Putting the ‘public’ back into public broadcasting

There can be no further excuses to procrastinate the reform of our public broadcasting service

Since the election there have been smatterings of change in the set-up of the Public Broadcasting Service, namely, the odd new appointment here and there, as well as a change of personnel in the board of directors (which was due to be reconstituted anyway).

These and other changes have on the whole been beneficial. But the problems underpinning national broadcasting go very far beyond the need for an occasional game of musical chairs.

For years, if not decades, there has been talk of far-reaching institutional reform aimed at ensuring quality television productions, while also severing the umbilical cord that keeps the national station attached to the interests of the government of the day.

And yet it has consistently proved beyond our capabilities as a nation to reduce the direct dependence of the national station on the government that finances it.

For instance, four years ago, the possibility of reforming PBS in this direction was the subject of a long and intensive parliamentary debate, in which many interesting and valid suggestions were brought forward by both sides of the House.

In particular, these proposals sought to address two major stumbling blocks that have dogged national broadcasting since its inception in the 1950s.

The first concerns financial autonomy from government: at present, PBS subsists in part on an annual budgetary allocation which technically renders the national station dependant on the goodwill of government for a sizeable portion of its revenue.

The second consideration (which arises as an immediate consequence of the first) involves editorial independence from the agenda of the government that controls it and has persisted since the very earliest days of State broadcasting. It also explains the creation, back in the 1960s, of another Constitutionally autonomous entity (the Broadcasting Authority) specifically to achieve this balance.

For reasons that are too complex to delve into here, the BA has never quite managed to tame the unmanageable creature that PBS has become over the years. Part of the reason may well be the sheer dominance of representatives from the two political stations themselves on the BA's board - a state of affairs which has ultimately hamstrung the BA and rendered it subservient to the inherent polarisation of Maltese politics.

As a result, there have been several widely reported instances of direct government interference in the editorial integrity of the PBS newsroom. The most infamous examples date back to the 1980s, when (among many other outrageous excesses) the Opposition leader was reduced to little more than a shadowy, nameless figure in the background.

More recently the same sort of unwholesome influence manifested itself in less overt and far more subtle ways; and owing to the culture of patronage that has prevailed even under Nationalist administrations, very often the State broadcaster has resorted to self-censorship and automatic bias - an inevitable state of affairs when a newsroom is overly conscious of the proverbial need not to bite the hand that feeds it.

Objections to this state of affairs have traditionally always come from the Opposition, which naturally bears the brunt of the (real or perceived) lack of impartiality. This was true when the PN occupied the Opposition benches in the 1980s, and it was just as true in more recent years when the shoe was on the other foot.

And yet, each time there is a change of government, the victorious party seems very quickly to forget its commitment to reform PBS. As a result, the situation has improved only in fits and starts and not at all to the extent that one would expect in a 21st-century EU Member State.

This is a pity, for the 2009 debate had produced some very interesting suggestions - including the idea of a completely autonomous, independent governing body to keep TVM at arm's length from the corrosive agent of government interference.

What is arguably needed most of all is to break away from the mould of a 'national station' controlled - or at least funded - directly by the government and instead to move towards the concept of a public station, whose stewardship is left to an independent board of trustees mandated by democratic and meritocratic principles.

This is of course easier said than done; and yet there are several administrative models to be considered. Closing an eye to the recent scandals that have engulfed the corporation, the best example arguably remains that of the BBC - which is controlled by a board of governors, appointed by (and answerable to parliament), but with a Constitutional mandate to guarantee impartiality.

The BBC is likewise funded directly through television licences, and while this is unlikely to work in Malta for purely logistical reasons, the time has come to embark on a nationwide discussion to hit on a similar formula that can be applied in the local media landscape.

Now that the incoming government is bound by a commitment to ensure that Malta really does belong to all its citizens, there can be no further excuses to procrastinate over this reform any longer. Malta deserves a truly public broadcasting service, and the set-up in its present form is clearly not delivering on this important obligation.

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