The real problem with party-owned stations? They’re illegal

Let’s face it, folks: if we were talking about private corporations, instead of political parties… both Net and One TV would have been forced to declare bankruptcy years ago

“Why should political parties have to get into debt to run TV stations to ensure they have a voice? Can’t they be given a voice on the public broadcaster, which we ultimately fund through our taxes, to ensure we can hear the full picture? However, the government wants to control everything…

“[…] Until we have decency and people who lead by example, we cannot close [Net and One TV] down. But do I agree? Yes, in an ideal world, we won’t have party-owned TV stations, but public TV stations that give you the full picture and the possibility of independent media that can criticise and attack whoever it wants. That is the ideal situation, and we are far away from it.”

In case you were wondering, that’s a quote by former PN leader Simon Busuttil, during an interview with MZPN’s Miirko Sant last Wednesday: specifically, in answer to a question about political media ownership [Note: as I can’t be bothered to type that out every single time, it will be ‘PMO’ from now on].

Now: just to be clear, Simon Busuttil spoke about a heck of a lot more than just PMO, in a wide-ranging interview which also focused on (among other topics): neutrality; immigration; voter-apathy; war in Ukraine; the militarisation of Europe; the choice of Malta’ new President; his own former political career…

… the least of which, I might add, should in theory have attracted far more press coverage, than the question of ‘whether Simon Busuttil himself agrees or not, with the continued existence of NET and One TV.’

But oh, well. It’s a strange country we live in, at the end of the day; and Busuttil’s answer to that one question, ended up becoming the only aspect of the entire interview to even be reported, at all (at least, at the time of writing.)

So let’s take a closer look at it, shall we? Starting with the small observation that – far from being a ‘scoop’ – Busuttil’s opinion on the subject of PMO is actually just a reflection of the Nationalist Party’s last-known official position on the issue, published way back in 2019 (i.e., two years after Busuttil resigned as PN leader).

It might have gone unnoticed at the time: but five whole years ago, the PN launched a policy document that specifically called for the abolition of PMO. This is how it was reported: “[The PN] warned that the formation of political media stations had the added effect of reinforcing partisan blindness and propaganda from both major parties, therefore weakening the ability of Maltese citizens to inform themselves and reach their own political conclusions.

“This has caused damage to the truth, justice and democracy […] The PN is ready to engage in discussions on the way forward, particularly with the goodwill of the Labour Party, so that the two of us can give up our broadcasting licenses and focus on our true aim as political parties […].”

The same document also insisted that: “[The national broadcaster] must ensure that everyone’s viewpoints are broadcast in a balanced, whole and free manner, with no obstruction and in full respect to the fundamental rights of expression and association…”

Indeed, the two statements echo each other so much (Busuttil likewise observed that PMO causes ‘unnecessary division’) that it wouldn’t surprise me one bit, to discover that the former PN leader actually had a hand in writing that 2019 policy document, himself…

Either way, however: a couple of small questions need to be asked (though ideally, they should have been asked during the interview itself.)

Question #1: Departing from the premise – and I stand to be corrected, naturally – that the PN’s 2019 policy-paper has never formally been withdrawn (and as such, is still in force today)…

… why has the Nationalist Party not ‘led by example’, and closed down its own television and radio stations, at any point during the five whole years it’s been telling us it wants to do precisely that? What, in a nutshell, is ‘holding it back’?

To be fair, Busuttil did provide an answer to that one, even if he wasn’t asked directly. It’s because (to paraphrase) the imbalance on TVM would otherwise leave opposition parties like the PN ‘voiceless’, compared to an all-powerful Labour Party.

Ah, but… is that really true, in practice? And how much do stations like NET TV - or One, for that matter – really serve to counterbalance all the ‘imbalance’ (which, by the way, certainly does exist) on the State broadcaster?

Looking at the most recent statistics I could find: the answer seems to be ‘not a whole lot, actually’. The BA’s 2023 survey, for instance, notes that:

• NET TV is the third most followed TV station [after TVM and ‘Foreign Stations’], with 15.7% of all TV viewers mentioning NET TV as one of the TV stations they watched on the previous day.  NET TV is watched by all age cohorts aged 21+ years.

• ONE is the fourth most followed TV station, with 15% having watched this station on the previous day.

Admittedly, the viewership split is nail-bitingly close – a difference of only 0.7% – but still: the numbers speak for themselves. Currently, NET is watched by more people, across the entire 21+ age bracket, than Labour’s One TV. And, well, how much of a difference had that really made, to the PN’s current electoral fortunes?

Once again, the latest statistics – this time, in the form of last Sunday’s MT survey – suggest ‘none at all’. For all its (millimetric) media dominance, the Nationalist Party still trails Labour by around 29,000 votes… that is to say, 2,000 MORE votes, than it trailed Labour by in 2022.

Clearly, then, the continued existence of NET TV is hardly helping the PN, to counterbalance either One’s (supposedly ‘weaker’) voice, or – even less, I would imagine – TVM’s unbalanced reporting. And the same, by the way, could be said for One TV, back when the shoe was on the other foot.

Between 1992 (when media pluralism was first introduced) and 2013 (when Labour finally came into power, after around 25 years in the wilderness), BA surveys used to consistently name One TV as BY FAR the most watched station, after TVM. But while that may indeed have contributed to Labour’s short-lived 1996 victory… it was the first (and last) time something like that ever actually happened.

From ’98 onwards, the pattern has always been the same. Then as now, the Opposition party complained about ‘media imbalance’; then as now, it enjoyed a (much greater) media dominance, compared to the party in government…

… and yet, Labour still limped from one electoral defeat to another, until the 2013 election (which it arguably won more thanks to social media, than any media it actually owned itself). So much, I suppose, for the ‘voice’ that PMO is supposed to give, to otherwise ‘voiceless’ opposition parties…

Still, the question remains: why doggedly insist on retaining a highly-expensive media empire, which is, a) costing your party an arm and a leg (when it doesn’t actually have any limbs to even stand on); and b), ultimately serving only to…

… wait, that reminds me! I’d almost forgotten about Question #2, hadn’t I?

This time, Simon Busuttil even took the trouble to ask it himself: ‘Why should political parties have to get into debt to run TV stations, to ensure they have a voice?’

I, however, would have phrased it slightly differently: ‘Why should political parties that are encumbered by so much debt [in 2022, the PN was revealed to owe €32 million; a figure that has reportedly cost the party €2 million in debt-repayments, annually, ever since] even be permitted to own anything resembling a ‘media empire’, in the first place?

Let’s face it, folks: if we were talking about private corporations, instead of political parties… both Net and One TV would have been forced to declare bankruptcy years ago; and their combined assets – running into millions of euros’ worth of equipment – would probably have been auctioned off to the highest bidder, to service their otherwise unpayable debt.

And the fact that this never happened, in practice – for reasons which, by the way, have never been fully explained (wait, let me guess: political parties are ‘above the law’, right?) – has had more effects, than merely impoverishing at least one of the two parties concerned.

It has also impoverished the entire local media landscape: by depriving private corporations – and pretty much anyone else who is not a political party; and therefore, ‘automatically immune to all existing debt/competition legislation’ - of the space to compete freely, in what it supposed to be a ‘free and open market’.

Personally, I was under this vague impression that that sort of thing is actually ILLEGAL, in a 21st century EU member state. But then – unlike some other people I could mention – I’m not exactly what would you would call an ‘expert on European affairs’… am I now?