Bringing reform to the public broadcaster

Complaints about political bias from a national broadcaster which has always been under the influence of the Office of the Prime Minister has been the order of the day for the last 30 years at least

PN leader Bernard Grech (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
PN leader Bernard Grech (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

This week, Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech stamped his feet and called on the national broadcaster, the PBS, to uphold its obligations and wrest itself away from any influence from Castille.

Standing outside the Broadcasting Authority offices in Pieta, a stone’s throw away from the Labour and Nationalist Party headquarters, he called for the BA to save the day and intervene.

The BA is a constitutionally-appointed body, often confused by Joe Citizen with TVM (they are not connected), but now looks like an outdated regulatory body tasked with overseeing the spirit of the Constitution in terms of what should be fair and impartial discussion and reporting on the public broadcaster’s channels, namely TVM.

It also upholds a host of other complaints concerning the breach of broadcasting rules such as language use or product placement. But for reasons unknown, its monitoring of impartiality stops at PBS, and its board (whose members are recommended by the two political parties), does not concern itself much with the one-sided codswallop from Labour’s One or the PN’s Net. So while TVM is burdened with a strict interpretation of what should constitute balanced news, this yardstick is not applied to the political parties’ media ownership.

In a nutshell, the political parties do as they please, hosting one-sided political programmes just to keep their die-hard following entertained.

The PN’s latest onslaught (hardly new since after 2013, the PN has always complained about the way TVM does its news when it comes to their voice), once again takes TVM to task for the way it treats the PN. Bernard Grech last week was armed with numerous examples to fortify his argument of unfair reporting.

A MaltaToday journalist reminded Grech at this press conference that complaints about political bias from a national broadcaster which has always been under the influence of the Office of the Prime Minister has been the order of the day for the last 30 years at least – it was the same complaint by Labour when it was last in opposition. So what did Grech envisage for TVM to rise to some standard of decency?

The answer was that TVM must be independent.

Fair reply, of course. But we cannot forget that it is rich when a political party leader says this. Like Robert Abela on the other side of the fence, Grech’s PN owns a political party station and radio, just the same as his Labour counterpart – both are blatantly biased in their reporting, with no shame in how they misrepresent their opponents, or adulating their party leadership. Both One and Net are nauseating.

Surely enough, demanding transformation at the national broadcaster is indeed justified, but when this call comes from a political master, the motivation can never be seen to be altruistic. And it is useless claiming that one’s TV station is making the effort to be more impartial on reporting... nobody swallows that kind of fanciful talk.

Certainly, change in public broadcasting cannot happen without an across-the-board reform that must necessarily come with the end to the party-political ownership of TV stations. If the two parties believe that public broadcasting should change, they have to accept that their two stations should also go. They are after all running at a big financial loss and costing the parties hundreds of thousands, even though the parties are already burdened by unpaid VAT, national insurance and water and electricity bills.

The two parties hang on to their political stations because they believe that if they are treated unfairly by the national broadcaster, they will still have a chance to get their voice across. Not an unjustifiable concern, considering the way political history has developed over the last years.

But Bernard Grech, who was never a political insider, may have forgotten what PBS was like before 2013.

I am not saying PBS cannot improve, but one cannot argue that it is worse than it was before. Before 2013, the show was run by the likes of Natalino Fenech – anyone who did not fit the Gonzi doctrine or the way Castille perceived the news, would be shown the door. Yours truly was a case in point. People like Lou Bondì had a field day parading the Gonzi administration’s undesirables for a nice wringing.

The Gonzi administration installed one of its close political associates, Anton Attard, as CEO of the broadcaster, having previously run Net TV. All the rest – the chairman and editorial board – were naturally political appointees.

Then Labour was elected. Heads got rolling. Natalino Fenech was removed. Unbelievably, nine years down the line he is still paid a salary as former head of news while in a new posting at the University of Malta. He was replaced by veteran TVM journalist Reno Bugeja, surely someone who improved the stakes in the newsroom.

Attard remained at the helm while also being allowed to continue with his private events business. Then TV presenter and former PN radio deejay John Bundy, was appointed CEO by Joseph Muscat, before being forced to resign over a procurement extravaganza.

Today, TVM and TVMNews+ handles more programmes than ever before. Many applied to have their programmes broadcast on TVM. Even one programme proposed by none other than Bernard Grech’s now head of strategy, Chris Peregin, was included in the October schedule.

So can things improve at PBS? Definitely. But the people speaking of how to improve the public broadcaster are only motivated by how much airtime they get in being quoted.

Can it be more independent? Of course it can. Let’s discuss reform across the board, starting with major surgery inside the regulator, the BA, and supporting the need for more news channels that promote a wider platform of political views, modelled I guess, on the RAI model – with RAI 1, 2 or 3 promoting a spectrum of the political views on offer in Italy. And naturally, phasing out the party stations.

One cannot refute the fact that TVM does a lot of second-guessing to look over its back to see what government is thinking... but to come up with a solution, we cannot expect that the only answers are those parcelled off to address one particular complaint.

Surely, the viewer should be at the centre of any reform, and not the interests of one party or one group of private producers. That PBS should enjoy more independent and autonomy is entirely justified. But Grech’s complaint stems from the frequency with which his TV-owning party is reported and viewed on the news.

It cannot be simply forgotten that TVM caters for wider audiences with a mix of educational shows and entertainment. The goal should be that of forming a more mature discussion in a modern, democratic society.