Stop the mud slinging

Once facts are sacred, we would advise politicians to stick to the facts, as they are made known and not to simply flout innuendos and hope that something will stick.

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna

This newspaper welcomed the cordial and decent level of debate in the opening days of the election campaign. We were happy to see an upgrading and quality leap from previous election campaigns, with issues taking centre ground and being discussed in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect.

The prevalent feeling in the first weeks was a willingness to discuss issues being put forward by the political parties. Once the manifestos were made known we hoped that the public discussion would centre on the electoral programmes being put forward by the parties with an emphasis on the costings of all proposals in a way that the electorate - and this was a first in Malta - would be in a position to judge the financial feasibility of the proposals.

Such an initial background to the campaign was salutary and helped give the impression that this new style of doing election campaigns would prevail throughout the campaign. During discussions, interruptions and rude interventions were few and far between, allowing the audience to gain an informed opinion before judging any issue and hopefully basing their choice on proposals made in the electoral programmes.

Suddenly, all this correct behaviour has been thrown to the wind. The level of debate has sunk, the interruptions increased, the innuendos and the personal attacks have become the order of the day. All caution is being put aside with slanderous remarks and innuendos being flown around. One asks, where will all this end? Will this atmosphere help in any way for people to make up an informed opinion and most of all, are we back to eyeball-to-eyeball politics?

This newspaper, having broken the oil scandal story, was fully cognisant that documents presented would lead to a police enquiry that would get to the bottom of the affair. Our job is to present the facts as known to the paper and certainly not to carry out any trial by the media. We have been deliberately very sober in our reportage not only in this case but also when reporting other stories broken on other media - including the party media.

There are certain elements of good journalism which should guide all, especially in these sensitive final weeks before the general election. First off, all journalists must appreciate that there first obligation is to the truth and not to the parties they support or to commercial interests. Many have praised the investigative story on the oil scandal but the corollary to this must be to accept the inevitability of the fallout which such a story carries. This journalism placed our first loyalty to the citizens and not to the parties. In order to do this, one has to keep independence from the persons one is covering and we all know this is not easy in a small community where everyone knows each other. We hoped that this story would serve as a forum for public discussion, guided by the value of the truth.

Accordingly, once facts are sacred we would advise politicians to stick to the facts, as they are made known and not to simply flout innuendos and hope that something will stick. This is unfair, and simply not on. If anyone is prepared to flippantly throw dirt he or she should be prepared to back the accusation with facts. The days of throwing mud and hoping that something sticks are over and if they're not over, certainly come with a price: namely a diminishing of one's credibility.

Equally controversial is the politics of recording of tapes. This clearly prevalent practise is undermining people's security and willingness to speak freely. It will have long-term repercussions whereby people even in safe company will be guarded. The positive side to all this is, however, that politicians will have to be more careful in what they say and do as slowly but surely, there are modes of correct political behaviour creeping into our system. Much of this is thanks to a more open and courageous media. Accordingly, flippant comments also do carry political consequences and politicians are beginning to realise -perhaps somewhat belatedly - that in what they say and more so in what they do, they must act as role models by setting a good example.

They hold public office and accordingly, will be judged by higher norms of behaviour. 

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