personal tiffs are the order of the day: not just in politics and journalism but in everywhere, including the much abused respect for ‘ethics’ and ‘rule of law’, besides business, sport, NGOs, ‘religious’ stances and a host of other circumstances where humans react with humans.

It is a country where every report or article in the media is looked upon as some personal vendetta. For example, if I criticise some government-subsidized project as a matter of principle, the real beneficiaries of the project keep on asking whatever they did to me. Everything turns out to be personal.

More often than not, moreover, there is another story behind the story reported in the press. People contact newsrooms to give their version of a story and when this version seems credible, journalists fall for it – more so if the version leads one to conclude that some injustice has occurred. And so, sometimes journalists unwittingly push a line that favours or discriminates against someone.

Objectivity is a scarce commodity on this island of ours, where we have newspapers kowtowing to the PN or the PL-GWU tandem. The interest of their owners comes before the interest of their readers.

This is, of course, not a unique Maltese situation. Just look at the situation in the UK where most newspapers belong to millionaires and push an agenda that is in the interest of their owners. Hence Brexit, I would add.

To stay independent and survive is a challenge for newspapers all over the world – more so in Malta where circulation figures are limited by the size of our population. It is not a rosy prospect. It becomes even worse, when one considers the competition that printed newspapers are facing from news sites and blogs on the internet.

Attempting to be independent from the influence of advertisers whose money is vital for the newspaper to survive, is one of the big challenges the press faces. Does a newspaper avoid publishing stories that puts one of its financially important advertisers in a bad light? What if this advertiser is some government entity or ministry?

This issue normally springs up whenever an editor has to decide whether to publish scathing and biting reports concerning politics or business competition. This sort of test is not an easy one, especially for publishing houses that declare their commitment to integrity and independence, while – at the same time – implore their ‘readers’ to help them financially.

This week we had a case of someone attempting to ‘convince’ a reporter to spin reports in a newspaper in a particular direction – a very different proposition as it concerned an ongoing criminal case. Frankly, while I know a large number of cases where politicians or business people push newspapers to spin stories in a way that helps them, I do not know that there ever was a criminal lawyer who attempted to ‘persuade’ a journalist to spin news in favour of his client. Yet this is what happened earlier this week, according to the journalist concerned. And the persuasion was not just of the sweet talk kind but included monetary enticement.

The sardonic joke of the phrase ‘criminal lawyer’ meaning a ‘lawyer who is a criminal’ immediately springs to mind.

What is interesting is that this sordid episode allegedly took place in a meeting in which three were present – two lawyers and the journalist, who now finds himself without anyone to corroborate his version of the story, while the other version is supported by two ‘witnesses’.

Frankly, I think the journalist was more than a bit foolish to end up alone in this corner.

The Justice Minister, Edward Zammit Lewis, was reported as having said he was “gravely concerned” about reports that a lawyer representing Yorgen Fenech offered money to a journalist and welcomed separate investigations by the Police and the Chamber of Advocates.

Let the investigations proceed, of course.

But am I the only one worried with the fact that there are people who believe that the press can be asked to spin stories – for a price, of course?

Trump’s support

At the time of writing, people like me were still waiting for the official results of the US Presidential election. It looks like Democrat Joe Biden is close to victory (this column was printed on Sunday 8 November) but Donald Trump has already declared he is the winner and observers are expecting a looming and potentially prolonged legal battle over the results.

President Trump’s premature victory claim and his unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud have been met with a deep unease globally over what lies ahead for the US political process – with more than a touch of glee from America’s traditional adversaries.

There is no doubt, however, that the global image of the US as a model for other democracies to follow has taken a serious battering while Trump’s surprisingly strong showing, despite his perpetual lies, bullying tactics and mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has left many – in Europe and elsewhere – bewildered.

As a leader in The Economist put it, Trump has dismally failed to measure up to the task of being “the guardian of America’s values, the conscience of the nation.”

The leader goes on to say that in the past four years, Trump “has repeatedly desecrated the values, principles and practices that made America a haven for its own people and a beacon to the world.”

Trump has treated America’s allies with small-mindedness and shabbiness. European and other Western leaders today struggle to see the US as the country they used to admire so much.

Trump has also managed to polarise the citizens of the US. To be sure, the US was always divided but its collective resolve and values used to hide these divisions. Trump appealed to the basest human instincts and used this division as a political tool.

As one who in my youth admired the USA exactly for its values and its democratic conscience, I find the big support Trump got from the American voter in this election as extraordinarily offensive.

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