‘Reporters Without Braincells’, more like it...

Last I looked, reporters have an obligation to seek confirmation of single-source (and let’s face it, outrageous) claims. So where did they seek their confirmation from, before rushing to print with the first allegation they heard?

Has anyone come up with an epitaph for international journalism yet? I mean, it’s not as though it just suddenly keeled over and snuffed it from one moment to the next. The profession has, in fact, been decomposing for several years now; and even before its death could be certified, the symptoms of an incurable, terminal illness had been visible for decades.

They included a tendency to forget what the role of journalism was even supposed to be all about… resulting in another tendency to simply twist (sometimes invent) facts to suit the media’s non-journalistic agenda. And if the so-called ‘rules’ of journalism find themselves unceremoniously defenestrated in the transaction… then so be it. What use is there for them, anyway, if journalism is no longer your primary objective?

For the sake of paying tribute to these (now very evidently dead) rules and protocols… here are a few of the basics. Journalists are supposed to: check their sources; attempt to verify any information before publishing/uploading; corroborate allegations through at least one other independent confirmation; and, in brief, come up with stories that at least bear some resemblance to the reality on the ground.

Take away any one of those pillars of journalism, and the entire edifice will simply collapse. If a journalist rushes to print with the first allegation he or she hears, without even pausing to consider the possibility that it might very easily be a crock of bull – concocted for God-only-knows what ulterior motives – well, how is that any different from any old village gossip at the fishmonger’s? Why should anyone believe ‘the printed word’, any more than the insane ramblings of their local town drunk?

It is a question that local journalists had better start asking themselves, before declaring ‘war’ on one another: as seems to have happened here in the last couple of weeks. For while the Times and MaltaToday were at each other’s throats… and, even more astonishingly, the PN’s Medialink turned its heavy artillery onto Allied Newspapers – surveys were being published indicating that the Maltese press (including all those titles) has meanwhile somehow managed to lose what little credibility it may ever once have had.

The situation regarding abusive libel in Malta has evolved in very much the opposite direction. Criminal libel has, in fact, been abolished in this country
The situation regarding abusive libel in Malta has evolved in very much the opposite direction. Criminal libel has, in fact, been abolished in this country

This, for instance, is from the most recent Eurobarometer survey (February 2019): “The report notes that 36% of respondents said that they trust political parties (compared to an 18% EU average) while 32% of respondents said that they trust the written media (compared to a 47% EU average).”

It is almost a word-for-word repetition of previous year’s Eurobarometer survey findings: “only 32% of Maltese respondents said they trust the written press, the joint fourth worst in Europe – behind only the UK, Macedonia and Serbia...”

Funny, isn’t it, that a nation would lose trust in a media sector that is evidently more concerned with playground battle-tactics, than with getting on with the business of reporting on the state of the country?

But to me, the most conspicuous (and calamitous) facet to emerge is the 36% which “trust political parties”, and how it compares to the rest of Europe. In defence of Malta’s main political parties: at least, those two don’t normally disguise their intentions to outrightly screw this nation over, and shamelessly plunder all its assets and resources for their own gain. They’ve actually been quite honest and forthright about those intentions, you know. They always tell us right to our faces that – for instance – they don’t give a shit about local communities, so long as the construction lobby keeps pumping money into their own coffers, as always.

So it’s not as though we can’t see, with our own eyes, that these people are shamelessly exploiting us. Just yesterday, Opposition leader Adrian Delia informed us all that he is ‘concerned about the state of environment’, and specifically about ‘large construction projects that produce a lot of waste’.

Really? Could have fooled me, because just a day earlier, his party had unanimously approved a motion in support of the Gozo tunnel project: which is… erm… kind of large; which will produce an incalculable volume of construction waste; and which is still subject to this mysterious phenomenon called an ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ study.

Yet Adrian Delia’s Nationalist Party – like Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party, which proposed this aberration in the first place – is so ‘concerned with the environment’, that he couldn’t even wait to find out what the environmental impact would be, before giving the project his wholehearted, unconditional support.

And yet… both Adrian Delia and Joseph Muscat, who make absolutely no secret of their duplicitous political agendas, remain considerably more trusted than the Maltese print media. If this is not a credibility crisis for the Maltese media… then what the heck is?

Still: if it’s any consolation, it is not just the local print media that has completely (but completely) lost sight of its main professional mission. The slow, painful death of journalism is by no means limited only to this little rock of ours: just look at the report published last week by ‘Reporters Without Borders’, for instance.

“In Malta, which has continued to fall in the Index (down 12 to 77th place), a handful of journalists are [sic] trying to continue the work of anti-corruption blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia. They are shedding light on the island state’s rampant corruption and money-laundering, despite an oppressive and worrying climate still marked by Caruana Galizia’s murder in October 2017. As well as having to live in fear, they are subjected to intense judicial harassment.”

Hmm. Remember those ‘rules and protocols’ I mentioned earlier? The first one was ‘check your sources’. In other words: run background checks on who the people you are talking to really are, and what their interest may be in influencing your output.

Who are these ‘handful of journalists’, who seem to be the only people Reporters Without Borders actually spoke to? Well, seeing as there are only two ‘media outlets’ that came into being precisely for the purpose of “continuing the work of anti-corruption blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia”, I feel confident in guessing that it’s a direct reference to Manuel Delia’s ‘Truth be Told’ blog; and Caroline Muscat’s Shift News.

Did RWB run any background checks on either of those two names? I somehow doubt it, because if they did, they would have realised they were talking to: a) the former, long-time right-hand man of Nationalist minister Austin Gatt, who has a blatant vested interest in seeing the present administration dethroned, and; b) a former campaign manager of the Nationalist Party, who is now quoted as an ‘independent, unbiased media source’ in the in aternational press.

In the case of Manuel Delia, they would also have found that his only past experience in journalism – before suddenly metamorphosing into a blogger in November 2017 – was having ghost-written a few opinion articles for Adrian Delia in The Times, against payment, ahead of the 2017 election.

Onto rule number 2: verify claims through independent confirmation. A lot of claims were made in that report, you know. Apparently, we Maltese journalists are all in fear for our lives. Apparently, the situation here is more alarming than Mongolia, Haiti, Guyana, and Burkina Faso….

Who did they speak to, I wonder, to confirm any of that? Of course, I can understand how two former PN officials would have an interest in portraying ‘Malta under Labour’ in those terms. (Truth be told… you’d have to be deaf, dumb, blind and downright comatose not to immediately see that, even at a glance.)

But the ‘R’ in RWB stands for ‘Reporters’; and last I looked, reporters have an obligation to seek confirmation of single-source (and let’s face it, outrageous) claims. So where did they seek their confirmation from, before rushing to print with the first allegation they heard?

It can’t have been the Institute of Maltese Journalists, because they’ve just come out with a statement rebutting some of those claims. (Which reminds me: didn’t it occur to RWB that the IGM might actually be a good place to start, if they wanted to get an idea of the real state of Maltese journalism? I mean, they’re only the official representatives of the entire profession, you know…)

And they don’t seem to have spoken to any of other local media, either. Allied Newspapers, The Malta Independent, MaltaToday, LovinMalta, and maybe a few others might have had a thing or two say, about RWB’s astonishing assertion that around 90% of the mainstream media is ‘directly owned by the political parties’…

The bottom line, however, is that there is almost nothing factual about RWB’s report at all. Even its argument (about the only thing they almost got right) that “abusive judicial proceedings [are] designed to gag investigative reporters by draining their financial resources” has to be put into its proper context.

The threat exists, yes: but it emanates from foreign jurisdictions (mainly the UK) over which Malta has no legislative control. If RWB really wants to be helpful, it could suggest ways in which the Maltese Parliament can legislate to stop companies from suing Maltese journalists in foreign countries. But the RWB obviously can’t do that – because it’s impossible – so instead they paint out the situation to look like a case of ‘LOCAL abusive judicial proceedings’…

…and that’s just downright dishonest. The situation regarding abusive libel in Malta has evolved in very much the opposite direction. Criminal libel has, in fact, been abolished in this country. It is no longer possible for political and industrial giants to simply pummel a newspaper into silence with criminal lawsuits – as happened to both myself and this newspaper over the tuna-laundering issue: in 2007/8, please note, when Malta had been already a member of the EU for over three years.

Yet neither this, nor the abolition of stage and film censorship, obscenity and blasphemy laws – nor even the enactment of hate-speech legislation, for that matter – gets even the slightest mention, in a report that is supposed to be about ‘the state of freedom of expression in Malta’.

And it’s hardly surprising, is it? That is precisely the sort of amateur nonsense you are likely to get, when you simply throw all known journalistic rules and protocols out of the window, and then go on to do a spot of ‘journalism’.

But at least, it does answer the question I asked in the opening sentence. Who needs an epitaph, anyway… when you can just nail the RWB report to the headstone of journalism’s grave?