Impartiality in political broadcasting? Not even possible, I’m afraid…

The same BA that now censures RTK for describing Lowell as ‘racist’, also has a history of censuring radio and TV stations for doing the very opposite

A lot of confusion seems to be raging right now, over that recent incident in which the Broadcasting Authority slapped RTK Radio with a E1,750 fine, for the grave crime of…

… well, that’s more or less the source of all the confusion, right there. What the heck was RTK even fined for, anyway?

Almost a full week after the event, it still remains impossible to answer that with any certainty. At first, media reports suggested it was because Andrew Azzopardi – who hosts a talk-show on RTK – described Norman Lowell as ‘racist’ on one of his programmes.

But let’s face it, folks: if this were indeed the case, then the BA may as well as start fining talk-show hosts for declaring things like: ‘The sky is blue!’, or ‘the sea is wet!’… because – as Azzopardi quite rightly points out – there really isn’t any other way to describe Norman Lowell’s politics, apart from ‘racist and xenophobic’.

Oh, OK. Lowell himself might prefer using the term ‘racialist’ instead. But: a) that word doesn’t technically exist, in the English language; and b) beyond the addition of three extra letters, between ‘race’ and ‘ist’… it doesn’t change the core identity of Lowell’s political ‘vision’, one tiny bit.

Indeed, the very first sentence on Imperium Europa’s website is: “Our aim is that Malta, this Sacred Island of Melita, this land of honey, will be the first liberated nation in the whole, WHITE [my emphasis] World - liberated from the enemy within, and the enemy without.”

That, alone, is already enough to classify Norman Lowell firmly in the ‘White Supremacist’ (hence ‘racist’) category… even without all the countless other occasions where the man himself made his inherently xenophobic views widely known, in public.

Ironically, the BA itself should know a thing or two about this… given that the same authority has on various occasions been known to fine television stations for actually ALLOWING Lowell to air those racist views, on live TV!

Got that, folks? The same BA that now censures RTK for describing Lowell as ‘racist’, also has a history of censuring radio and TV stations for doing the very opposite. Seriously, though. How much sense can that possibly even make (outside the realm of pure ‘surrealism’, of course)?

But wait, this is where things start getting a whole lot more… well, ‘confusing’. For in a subsequent press release, Imperium Europa contested that interpretation of events: arguing that the fine was NOT imposed over the ‘racist’ remark… but because of another comment made by Azzopardi on the same programme.

Namely, that Norman Lowell “stands no chance of being invited [to Azzopardi’s show], not even if he chains himself to the door.” This, Imperium Europa tells us, “amounts to defying and challenging an official of the Authority to her face, in public, regarding the observance of those directives issued by the Broadcasting Authority during electoral campaigns. Prof. Andrew Azzopardi adamantly stated that he would not respect them.”

Now: admittedly, this does change the landscape just a tiny bit, with regard to that BA fine. For one thing, because it is perfectly true [note: whether it SHOULD be true, is another question altogether] that the Constitution insists on “due impartiality [being] preserved in respect of matters of political or industrial controversy […]; and that broadcasting facilities and time are fairly apportioned between persons belonging to different political parties.”

Meanwhile, it is equally true that – according to a recent ruling by the Constitutional Court – the above obligation applies to ALL Malta’s broadcasting media; and not just to those owned and operated by the State.

But this only raises literally dozens of other unanswered questions… starting with the fact that – unless I am very much mistaken – the campaign for the 2024 MEP elections has not actually begun, yet; and will not begin, until around 12 weeks before the election date itself.

In other words: there are still a good four months to go, before the MEP election campaign kicks off in earnest. And this also means that – right now, as we speak – private stations like RTK are under no obligation whatsoever, to observe (in Imperium Europa’s own words) “directives issued by the Broadcasting Authority DURING ELECTORAL CAMPAIGNS”.

And besides: how, might I ask, can the Broadcasting Authority be so very certain that RTK will NOT actually ‘give airtime to Norman Lowell’, when the time comes?

Think about for a second. Unless the BA takes its decisions by looking into a crystal ball… there is simply no way in Hell the authority can decide, from now, that RTK will indeed be guilty of breaching its ‘electoral campaign directives’… four whole months before the campaign even gets under way.

Even less, when you consider that – again, unless I am much mistaken – the above comment was uttered, not by anyone representing the ownership/management of RTK radio itself… but simply by one of that station’s many ‘guest talk-show hosts’ (who doesn’t actually speak on behalf of the Church-owned station, to begin with).

Simply put: what Andrew Azzopardi said was that HE – i.e., Azzopardi himself, in his own personal capacity – would refuse to allow Norman Lowell as a guest on his own programme. By no means does it follow, however, that RTK Radio will automatically follow suit… and likewise choose to ‘defy the BA’s directives’, at an as-yet undetermined point in future.

And this fact, alone, drags all sorts of other considerations into the debate. Suddenly, it looks as though Andrew Azzopardi was fined, for merely expressing his own private opinion – notwithstanding the fact that he has an inalienable right to do so: according to both the Universal Charter of Human Rights, and also the Constitution of Malta.

By the same token: it seems that RTK Radio was fined for allowing Azzopardi to air those personal views of his (even if the station is likewise obliged, by the same international treaties and laws, to do precisely that).

So again, I ask: how on earth can any of this possibly be hammered into any semblance of ‘logic’ and ‘reason’? The short answer, I suppose, is that… it can’t. And not just for the reasons given above, either.

No: it you ask me, the real problem with the BA’s unearthly decision is that it entirely overlooks all the PRACTICAL and LOGISTICAL aspects, of the entire ‘impartiality’ obligation itself.

Let’s go back to it again, shall we? According to the Constitution (or at least, the Constitutional Court’s interpretation thereof) private broadcasting media are to ‘[apportion] broadcasting facilities and time fairly between persons belonging to different political parties.”

And while it may sound all ‘fair-and-square’, on paper… the reality is that it places an almost impossible onus, onto private stations (including RTK) that – unlike their State-owned competitors – do not benefit from an ‘open cheque’, signed off by the Maltese tax-payer; nor do they have the same resources/manpower, as the glorified ‘government department’ that PBS has become.

Consider, for instance, the last MEP election in June 2019. On that occasion, there were no fewer than 41 [forty-one] individual candidates, on the same ballot sheet.

The Labour Party alone fielded 14: (Alfred Sant, Mary Gauci, Lorna Vassallo, Robert Micallef, Cyrus Engerer, Alex Agius Saliba, Felix Busuttil, Miriam Dalli, James Grech, Joe Sammut, Josianne Cutajar, Fleur Vella, Noel Cassar, and Josef Caruana).

The Nationalist Party, 10: (Roberta Metsola, David Casa, Francis Zammit Dimech, Peter Agius, Dione Borg, Michael Briguglio, Frank Psaila, Roselyn Borg Knight, Michael Mercieca, and David Stellini.)

Alternattiva Demokratika started out with three candidates – Arnold Cassola, Carmel Cacopardo, and Mina Tolu – with Cassola later re-registering as an independent candidate.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party fielded four (Martin Cauchi Inglott, Anthony Buttigieg, Godfrey Farrugia and Camilla Appelgren); Alleanza Bidla, two (Ivan Grech Mintoff and Rebecca Dalli Gonzi); another two for Moviment Pattrijotti Maltin (Simon Borg and Naged Magelly)…

Then there was Antonie P. Borg, contesting on behalf of the ‘Brain Not Ego’ party; while Stephen Florian, Nazzareno Bonnici (Ta' L-Ajkla), Mario Borg and Joseph Aquilina all contested as independent candidates.

Lastly, of course, there was Norman Lowell himself: the sole candidate for Imperium Europa.

Now: let’s say the campaign itself runs for 12 weeks; and each of those candidates is allotted (on average) 10 minutes’ worth of airtime on your station.

That’s 410 minutes, that have to be diverted from (or somehow accommodated into) your current broadcasting schedule…. invariably resulting in other programmes (possibly, quite lucrative ones) being temporarily ‘axed’, for that purpose.

On top of that, each of those candidates will have to be individually interviewed; debates (where applicable) will have to be moderated; and all the while, there will be an endless array of daily campaign events, organised by all those parties/candidates, to also attend (and report from)…

…not to mention all the other daily duties of a news outlet, that still have to be carried out regardless of any ongoing election campaign (after all, ‘stuff’ still happens at election-time, you know. And it all has to be allotted its own fair share of news-coverage, too).

I could go on, of course; but once you factor in all the extra hands those private stations will have to hire, from one day to the next, just to cope with the sheer demand… as well as all the extra ‘over-time’ salaries, that still have to be budgeted for…

Weigh it all up together, and I think you’ll find that this ‘impartiality obligation’ – apart from being downright absurd, in and of itself – is also just a teeny-weenie little bit…

… IMPOSSIBLE, quite frankly.