COVID support does not undermine media autonomy

To gratuitously suggest that any media organisation that benefitted from government’s COVID support, has automatically relinquished its ability to hold the same government to account, is clearly not aware of how journalists and their editors truly operate. 

More often than not, the journalism profession in Malta is spoken about – rightly – within the context that brought about the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Little after that tragic event can be spoken of, in relation to the media, without ever referring to Caruana Galizia’s death; being the most fearsome reminder of the evil that the power of mafia, and ill-gotten wealth, can beget.   

But there are other, more diverse threats to the media landscape: in today’s working environment, threats and harassment are a reality faced by Maltese journalists every day. Many do not feel safe from abuse and physical harm; and harassment itself – or online abuse, of any kind – has become altogether too easy, in a digitised world.  

These are all constant realities that journalists must contend with all the time. And on top of the verbal abuse, there is also the constant prodding and suspicion from those who mischaracterise journalists as ‘allies’ or ‘villains’, in a power play that pits an omnipotent government on one extreme, against a disenfranchised populace on the other.  

Politicians are adept at this game; their supporters easily follow their line. And we all know the rules: the ones in power claim that journalists are destabilising the work of their administration; the ones who aspire to that power themselves, denounce journalists who communicate the work of government, or if they question the opposition’s agenda.   

But objectively, journalists are there to discharge their duties irrespective of whoever is in power, or wishes to acquire power. It is an ‘anonymous’ public they serve, through the verification of facts. They are not elected by constituents, or paid by clients; nor are they even directly accountable to the shareholders, as it were.  

They might ‘know’ and serve an audience; but journalism’s first obligation is towards the truth, a truth that is universal to all citizens... not just the readers who buy a newspaper.   

Nonetheless, it is indeed true that newspapers are owned by groups which ultimately operate on profit-driven models. The publishing business... sells advertising. Newspapers are responsible for bringing journalism to readers who want to be informed, educated and entertained, and empowered in their participation in democracy. And it is a fact that these ‘demographics’ are the target of advertisers; which takes us back full circle.   

This cannot be denied; and it has long been the accepted newspaper model, not just in Malta, but everywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented challenges to a model that was already struggling to keep its head above water, in a digital world where return on advertising has been inevitably diluted.  

For this reason, the frequent criticism of Maltese newspapers and media groups which benefited from government grants in 2020, recently reflected in the RSF press freedom index, misrepresents the reality of newspapers. It is an unfair, if not misinformed, view of the Maltese media landscape.   

Like all businesses in Malta that employ workers, media houses like MaltaToday’s publisher were paid €132 a month as a wage supplement for each worker (other ordinary businesses which had to shut down were paid €800 a month; media houses were excluded from this generous ‘annex’, despite the purported benefit that journalism brings to a democracy).  

Additionally, newspapers and radio stations were granted a uniform €10,000 a month between March and December (this was €5,000 for online-only newspapers, and €45,000 for TV stations).   

However, these were not simply ‘gifts’ from the government: the €10,000 monthly (€90,000 from March to December) was deducted from any EU-linked funds or grants that media companies may yet claim or apply for (the de minimis principle). The government here facilitated a disbursement of European funds that could have been claimed by newspaper groups for the work they do.   

Still, it is quite probable that these grants served to pad anything between 5% to 15% of salary bills. It is no secret that print circulation (retail sales) are dwindling, and the laborious economy of digital advertising (newspapers compete with and are subservient to the social media and search engine behemoths) bring less returns. So should media organisations have to suffer the gratuitous climate of suspicion, for having – like so many other businesses in Malta – accepted government support during the COVID-19 pandemic?  

More to the point: does anyone have any evidence to suggest that journalists discharged their duties any differently in 2020, by withholding any criticism of people in power, or sparing them embarrassing revelations, or refusing to report the opposing views of those who aspire to replace them in power?   

The extraordinary circumstance of the pandemic certainly opens up a debate on whether an alternative model of funding for newspapers is needed. But wherever the funding comes from, we should also keep in mind that, for journalists whose livelihoods depend on the trade of journalism, that ensuring they can discharge their duties safe from harassment and undue influence is crucial; but having the security of their job is also part of that package.  

To gratuitously suggest that any media organisation that benefitted from government’s COVID support, has automatically relinquished its ability to hold the same government to account, is clearly not aware of how journalists and their editors truly operate.