Being inquisitive, not the law, makes a good journalist

Last Sunday was another political stunt like all the stunts we have seen in the past months from both political parties

I have lost many defamation cases to Nationalist and Labour ministers, served a prison sentence under a PN administration, and got beaten and arrested under a PL government
I have lost many defamation cases to Nationalist and Labour ministers, served a prison sentence under a PN administration, and got beaten and arrested under a PL government

I have to say that the thrill never seems to subside. And time and time again, we are asked to consider the state of the press in Malta as news events take over.

It all started with the online claim that Chris Cardona had it off in a German brothel, and his reaction to file for libel coupled with a garnishee order. No one in his right senses would publish or broadcast such a story without some hard evidence. We have heard this argument before. And yet it seems that there are two categories of reportage, the one that does not need to be verified and proved, and the one that does.

The probability that a prostitute or client would make an appearance in a court of law and provide some hard evidence on such claims is remote. It seems the claims cannot be proved, and we have this principle in our law, that someone is innocent until proven guilty.

The diehards, and by that I mean the hard-core blind followers on both sides of the political spectrum, obviously believe in these kind of kangaroo courts. If Cardona looks like the kind of guy who could have it off with three or four girls at the same time, then so be it. We will believe it whether it is true or not because I guess that is how some are made.

And if we look not far and take a closer look at Anthony Bezzina, the PN parliamentarian, there will be those who will say he must be a crook because one could say “he looks like one”, if we are allowed to judge him on the basis of his ungainly features and pugilist’s muzzle. But undoubtedly this is the wrong way to go about things. His looks are not his fault. I am convinced Mr Bezzina is the honest man he says he is. Good journalists should not be guided by their personal likes or dislikes about someone.

Today we are facing a big discussion about the law, but not about the quality of our journalists and their impartiality. The law does not make our journalism better or worse. It is the incisive, independent journalists who have a mind of their own, and who are not influenced by the powers that be, who make journalism better and more relevant.

A story should be reported if it matters. But the truth is that most journalists and reporters are servile to their owners, whether they are political parties or shareholders who have very clear political agendas and hang-ups.

This is the problem with journalism in Malta.

A good law provides no guarantee that we have genuine freedom of speech.  

The irony is that the most shackled journalists are the ones who work for Simon Busuttil and Joseph Muscat. They cannot report without constraints and are obliged to report favourably about their party and leader and unfavourably and unfairly about their political adversary.

If freedom of expression were to be gauged by the ability of a blogger to regurgitate on one side of the kerb but not on the other, then what we would be served with is partisan reporting, not journalism.

I’m equally unimpressed by journalists who cry wolf without ever having really seen journalism as their career. Most of them just hop on to other jobs, using journalism as a part-time career while studying for some law degree before standing for election with the PN or PL.

The real journalists who stay on are only a handful. Over the years we have seen them come and go: Pierre Portelli, Miriam Dalli, Charlon Gouder, Simon Busuttil, Joseph Muscat made politics and business their end-goals. Even the young Mario Frendo will go on to become a lawyer. Others will leave to take up a more lucrative marketing job, despite rewarding careers as journalists, like Ariadne Massa and Steve Mallia. It is of course a natural process, one that is endemic to our trade.

Others simply disappear into oblivion.

Journalism is not for the faint-hearted and sometimes it seems to be the right job for those who want visibility and a free ride to fame. Significantly, no one is talking about those who offer a platform to readers who want good journalism to be practised. The ones who pay for the fines and the ones who pay for the lawyers who defend the journalists, who never pay one cent in the case of defamation cases.

So if Owen Bonnici wants to have a full list of concerns before he closes his round of consultative talks he should really turn to the media houses.

I will sound self-conceited, but Mediatoday, which publishes MaltaToday, is truly the sole independent newspaper free of the institutional hold of both political and corporate interests. The Times of Malta is run by a foundation whose historical ownership is being contested in court, and I will stop there; The Malta Independent is owned by well-known businessmen with wide interests, and they include Joe Said of Lombard Bank, Posta Ltd and so many other companies, Malcolm Miller, a mega publisher, printer and distributor in Malta and abroad, and David Bartoli from an insurance company; l-Orizzont and are owned by the GWU, Newsbook by the Church, One TV by the PL, Net by the PN, TVM by the State and that is basically it. Most of these media houses have been operating at a loss and are kept on a short leash by their owners and shareholders.

Everyone is talking of the responsibility of the journalist but no one is suggesting that the way to avoid vexatious libels is a preliminary substantiation of the justification for a libel case, and the right of a magistrate or judge to throw out a defamation request if it is deemed vexatious.

But as we speak and discuss all this, I really must comment on Simon Busuttil’s episode in court this week. To get things straight, he launched a campaign over Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri’s Panama accounts, and that in itself was good enough reason to raise hell and take to the streets. Panama is synonymous with secrecy and those accounts raised more questions than they gave answers.

In his haste to make hay while the sun shone, Busuttil did not mince his words and called Keith Schembri corrupt, who in turn took Busuttil to court. Because the fact is that statements that people make must be based on truth and facts that can be verified, not on a hunch or a feeling. Saying that someone is corrupt is more than a comment, it is a statement that needs to be proved. So in court the onus of responsibility falls on Simon Busuttil to provide the proof of what he said. And if he had proof, surely enough he would have already splashed all the evidence on someone’s blog.

The only difference here is that when I lost defamation cases, I presented the proof in court and still had to pay for my writings, and that of my journalists, because the magistrate was not convinced of the evidence submitted.

So there you go. The rules should apply equally to everyone and I am sure Busuttil’s lawyer, Peter Fenech, would agree. Unless of course we believe that some animals are more equal than others.

When Simon Busuttil walked in the streets on Sunday in his protest lamenting about the threat he says he sees to freedom of expression I sat back and tried to understand what he is barking about. Is he worried about the demise of the independent media and the lack of mad men and women who want to work in this career? Or mad investors who want to throw their money at these projects? The efficacy of the bile blogger? Does he think that Joseph Muscat is a throwback to the 1980s?

I have lost many defamation cases to Nationalist and Labour ministers, served a prison sentence under a PN administration, and got beaten and arrested under a PL government. I’m really trying to understand if someone has lost the plot here. Last Sunday was another political stunt like all the stunts we have seen in the past months from both political parties. Again there will be a bunch of politicians arguing and bickering, doing very little to find ways of making the media that relays the true message in the interest of the audience and reader – and not of the political class.