Simply charmless: a valedictory

After 10 years and a bit more as editor, Matthew Vella steps down and reflects on two decades of serving MaltaToday

OVER the last 20 years during which a fast-paced world of newspaper titles and magazines hungered for more readers, or slivers of advertising revenue, I always seemed to have been accorded some editorial responsibility... prematurely. First a lifestyle magazine, then –laughably – a business newspaper, then the Midweek iteration of MaltaToday, and finally the Sunday flagship. I was always stepping in to fill in the shoes of departed colleagues. Many of us are spares. My wish was that the burden of this yoke would be sweet and rewarding. I will say one thing: my faith in the masthead, its readers, and the people who served this title, remains unshakeable.

In 2002, MaltaToday was the youngest of the legacy, print titles. The back-story was that stragglers from the Alternattiva years could pop in for a stab at journalism in Saviour Balzan’s newsroom – a tasty bisque of green politics, radicalism, and Europeanist aspirations – and slot themselves into this tiny parlour for reporters uncomfortable with establishmentarian narratives and partisanship.

To me, an anthropology graduate with no prospect of employment, with solid foundations in Q Magazine, Select and Vox, it was all that mattered. Here was a newspaper that put its journalism at the service of readers, its vision firmly towards Europeanist solidarity and unity, human rights, governance reform, civil liberties and equality. I was already a fan of MaltaToday and its bold, anti-establishment sans-serif headlines and subheads, printed on a Friday (huh?), a day associated with hedonist weekend planning; and insufferable liberals penning the columns (before the fear of mortality was visited upon them).

From then on, MaltaToday was at the heart of the campaign to take Malta into the EU, to make environmental stewardship a matter of constant debate, to highlight the plight of rights-less migrants, refugees and workers, to reveal corruption and maladministration, and to constantly advance the civil liberties and equality agenda.

And though I was let loose on the newspaper to corral as many journalists as I could into advancing this agenda, and allowed to mould the paper and its digital iteration to my vision, from day one of life in here, I felt MaltaToday should be bigger than any editor.

So, as I tiptoe out of the editor’s chair – and reader, you are forgiven for asking yourself if you even know my name – I know that in the MaltaToday osmosis of journalism, it is the title that our readers  know, not the personalities, and our desire to uproot old, nativist and even patriarchal hypocrisies. In my modest way, I eschewed personality politics and the most minor forms of socialising so that the newspaper can be free to scrutinise those in power. Imperfection there might be, but the thirst for better and more is what makes this a great newspaper title.

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When I started out, my first foray into the ravenous world of muck-raking was the story of a former Labour MP accused of sexual harassment – it was a hefty portion for a young reporter, but it whetted my appetite for more. Journalism is a trade that betrays dark secrets, levels out the playing fields, and should keep the mighty and privileged accountable (never punch down, always up).

Migration in 2003 was a major issue for the Maltese. MaltaToday did its utmost to cut through the inflammatory rhetoric of the day, railing against the dreadful detention policies of the government. Many were the prejudices of the day that this newspaper instinctively opposed: the excruciatingly slow pace of change in gay rights or the dastardly attempt at entrenching the crime of abortion in the Constitution. The air was heavy with inertia and suffocating with chauvinism. This patina of social conservatism was truly something MaltaToday could pick at, and even in 2003, a critical voice was a radical proposition.

The high-minded narratives this newspaper grappled with were many: reform of libel laws, end of censorship in the arts, 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... and then some successes of course: the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools magisterial inquiry; the complaint to the EU Ombudsman and tussle with the European Parliament to publish MEPs’ salaries and expenses; the Dalligate coverage and publication of the OLAF dossier; the Mater Dei Hospital direct orders; the Enemalta oil scandal; our sustained work in MaltaFiles and tax avoidance structures in Malta; our immersion into the world of crime and the Steward hospitals scandal – the latter two awarded prizes for excellence.

The regrets are many. In 2014, when MaltaToday broke the Café Premier story, the first evidence of Joseph Muscat and Keith Schembri’s insidious rot was laid before us. I distinctly remember Schembri, who called about the story, telling me the administration was simply cutting cumbersome bureaucratic corners. “And I would do it again,” he said – a red flag that I thought was only big talk. But then Panama, 17 Black and the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia unearthed a dark, rotten, centre of hideousness that should represent all that Malta strives against.

MaltaToday was the first to harness the rapid digital evolution of social media during the divorce referendum of 2011 with the first live-blogs, the embedding of the social media register in its reports, and many other innovations. In reality, the technology evolved faster than the spirit of the newspaper itself, a trade I believe is rooted in stronger values than the emotional hyperbole of our smartphone-driven world.

But there is one, undying part of MaltaToday’s values and ethos – the power to reflect the justified anger of people who want decency and fairness in public life. That means having the will to be the heretic in a room of parroting yea-sayers and log-rollers. When it becomes harder to attract a news-reading public whose attention is divided across so much diverse online media, meeting and listening to people restores my faith in what we do.

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Much as this kind of sensitivity is needed, then – editors and journalists of the future – be ready to part ways with the “great English blight” of charm, a most dangerous quality for a newspaper. For it only seeks to please, shows deference to and apologises for the establishment, reveres the shallow, and patronises capricious desires in the name of popularity. Charm conforms.

This is the recognisable trait in the latest crop of Malta’s digital-only media, driven by algorithms designed to simply create profit for advertisers and prop up “influencers” who serve advertisers. Emotional attention, not the imparting of ideas, seems to be the driving force of this phenomenon. The Maltese world of newspapers is today in competition with the short attention spans of a reading public mollified by entertainment – viral videos, content dumps, and simpering selfies from politicians.

Caution however, for the high-minded sorts who berate the Maltese reader’s deficit of “critical thinking”: frankly, it can be a tired and overrefined quality of thinking, one that expects a class of voter should not be watching football on Sunday when there is so much outrage to be had over political gluttony and partisan misbehaviour. True, Malta is plagued by a persistent sense of apathy on issues that affect us as a community, a sense of individualism that dislikes communitarian outrage and action.

But a newspaper is not a political party. Take the news and the ideas; hopefully they serve our democracy in the moment of truth (you can line the bird-cage with expensive newsprint the day after...) Many are the armchair critics driven only by prejudice, some who once sat comfortably with power, deriding critics as buffoons, or radicals and pro-choice voices as being fit for the madhouse, dubbing demands for resignations as just ‘envy’. When the educated berate the ‘uneducated’, or the cultured are shocked by the ‘uncultured’, and old money and privilege revile the new aspirants whose democratic choices are at odds with theirs, maybe it is towards them that we should be critical – understanding where they come from, and from which altar they preach.

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I am running way above my allotted space. I salute Saviour Balzan, the founder of this title and a great newspaperman in his own right, whose generosity with his staff is unknown to many; I thank Roger Degiorgio. I salute James Debono, the beating heart of MaltaToday – may his influence spread further. I salute Karl Azzopardi and Kurt Sansone, who take the reins of the newsroom and whom I now serve. I salute the memory of Julian Manduca.

But thank you, mostly, to MaltaToday’s readers. Our loyalty is always to you.