A reform that needs all stakeholders on board

The press is facing a threat of extinction because of a lack of revenues, and how new technologies shifted people’s attention away from the physical consumption of printed and online media

File photo
File photo

That Malta needs closure and justice on the Caruana Galizia assassination, is perhaps a moot point. This country cannot move on without addressing the complex issues related to this national tragedy.

One of them concerns the press itself, because the public inquiry’s conclusions have led the government to consider setting up a media reform commission.

In my sworn declaration to the public inquiry, I made it a point to focus on the real malaise facing the Maltese media, trying my best to explain that the quality press had to employ the best people on the market to deliver trusted news. These people cost money. And in a small market like Malta’s, government advertising budgets are crucial for the existence of the independent press.

I spoke as both a veteran journalist but also as the owner of a media company. I told the inquiry’s judges that the existence of the Maltese press was threatened not because of the threat of ‘impunity’ or SLAPPs – real though they are.

The bolts and nuts of the Maltese press are the economies they deal with. And the press is facing a threat of extinction because of a lack of revenues, and how new technologies shifted people’s attention away from the physical consumption of printed and online media; and into the hands of social media ‘publishing’ gatekeepers, thanks in part to the convenience of the smartphone.

That technological shift – both in terms of hardware itself and the digital world we operate in – had also changed the newsroom and the stories it reports on.

I am aware that the government wishes to set up a media commission to address the wider issues concerning the press in Malta, but the terms of reference and its composition are being ‘questioned’. My understanding is that the Caruana Galizia family wishes to have its say on green-lighting the composition of the commission. And this I find unacceptable, because the future of journalism and media houses is something Maltese journalists themselves and media houses should map out.

We cannot simply think of journalists as solitary protagonists; or think of online news as counter-cultural responses to the mainstream media. Most media organisations have had to survive at all costs, feeding journalists and their families in return for their service to provide quality news, finance design and technological teams, and pay printing costs and audiovisual expenses.

They have had also to fight hundreds of defamation cases, in the absolute majority of cases the cases have been initiated by politicians from both sides of the political divide.

This very mundane of realities may seem far from the horrific circumstances that ultimately killed Caruana Galizia; but realities they are. The dynamics of every newspaper is to have the best people they can employ to produce the job that needs to be done; those jobs must be paid from revenues that must come from somewhere. Media companies depend on various sources of revenue for their survival. And without government advertising budgets, that money would come from political sources and, of course, private business.

Titles like the Times are of course reliant on advertising, but it has also had the family silver (property) to sell off and pay for losses and debts; Mediatoday and Standard Publications are strongly driven by a business model to make ends meet year after year; they are unlike the Catholic Church’s media, the political press or Union Print, which finance expensive newsrooms through a mixture of old money, donations and institutional revenue.

It is clear that we need a strong press that can manage a quick transition to the digital reality while maintaining a solid base for future sustainability. To talk only about matters of freedom of the press or SLAPP without due consideration for the structural foundations of a press that can provide a living for media workers, sounds futile.

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I was amused at reading a copy of an appeal against the port authorities in western Sicily dated 5 October 2021, lodged by Virtu Ferries with regards to the operation of competitors Ponte Ferries, against a permit granted to allow Ponte to occupy a Ro-Ro jetty in the port of Augusta. 

Virtu is spearheaded by Francis Portelli, who is presently still facing criminal charges in the infamous oil scandal of 2013.

In their appeal, Virtu reminded the Sicilian court that they had – in an email dated 2 August, 2021 – requested the Augusta port authorities for Ponte Ferries to be refused a request to berth. And that sounds strange considering that on 5 August 2020, Virtu issued a public statement saying: “Ponte Ferries have once again had to delay their ferry service, no doubt causing their clients much angst. This time they are seeking to conceal from their responsibility by seeking to shift the blame on Virtu Ferries, alleging that we have made a last-minute legal challenge. Virtu Ferries made no such, or indeed any other, challenge.”

In this saga of ferry competition, Virtu have resorted to vexatious court action as is their right, yet betraying their heartburn when it comes to the free market, competition and better pricing for travelling to Sicily by sea.

So much for the entrepreneurial spirit.