Beyond the fringe

We need a social pact in which the power of journalism – a journalism that does good and that serves the public – can be guaranteed a future

This is part of a series of articles celebrating 20 years of MaltaToday

I thought landing a job as a journalist had been my lucky break. I still do.

One of life’s quivering threads was pulling me towards the world of accountancy in 1998… that’s what the options in secondary school had recommended: science wasn’t for me, and business studies or graphical communication simply didn’t appeal. At 18, I was on the cusp of entering the world of work with a medium-sized accountancy firm, until I realised that I had a satisfactory pass into university.

There was international relations… or ‘politics’, as I fancied it, now sharpening my appetite for world affairs and the lives of the philosophers or international agitators from the Left – all personages that predated my cossetted life in the staid and consensual, free market triumph the 1990s represented.

To me it seemed that university education had cut all those threads that appear to predestine us towards our rightful place, and it was ultimately my secondary area, anthropology, that pushed me towards my career. A classic of urban anthropology, Thomas Belmonte’s ‘The Broken Fountain’, made me realise the power of the silent observer, the connoisseur of popular lore, the outsider native deciphering the hidden codes of understanding. I emerged into the world of work an anthropology graduate who lacked academic rigour, angling for a job in journalism, but without that native wit and cunning so essential to the trade.

I could not write a basic report for starters. My first interview at MaltaToday in the summer of 2002 showed me as much, struggling to complete a précis of a local council’s minutes in an excruciating 45 minutes.

But I was already a fan of MaltaToday and its bold, anti-establishment sans-serif headlines and subheads – to me it screamed ‘not The Times’. It was published on Friday, a day associated with hedonist weekend planning; its columnists were insufferable liberals (before the fear of mortality was visited upon them). The stories took on sacred cows: the mark of its founder, the former editor of the defunct Alternattiva newspaper (my dissertation about the Green Party had acquainted me fully with the muck-raking irreverence and satire of that newspaper). I thought here was a newspaper looking out onto the fringe, my kind of place.

Some two months after that botched interview, I was taken on board and allowed to immerse myself into any sort of story there was to write about. Saviour Balzan seemed to allow free rein as long as the stories came in. Nobody had a particular beat. We wrote at will. “Stories!” – Balzan would bellow the command as the week started.

In late 2002, MaltaToday was a newspaper eager to win respect in the small market of English-language newspapers. By then it had become a Sunday newspaper, having used its soft launch on Friday as a way of easing into a two-player market. As a weekly it focused exclusively on off-diary stories – investigative accounts, analytical pieces, features and scoops. Saviour Balzan was then also a part of the campaign drumming up popular support for Malta’s accession to the European Union, a major part of the newspaper’s identity and its lofty aspirations for good governance and major reforms for the country. The newspaper’s identity came into focus, at least to me, as a believer in the ‘redemption’ of the EU and the liberating effect this would have on people’s political consciousness and the actions of politicians. That redemption has yet to come (in reality, in Brussels as in Malta, it is the non-democratic alarums in the theatre of power that seem to win the day…).

I look back at this time as an intersection of ‘peak PN’ and EU membership – Maltese life was entering a slow-burning transition of political power which only seems clear to me with the benefit of hindsight. In 2003, the great politician Eddie Fenech Adami was preparing to step down, having delivered Malta to its rightful place at the heart of European decision-making some 15 years after ending Labour’s maligned government of the time. His lieutenants would be carrying a torch whose flame was about to be spent by a strong wind, and over the course of the next 10 years, the final years of this Maltese political cycle would be transformative for Malta. The Nationalist Party had entered its end-of-history phase, its leadership taken over by uninspiring middle-management and riven by conflicts from a bitter succession election, suspicious of liberal reforms, paranoid of internal criticism and equally ruthless with critics. The air was heavy with inertia.

Labour too was breathing its last gasps, with Alfred Sant a discredited Opposition leader still leading the party despite the 2003 election and referendum outcome. By 2008, Malta was split right down the middle: uninspired and annoyed in equal parts by the Gonzi administration, and suspicious of Sant. Only 1,500 votes carried Gonzi into his second legislature as prime minister, setting the stage for Joseph Muscat’s ascent to the Labour leadership.

It was at this point that I moved deeper into the inner workings of the newspaper as I gradually shifted into an editorial position. Julian Manduca had passed away suddenly and prematurely in 2005; Kurt Sansone joined the dark side at Strickland House; and Karl Schembri had started a new adventure in Palestine and Gaza. Now MaltaToday was gearing up to a new digital future, as journalism fast approached its reckoning with the democratising power of social media and the algorithms that will condition the way news and its reach and influence would be measured. New faces came and went: fondly, I cannot forget my own favourite deputy editor Miriam Dalli, who leapt into the world of politics too soon.

But in those years leading up to the advent of readers’ comments, blogs, and social media dissemination, journalism was just a one-way road of communication, with the journalist being the sole mediator between power and the reading public.

MaltaToday’s name was made early in the day with scoops on the George Grech affair that brought the police commissioner down, and the revisiting of the Lino Cauchi murder investigation. My first foray into the ravenous world of muck-raking, with its cast of heroes and villains, was when I was handed a police statement in which the licensed owner of a rental car was denying having been inside the car when, allegedly, its occupant had made sexual gestures to a young girl. That occupant had been a former Labour MP and parliamentary secretary in the Sant administration, whose electoral career was swiftly killed there and then. That is… before he was brought out of his self-imposed exile by Joseph Muscat in 2012.

Still, it had been my first taste of how journalism, and the secrets it betrayed, was essential at levelling out playing fields, crying foul at wrongdoing, keeping the mighty and privileged accountable and cut down to size, and shining a light on those kept in the shade.

It also meant flying the flag for those who could not speak out. Migration in 2003 became a major issue for the Maltese and the island was ill-equipped to deal with the inflammatory rhetoric that seemed to be the order of the day each time the armed forces were despatched to rescue boats in distress. The government’s belief in detention of asylum seekers beyond 12 months as a deterrent to migration, keenly espoused by home affairs minister Tonio Borg, was a dreadful policy. But it was a belief that seemed to fit the prejudices of the day. One only need to remember the excruciatingly slow – or non-existent – pace of change for gay rights, and the dastardly attempt at entrenching the crime of abortion in the Constitution. The air was heavy not just with inertia, but suffocating with chauvinism.

This congealed patina of social conservatism was truly something MaltaToday could pick at.

The need of a critical voice and the power of the question, seemed a radical proposition even back then, when – despite the reams of pages in which government ministers and officials were publicly shamed or caught out for maladministration and even scandalous governance – the outcry seemed to be muffled complaints hidden away in the public’s hip-pockets. Flying the flag for the environmentally conscious public was then, as it is now (probably more now…), being stuck in a Sisyphean struggle with the construction industry – a class long embraced by our administrations.

So MaltaToday took upon itself a long list of high-minded editorial demands: the reform of libel laws, the end of censorship in the arts, the cause for greater transparency in public procurement, a Freedom of Information Act, a radical rewrite of Malta’s environment and planning laws, the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers, higher standards in ministers’ and MPs’ declaration of assets, political accountability, the support for divorce, gay marriage, and – at least, speaking in my temporal position as editor – sexual and reproductive rights for women… well the list is long, but if this was MaltaToday’s mind palace, that’s the kind of trouble you would be stumbling into..

I don’t want to gloat on the stories that ‘made’ MaltaToday. I remember in 2003 writing about the 500-odd direct contracts from the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools granted in constituencies of education minister Louis Galea, which turned into a magisterial inquiry; the successful complaint to the EU Ombudsman and tussle with the European Parliament to publish MEPs’ salaries and expensed; the Dalligate coverage and publication of the OLAF dossier; government largesse, ministers granted freebies by donors, our work on MaltaFiles and tax avoidance structures in Malta… alas history repeats itself: after 2013, many of these peccadilloes and bad behaviour have been repeated on a grand, multinational (and offshore) scale.

I know for a fact that there is one, undying part of our newspaper’s value and ethos – and it is the power to reflect the justified anger of people who want decency and fairness in public life, and the will to be the heretic in a room of parroting yea-sayers and log-rollers. I have seen this whenever I witnessed the popular mobilisation of people and activists in the various manifestations of the environmental movement. When it seems to become harder to attract a news-reading public whose attention is divided across so much diverse online media to consume, meeting and hearing people out instantly restores my faith in what we do.

Social media during the 2008 election was only gingerly making its presence felt and the election of that year had welcomed its first YouTube memes and Hi5 and Facebook profiles. We sent out our first tweets that very year – to little or no attention.

But social media’s proliferation itself was catalysing more and more the digital change of Maltese newspapers, coupled with the burgeoning ubiquity of the smartphone. By the time Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando presented his divorce bill in what was then a bolt right out of the blue – and certainly a historical marker for the wave of change that was about to engulf Malta – hearts and minds were going to be won by the power of the online word.

Live-blogging became a thing there and then, because the breakneck speed of the PN’s internal disintegration merited minute-by-minute documentation of those lively parliamentary debates and confidence motions. Our divorce referendum campaign was chronicled with a running ‘newsblog’, a compendium of everything we were reporting, of embedded graphics and tweets, featured daily on our homepage so that nobody would miss out on any one thing of what was happening. Blogging after reporting, that is, taking the journalist’s objective viewpoint into a more direct, analytical and subjective relationship with the news they covered, became necessary markers of who we were.

This rapid digital evolution in 2011 laid the foundations for the spirit of the 2013 election, where tweets and Facebook posts and online ads would become the order of the day in subsequent political and propaganda campaigns. Indeed, the technology has been evolving faster than the spirit of the newspaper itself, a trade which I believe is rooted in stronger values than the technological convenience, algorithmic rules, and emotional hyperbole of our smartphone-driven world. For example, is breaking news before anyone else worth doing if we cannot give readers the full truth and facts? Should we surrender the value and public service of news that truly informs and empowers, simply to capture any form of attention that can propel us high up the internet rankings – even if it determines our advertising revenue? Should we just trade in scandal because we are competing for attention or propping up partisan interests, instead of serving the public with that once mundane staple of our daily lives: to be informed about the things that affect our lives?

A lot of the way we do news has changed because, in the case of the Maltese economics of newspapers, we need to show advertisers their return on investment. In the tiny ecosystem of the Maltese media, newspapers cannot neglect popular interests to focus on just one subject of choice, and it is likely that some journalists will have reported a parliamentary debate right after covering a story from the law courts or the latest football results. Even newspapers owners cannot expect that advertising revenue is won by the simple rules of readership metrics. It is a bit like Mad Men: the creatives are busy doing the copy and advertising slogans that will reel in the customers; the executives are out plying their clients with boozy lunches and late-night clubs.

In an ideal world, Maltese newspapers would be flush with cash, from readers taking out subscriptions for their print newspapers and advertisers entering into long-term contracts, to social media companies paying a fair cut to newspapers (if not being taxed to finance the news industry itself… why not?)

The Maltese world of newspapers is today in competition with the short attention spans of a reading public that has been mollified by a countless number of entertainment and information outlets. Foreign newspapers and online magazines with free content, the rabbit’s hole of video on Facebook and YouTube, the wonderful world of Netflix and film streaming, podcasts galore and Instagram influencers... and yet, it is high time to look towards these avenues for newspapers to grow into, rather than viewing them as enemies of journalism as we’ve known it.

There is little disagreement about the role of our newspapers in a Maltese democracy which is getting to terms (once again, again and again…) with the overweening power of a government in our winner-takes-all political system, the assassination of a journalist, and the growing, growing, growing influence of big business and the power of its wealth.

I wonder: if we did not have newspapers and journalists punching above their weight, how would we chronicle the scale of our environmental disaster? How would we have betrayed the secrets of the MPs flying with industrialists, hiding the corruption inside their own ministries, hiding their ill-gotten gains in offshore companies? How would we have been unstinting in revealing how big business and political donors are rewriting the rules of how our towns should look? Or what if we did not call out and question the prejudice of those who want to control what women do with their bodies or even who gets to live or die at sea in their quest to find safety?

Yes, we do share this role with activists and non-government organisations, and sometimes, some politicians. We are no ‘elite’. But we like to be connoisseurs of our society’s diversity, of its emancipatory zeal, of its popular aspirations, of its constitutional rights and freedoms, of its republican values. We like to think we have a role in defending this mere expectation of fairness and decency in everyday lives, and the pursuit of happiness.

And to do this, we need a social pact.

We need a social pact that recognises the value of journalism (I’d like to include artists, film-makers, poets and writers here, but more of that for some other time…).

We need a social pact in which the power of journalism – a journalism that does good and that serves the public – can be guaranteed a future.

I don’t mean to enter into the particulars of how fiscal schemes can encourage the value of a career in writing and publishing, be it a journalist or writer. But the overarching message is that we need to be able to command the trust of our citizens to become deserving recipients of the financial support that can guarantee newspapers’ longevity.

We need to do this by being transparent with our public, to explain why democracy needs a vibrant journalistic landscape. We need to do this by being loyal to the reading public, the sovereign citizenry that elects and demotes the power in our republic.

In my humble editorial opinion... we’re doing a fantastic job at 20. I can’t wait to grow older.