PBS belongs to the people, not government

The service must place people, and not the parties, as the centre of focus

The ongoing changes at national broadcaster PBS – including, inter alia, the replacement of PBS chairman Tonio Portughese with an Executive Chairman, as well as the decision to axe talk-show Xarabank - are in line with promises made by Prime Minister Robert Abela during his leadership campaign last January.

Back then, Abela had hinted at a reform of the national broadcaster, including how its newsroom works, the composition of the board and even questioning the permanency of Xarabank, which he did not mention by name.

“The PBS reform had to be done, needs to be done and I will do it if elected leader… the reform will be done to strengthen PBS and make it neutral, effective and independent,” Abela insisted.

From this perspective, it matters little that the same Abela now distances himself from the same reform: by claiming, among other things, that “the decision about Xarabank was taken by the PBS editorial board.”

This may even be factually correct; but it cannot escape notice that the editorial board’s decision tallies perfectly with the stated aims of the prime minister seven months ago. So while the board may not have been acting directly on the government’s orders, its actions nonetheless comply fully with the government’s overall aims.

Clearly, then, there is a contradiction here. Prime Minister Abela on the one hand assures us that his proposals for reforms are intended to make PBS “neutral, effective and independent”; but the modus operandi strongly suggests the over-arching influence of government in the decision-making process itself.

This has separately been confirmed also by Manwel Cuschieri’s diatribes against PBS and its newsroom: all the more dangerous because he is a PL official.

One must therefore question whether the intention is to truly reform the national station for the better; or whether it is for government to exert even more control over PBS than it already does.

Another matter of concern is that the reform in question focuses only on PBS… and not the broadcasting landscape as a whole: including the role of the Broadcasting Authority, and the regulation of private stations.

Such a reform cannot truly happen unless there is a holistic approach to the future of the political stations. As things stand, the political parties not only own TV and radio stations, but also appoint the BA members who are then tasked to apply a strict yardstick only on the national broadcaster.

That same yardstick, however, flies out of the window when dealing with the political stations themselves. Apart from being a clear-cut case of double standards, this situation leaves the party in government with an overwhelming advantage in the broadcasting arena: not only does it run its own media in the absence of any regulation… but it also gets to indirectly control the content of the State broadcaster.

This cannot be allowed to continue. Political party stations cannot co-exist with State TV; the parties have to take a step back and sacrifice their TV stations and ensure that the state broadcaster is free to provide a service that keeps power to account, informs, educates and entertains.

But any serious broadcasting reform also has to look beyond the implications for the political parties themselves. There are also viewers to be taken into account; as well as – when it comes to PBS – a Constitutional obligation to provide a public community service.

As such, PBS cannot be guided by commercial interests. Indeed in the UK, the BBC is precluded from competing with private stations in advertising.

There should also be more focus on news programmes where in-depth reporting is encouraged, educational programmes and quality entertainment programmes by reaching out to the widest audiences possible.

As for the Broadcasting Authority, its set up must be reformed. It makes little sense that the two major political parties continue to hold sway over this constitutional watchdog.

This newspaper has long campaigned for national broadcasting to be reformed radically and to start being looked at as a unifying national force.

For this to happen, the system needs a drastic shake up. The most urgent reform concerns the participation of party representatives on the broadcasting authority or in influential positions at PBS. The firm hold of the national service in the hands of both political parties has to end, once and for all.

The service must place people, and not the parties, as the centre of focus.