Cancelling Mintoff, is cancelling Maltese history

As such, the PBS board would do well to revise its ill-judged decision to cancel the Mintoff min-documentary, so that the general public can at least form its own opinion on the subject

As a national broadcaster, PBS has a public service obligation to entertain, inform and to create a public space where history is treasured and shared.  

But reports that a mini-documentary series on former prime minister Dom Mintoff has been scrapped by the PBS board, ‘for fear of a backlash from Nationalist viewers’, suggests that the national broadcaster is reneging on this aspect of its obligations.

Even worse, it suggests that any work touching on contemporary history and divisive political figures remains ‘taboo’: a state of affairs that precludes any possibility of a mature, informed discussion about recent Maltese political history.

In this case, the tenth anniversary of Mintoff’s death was an excellent opportunity for the national broadcaster to commemorate this important historical figure with a production that assesses his legacy as a statesman and politician who - love him or hate him - did change the course of Maltese history.

Naturally, it is important that there are clear objective criteria to assess the quality of such works before these are screened.  But it is also crucial that such works are not sanitised and turned in to harmless hagiographic works.  In this sense the criteria for inclusion in the national broadcaster’s schedule should be that any such work is well-researched and well-scripted: and not whether it irks any political category, be it the adulating or detracting crowd.  

As a result of the PBS board’s decision, we have no way of assessing whether this particular production fulfilled such criteria; but irking Nationalist viewers should surely not be a criterion for exclusion; in the same way as offending Labour sensitivities should also not be one of the criteria.  

Unfortunately, however, political polarisation has generated two parallel competing narratives of political history: which has effectively turned our contemporary history as a nation into a taboo, to the extent that contemporary history is barely touched upon in Maltese secondary schools. 

Nor should producers fall into the trap of producing something harmless which offends nobody, while offering the public nothing new.  In fact, one of the main criteria for such productions, when screened on the public broadcaster, should be that of providing new historical insights about events and historical figures: including information which sheds light on the ‘darker’ side of towering historical figures.  

This is not easy, however.  For example, Mark Montebello’s recent biography on Mintoff was well-researched, but found itself on the receiving end of criticism from the patriarch’s family for shedding light on Mintoff’s turbulent and colourful personal life.  

Yet surely no documentary or historical work on Mintoff would be complete if it fails to explore this side of the man.  The same applies to other historical figures meriting a documentary treatment: including businessmen, journalists, artists and religious figures.  Asking questions on the sexuality, love affairs, corrupt dealings and obsessions of the people receiving the documentary treatment should be the order of the day.  

For example, any documentary on Mintoff which fails to investigate the alleged blackmail made by Lorry Sant – through photos which at some stage were even tabled in parliament – would fail the test.  And while the national broadcaster has already screened a good quality production called Biografiji, this also failed to cast light on the dark side and shady dealings of entrepreneurs like Tumas Fenech.

Neither should the public broadcaster be under any obligation to counterbalance a documentary on Mintoff, with a similar production on a Nationalist personality (or vice versa). Instead of such an infantile notion of balance, what is needed is a set-up within the national broadcaster which is responsible for commissioning historical documentaries, which in full autonomy decides which anniversaries should be commemorated and which aspects of history probed.  This unit should also be put in charge of the national broadcaster’s precious archives which could provide material for more documentaries on various aspects of contemporary history.  

Ideally this structure should include historians, academic and journalists who could take responsibility and answer for the decisions they make.  Moreover, while setting guidelines and ensuring that documentaries respect basic rules on historical accuracy and the sourcing of information, such a board should also respect the artistic creativity and freedom of the producers submitting their work.  

What Malta needs is more public funding and greater opportunities for a variety of producers hailing from different cultural, social and political backgrounds; and above all, a departure from the notion of balance and the paralysing fear of offending someone.

But it has to start with a national broadcaster that at least attempts to fulfil its public service obligations. As such, the PBS board would do well to revise its ill-judged decision to cancel the Mintoff min-documentary, so that the general public can at least form its own opinion on the subject.