The other side of the media ‘narrative’

It is the obligation of the State to ensure that the fourth pillar remains a sturdy bastion of our democracy

File photo
File photo

The other day as a member of the government appointed media commission, I sat down to meet with an OSCE delegation headed by Teresa Ribiero, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, a 68-year-old career diplomat.

I want to write about this meeting because I detest the publicity that hails from the detractors of the media experts commission, who are motivated – some by justified concern – but others by simple prejudice and their political agendas.

I am on this committee as a media owner, but of course also as someone who has spent his entire career in journalism, as a journalist. There were many others who held down the dual role of owner and journalist. You could say Daphne Caruana Galizia ran both her own for-profit publications while being a journalist; in a similar vein, even The Shift has its own journalist-owner.

Whatever the outfit, media owners naturally must ensure their operation succeeds, not least because of the employees, the journalists, who must be supported by a constant financial injection if they are to retain their jobs.

Mrs Ribiero wanted to hear what the media commission had to say about so many issues, many of then now being simply lifted, lock, stock and barrel, from the usual one-sided sources; we hear the same ‘briefs’ landing in the laps of other diplomats and politicians. Little it seems is based on any consultation with the editors or owners of the mainstream media and the companies that actually employ journalists.

Ribiero admitted that she had not the media commission’s report (which I found rather strange) nor did she seem very clear of what we had actually accomplished. We told her that we had prepared our reports based on what had been proposed not just by the government, but also by the Opposition, the Daphne Foundation and internal discussion together with legal experts.

We presented our report, but for four months the government did not deign to even come back with some response. Instead, it put forward a Bill that omitted around 15% of our proposals.

The government we said had sat on its laurels for four months and then decided to put forward a bill that omitted around 10 to 15% of our proposals.

Ribiero did not appear excited or interested when we emphasised that beyond these problems, the very existence of the media was at stake because of financial unsustainability. Neither did she react when it was pointed out to her that the media also faced an uphill battle with litigation in the Maltese courts and SLAPP lawsuits; or that there were no conclusive SLAPP cases ongoing in Malta apart from threats received against some journalists, myself included, and Caruana Galizia. In fact, there was never ever the commencement of any judicial process related to SLAPP.

When the meeting finished, the conversation continued and the issue of freedom of information requests was raised, specifically the ones in which government entities are contesting the IDPC Appeals Tribunal’s decisions in favour of The Shift’s requests. It was news to Mrs Ribiero that the FOI requests from The Shift were specifically about the government’s advertising spend to Mediatoday, my company – only, not the other newspapers and new online-only websites that knock on the doors of the ministers grovelling for ad cash; that is, FOIs by one media owner on another.

Only three months ago, I penned a long missive to press freedom NGOs who have campaigned for media law reform in Malta. I explained the nature and history, and dynamics of a media that can at times be ideological divided, the toxicity of this environment, the many recriminations and incessant personal attacks and agendas in the last years... I asked them to base their assumptions on the Maltese press landscape not one source, but to really make an effort and get their hands on some real facts.

I am not sure they quite understood. My experience is that most people tend to have their minds made up well before, and are unwilling to change that mindset if it confronts an easy storyline or a comfortable narrative – especially when they realised they have made a wrong assessment of things.

However, the future of the press in Malta cannot be simply based only on matters of press freedom, whose urgency is naturally linked to the Caruana Galizia assassination. For the structured media, which is rooted in its community and believes in quality, robust facts, and future development – and not simply click bait and quick ad money – we need to ensure proper backing for their sustainability. For this to happen, we must get over the hang-up of State aid, especially if this can be introduced through more structured and meritocratic criteria.

It is the obligation of the State to ensure that the fourth pillar remains a sturdy bastion of our democracy. Without this intervention, the only press that will exist will be the non-Maltese social media platforms, now publishers in their own right driven by the algorithms of attention-seeking content; sponsored news websites; and the minor, digital-only numpty press that runs sensational and frivolous news snippets, recycle the news that the traditional media actually pays money to report, and which, more of than not, are the ones trumpeted by the politicians because they seldom carry anything critical.

Karmenu again

This week, in an appraisal of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici’s legacy, a government minister in parliament chastised my opinion on KMB.

I really cannot understand why it was such a bitter pill to swallow. Or so difficult to accept my analysis of Karmenu’s political years as Malta’s prime minister.

I lived those years, and unlike the government minister who stood up to pour adulation on Karmenu’s political career I chose to be a militant civil society activist in the eighties. 

Unlike the said minister who shunned politics (no matter what he says), dived deep into his studies and shielded himself from the realities of those years by seeking refuge within the confines of a family that reaped all the benefits of being part of the establishment, I am not willing to forget.

And I would rather remind everyone of the truth than suffer from serious heartburn for the memory of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici.