With the EU’s new media law, TVM will be reduced to ‘The Teleshopping Channel’...

I thought the European Parliament must have finally run out of things to meddle with, when it comes to how individual member states choose to govern their own, internal affairs

TVM news studio (Photo: TVM)
TVM news studio (Photo: TVM)

Oh, well. For a second there, I thought the European Parliament must have finally run out of things to meddle with, when it comes to how individual member states choose to govern their own, internal affairs.

But, alas! No such luck, after all. Last Wednesday, we were told that: “a committee of MEPs has approved a draft bill, to FORCE [my emphasis] EU member states to ensure independent structures for public and national broadcasters.”

As for the bill itself: it’s actually part of a much broader media reform, called the European Media Freedom Act – which, by the way, aims to regulate ALL European media: both public and private; and across all existing media platforms, print, TV, radio, online, etc.

Sounds reassuring already, doesn’t it? But anyway: according to press reports, the main objective of this reform is “to ensure plurality and protect media independence from governmental, political, economic or private interests.”

And on that note... let’s just pause for a moment, to admire the sheer enormity of the paradox that is suddenly staring us all in the face.

Here we have something called ‘The European PARLIAMENT’ – composed, in turn, of things called ‘POLITICAL parties’ (making it something of a ‘political entity’ in itself, wouldn’t you say?) – that is trying to ‘protect’ independent media, from ‘interference’ by ‘governmental, POLITICAL, economic, or private interests’, etc.

And how, pray tell, does it propose to achieve all that, in practice? Why... by ‘POLITICALLY INTERFERING in the management of independent media outlets’, of course! How else...?

Having said this, though: if that were the European Media Freedom Act’s only flaw... well, it would be still be a major concern, quite frankly. As recent events have clearly illustrated: the European Parliament itself is not exactly ‘immune’ to the influence of certain ‘industrial-political lobby-groups’, you know (look under ‘Qatargate’, for further details.)

And if Qatari lobbyists proved capable of using their nation’s obscene wealth, to simply buy their way into the European parliamentary decision-making process... what sort of power must the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos wield, over the same institution? (And why not? Let’s throw in Rupert Murdoch, as well... and every international media mogul, alive today, with an eye on expanding their own, private media empire).

Personally, I shudder to even imagine what sort of interests those people might have, in influencing national media legislation, across the entire European Union. But there’s no need to speculate too much: because it’s plain to see, from the amendments themselves, who stands to really benefit from these reforms.

Let’s take a quick look, shall we? [Note: for the purposes of this article, I will be focusing mainly on how they will impact the local – not European – media circuit: especially, the national broadcaster, PBS].

Right off the bat, we are confronted with our second paradox. Bearing in mind that the original intention was to protect media from ‘PRIVATE’ interests, just as much as ‘political, or governmental’...

...  it turns out that what the European Parliament is actually proposing, is to LIMIT the amount of government funding that can be allocated to public broadcasting; and, separately, how much governments can spend on advertising, even in privately-owned media.

At the same time, however, the draft bill still specifies that: “Member States will also have to ensure that public service media providers have adequate, sustainable and predictable financial resources on a multiannual basis for the fulfilment of their public service remit”; and that “an independent authority will determine the financial needs appropriate for public service media providers.”

All of which raises a teeny-weenie little question. From the outset, we have no idea what this new, independent authority will decide are the ‘appropriate financial needs’, of a company like PBS. We do know, however, that the national broadcaster currently costs the Maltese tax-payer around €6 million a year (not counting additional revenue from private-sector advertising, of course).

And given that the EP is simultaneously trying to make it impossible for national governments to ever spend more than a mere fraction (15%) of their advertising budget, on any one media outlet... whilst also setting limits, even on how much revenue can be raised from third countries (i.e., outside the EU) ... erm: where, exactly, are all these millions of euros even supposed to come from, anyway?

Let’s face it: if you remove (or reduce) government expenditure, from a television station’s revenue stream... there will only be two other avenues of funding left, for both public and private sectors alike.

The money is either going to come from private advertising: which would defeat the entire purpose, of a bill that was supposed to ‘protect public broadcasting from private interests’...

...or else, it’s going to be through ‘EU funding’: in which case... well, we’d have come round full-circle, wouldn’t we? Except that it will no longer be ‘the national government’, pulling all the strings behind Malta’s State broadcaster. Oh, no: it will be the European Commission itself, instead! (And remember, folks: ‘He who pays the piper, calls the tune’...)

How charming, I must say! And how very convenient, too... both for the European Union; and also – by a huge coincidence, naturally – for the ‘private interests’ (especially the Massively-Multinational Media Corporations, that are already gobbling up outlets as large as ‘Twitter’, in single gulps) that will eventually be expected to foot the bill.

Coming back to the EPs’ stated objectives, then: I can certainly see how these proposals will protect independent media from ‘governmental’ interference... but how are they supposed to protect us, from the much greedier interests of private corporations which (unlike governments) have no form of ‘public service obligations’, whatsoever?

That brings us to the most serious flaw, by far, with this entire hare-brained proposal. Apart from instantly exposing all of Europe’s media, to the very real threat of being reduced to mere ‘private mouthpieces, of oligarchs and tycoons’... it will also have an incalculably devastating impact, on the content that those public broadcasters actually generate.

And nowhere will this decline in standards be more visible, than on Malta’s national television station.

To be fair, however: at this point, we must also ask serious questions, about whether TVM – in its current set-up – really IS living up to all its obligations, as a ‘public service-provider’.

To cite but one example: I myself have never quite understood why there seem to be just as many commercial breaks (lasting just as long) on TVM, as there are on privately-owned stations such as NET, One and Smash TV.

Sorry, but... wasn’t the whole point of having a publicly-funded TV channel, precisely that it would NOT be so heavily dependent on private advertising, for its revenue? And by that same reasoning: shouldn’t TVM be interrupting its own transmissions far LESS frequently, than other, privately-owned channels (to whom advertising represents their only source of income)?

Clearly, then, Public Broadcasting Services Ltd is already receiving insufficient public funding, to fulfil even the most basic aspects of its public service remit (and, oh look: the European Parliament now wants us to slash its budget, even further.)

There is, however, one aspect of that remit where the national broadcaster DOES try to actually deliver. Closing an eye at the (sometimes dubious) production value of some of its programmes... TVM nonetheless offers its viewers a far more diverse programming schedule, than any channel driven by financial interests, alone.  

Educational programmes for children; ‘cultural heritage’ productions; quizzes; afternoon chat-shows; ‘Reality TV’... you name it; there will be a slot for it, somewhere on the programming schedule.

And yet: with the possible exception of quizzes, and (especially) Reality TV... not a single one of those TVM productions ever actually ‘makes any money’, you know. On the contrary: the least financially lucrative of those programmes, are arguably the most expensive to produce: especially, the ‘documentary-style’ features about nature, cultural heritage, etc. (which appear to form the bulk of TVM’s output, today).

Ah, but how much of all that diversity would even remain, if TVM’s programming schedule were suddenly to be decided – not by publicly-funded board, responding to public-service commitments – but by, for instance....

OK, hang on. I was about to say ‘Elon Musk’, there... but let’s face it, that’s not really very probable, is it? So how about the nearest local equivalent, instead? Someone like Joseph Portelli, for instance (Hey, you never know: he already tried to buy his way into Hamrun Spartans, remember?); or – likelier still – Joe Baldacchino, owner of Smash TV.

I can see it all now. Can’t you? “Children’s programmes? Cultural documentaries? How much money do those things even make, anyway? WHAT? None at all?? You mean to tell me that they’re actually... LOSING money, even as we speak??!!

“Then... why the heck are we even still showing them, then? Just chuck them all in the bin! This isn’t a charity, you know... this is a business! And from now on, we’re going to RUN it like a business, damn it!”

And we all already know – from the experience of watching Smash TV, once in a while – what that really implies, for the future of broadcasting in Malta.

Teleshopping. More Teleshopping. And after that... well, what do you know? MORE Teleshopping, again! (With maybe a few hours of Pastor Gordon Manche, to fill up the gaps in between...)

Yes, indeed, folks! THAT, I fear, is the only realistic outcome, of the European Parliament’s latest efforts to ‘save Europe’s free, independent media, from the clutches of tyranny’. You just wait and see...