The party-owned broadcasting media

It’s about time the PN starts adopting a social media strategy to balance that of the Labour party

The situation in Malta with political parties owning their own broadcasting media – radio and television stations – is probably unique in liberal democracies all over the world.

The reason why this is so is simply the result of the reaction to the abuse of public broadcasting ever since the Mintoff regime nationalised the only licensed – but privately owned – radio and television stations. Subsequently, public broadcasting became simply the voice of the party in power with the Opposition’s voice being heard only during the political broadcasts organised by the Broadcasting Authority. Today, these are organised only during general election campaigns and not regularly every year as they used to be.

The Constitutional provisions on broadcasting were written before public broadcasting was nationalised but they served their purposes, even though being ignored so often during those times. The Constitution set up the Broadcasting Authority which was responsible – amongst other functions – to ensure, as far as possible, that in sound and television broadcasting “due impartiality is preserved in respect of matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy and that broadcasting facilities and time are fairly apportioned between persons belonging to different political parties.”

It is interesting to note that in the 1974, changes to the Constitution that were the subject of a big Labour battle-cry – and subsequently toned down by the PN in Opposition – the two sections about the Broadcasting Authority were left untouched: left as they were in the 1964 Independence Constitution.

From a reading of this part of the Constitution, it is obvious that plurality in broadcasting, with private stations competing with public broadcasting for listenership and viewership, was not even an imaginary possibility.

The abuse by the national broadcasting on issues of a political nature under the Mintoff administrations led the Nationalist Party to seek a radio broadcasting licence and eventually to broadcast from Sicily. But that is another story.

Fast forward to 1991, when the Broadcasting Act was approved by Parliament. This law built on the broadcasting provisions in the Constitution, taking into account the introduction of private radio stations and the possibility of private television stations. In article 13, the law made a curious proviso saying that except in the case of public broadcasting services, in applying the provisos of the political balance imposed by the Constitution, “the Authority shall be able to consider the general output of programmes provided by the various broadcasting licensees and contractors, together as a whole.”

In practice this has meant that the Authority could consider the political imbalance of One TV as being ‘balanced’ by the political imbalance of Net TV. This was practically a licence to slant news that the law gave to the two broadcasting stations owned by the political parties.

The argument that is being raised now is whether the Constitutional provisions on broadcasting allow for such “manipulation’. Even so, both Labour and the Nationalist Party feel comfortable with the situation they found themselves in – except that now Lovin Malta, a media platform of the type that was hardly envisaged when the Broadcasting Act was approved by Parliament, has given notice that it will be challenging the constitutionality of this proviso.

The two political stations are vowing to fight this Constitutional case, even though it would not be made against them... Naturally, the two political television and radio stations do not like this at all; but from a legal standpoint, there is certainly a case for the stand being taken by Lovin Malta.

Incredibly, the GWU has announced that it was asking for an urgent meeting with the directors of One to discuss the future of their employees because of the possible outcome of a Constitutional case that is only promised but not yet opened – a case of jumping the gun before anyone has a gun!

Yet, if and when Lovin Malta wins the case, appeal and all, technically the two stations will only be forced by law to be politically balanced rather than having to close up, as some are assuming.

Irrespective of the prospect of this legal tangle ending up in Court, the importance of the broadcasting media of the political parties has today dwindled with social media such as Facebook and Twitter being more influential than the printed and the broadcasting media.

Considering the current mediocrity and intellectual poverty of the two politically-owned radio and television stations, I doubt whether their influence could be electorally decisive as it was a few years ago.

On the other hand, the social media – of which Lovin Malta is a good example – are today more influential than ever. This is an area where Labour is far ahead with a well-thought-out strategy that surfaced just before the 2013 election, that saw a Joseph Muscat-led Labour Party obtaining an outstanding majority of votes cast. At the time, people were bombarded on social media with Labour propaganda about issues that were of particular interest to them – such as a person I know who, some days after googling into the US Library of Congress, received unsolicited information about what the Labour electoral programme said about culture.

That was seven years ago.

Meanwhile the PN has not even started to utilise the social media in any way. Vowing to resist changes in the artificial balance between political radio and television stations will not help the PN cause.

It’s about time the PN starts adopting a social media strategy to balance that of the Labour party.

Yet another co-option

Many were surprised with the news of the resignation of MP Gavin Gulia, moments after he was sworn in, following his election in the casual election to fill the seat occupied by the new Central Bank governor, Edward Scicluna.

It seems that the Prime Minister’s efforts to get rid of Joseph Muscat’s ‘old Labour’ and introduce technocrats into Parliament are relentless.

The casual election system used when there is vacancy in Parliament is not the ideal democratic way to fill up vacant seats. The co-option system is even less ideal, of course.

Robert Abela is intelligently skirting around the rules to introduce in Parliament new faces of technocrats that cannot be associated with his predecessor. This effort fits beautifully in building up the new face of post-Muscat Labour.

According to In-Nazzjon, PN leader Bernard Grech accused the Prime Minister of “manipulating the democratic system”, saying that the instant resignation of the newly-elected MP was a move that ridiculed Parliament, the highest institution in the country.

I expected Bernard Grech to be the last person to make this sort of comment. Apparently he does not think that his becoming an MP and the Leader of the Opposition was a manipulation of the system, but this was the case with Gavin Gulia resigning from Parliament. Incidentally even Grech’s predecessor – Adrian Delia – entered Parliament through the same backdoor.

Reports say that sources in the Labour Party hinted that the Commissioner for Persons with Disability, Oliver Scicluna, will be co-opted to fill the seat. How so, during the week that Parliament was discussing the gender balancing bill? I have nothing against Scicluna, whom I respect for his work and dedication and also appreciate the political acumen that could have led to the decision to co-opt him.

However, I would have thought increasing the number of women MPs would have made more political sense.