Taking broadcasting absurdity to new heights

Rather than confront the issue of ‘impartiality’, then, the Broadcasting Authority has effectively side-stepped the entire problem by simply silencing journalists altogether: not just the ones asking politically biased questions… but all journalists, from all media houses

This newspaper has often remarked on the sheer absurdity of having a Broadcasting Authority which is Constitutionally obliged to ensure ‘impartiality […] in respect of matters of political or industrial controversy’: a remit that can never realistically be fulfilled, in part because ‘impartiality’ is, in itself, a highly subjective consideration… but partly also because the two major political parties are owners of broadcasting media in their own right.

At the risk of repeating past editorials, it must be pointed out that this Constitutional obligation is absurd for a number of reasons. Thanks to a board decision taken in 2002 – and never since revised – the provisos of Article 119 of the Constitution have only ever been enforced with regard to the output of the national broadcaster, PBS… leaving the two politically-owned radio and TV stations free to be as partisan and biased as they please.

Ostensibly, this decision was justified on the grounds that NET and One TV would somehow ‘balance each other out’. But this pretext y makes an open mockery of the very objective the ‘impartiality’ proviso originally set out to achieve: in the sense that it both permits, and even encourages, blatant partisan bias… provided it comes from some stations, but not others.

The way it works out in practice is that the BA keeps breathing down the necks of PBS journalists to ensure some kind of balance and impartiality – invariably, as a result of pressure applied by the two parties - while consistently closing an eye at the blatant excesses of partisan media. And this, in turn, is not merely absurd; it is only unjust.

To make matters worse, however, both Nationalist and Labour Parties also get to appoint their own representatives to the BA board: which - given that they are themselves major players in Malta’s media landscape – amounts to a very clear conflict of interest.

Effectively, the owners of two private TV stations also get to regulate the very sector in which they operate, to the clear detriment of their own competitor.

But even these blatant injustices simply pale to insignificance, compared to the latest, incredible decision taken by the Broadcasting Authority this week.

As has been widely reported, the national broadcaster was instructed by the Broadcasting Authority - once again, on the basis of the ‘impartiality’ proviso; and, as usual, at the instigation of a political party - to censor questions by the Maltese press during the media conferences of the Public Health Superintendent and Health Minister.

On Monday, those who viewed the press conference given by Chris Fearne and the Superintendent of Public Health Prof. Charmaine Gauci were denied the opportunity to hear both the press’ questions, and – more pertinently – the public officials’ replies: despite the fact that there was, and still is, a very clear public interest in proceedings.

This followed a BA decision taken on 16 June 2020, in response to a request for redress by the Partit Nazzjonalista: which complained that the Prime Minister had replied to a series of questions by journalists ‘with a partisan slant’.

In taking this truly astonishing decision, the BA reasoned that “the political element in this press conference was provoked by some questions from the journalists present... the political element took place in the questions session, with the said questions provoking a political response in the answer. The Prime Minister could not but answer... the Authority is aware that any imbalance was created because of the questions asked.”

Rather than confront the issue of ‘impartiality’, then, the Broadcasting Authority has effectively side-stepped the entire problem by simply silencing journalists altogether: not just the ones asking politically biased questions… but all journalists, from all media houses.

Faced with this sort of flawed reasoning, and the dangerous precedent it has clearly set, one can only concur with the Institute of Maltese Journalists that “this is a decision which beggars belief.”

“In no democratic state is this sort of censorship acceptable,” the IGM added.. “By its decision, the BA has effectively forced the PBS into a State Broadcaster similar to what one finds in totalitarian regimes. All those who prefer to follow news and current affairs on this medium, believing and trusting in the reliability of the public service ethos, have been denied that service and are now forced to seek verification elsewhere.”

The IGM has requested a meeting with the BA to seek rectification of this bizarre situation: one sincerely hopes that the BA will this time listen to the voice of reason; instead of simply succumbing, yet again, to the unfair and politically motivated pressure from the two major parties.

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