The show must go on... | Peppi Azzopardi

Xarabank host PEPPI AZZOPARDI remains defiant after PBS’s controversial decision to terminate its popular flagship talkshow: if anyone thinks the decision will silence him… ‘they are mistaken’

I have always made it clear that I am not unbiased; and I’m not neutral, either. As far as I’m concerned, you will only ever find ‘neutral’ or ’unbiased’ people in a graveyard
I have always made it clear that I am not unbiased; and I’m not neutral, either. As far as I’m concerned, you will only ever find ‘neutral’ or ’unbiased’ people in a graveyard

It’s been a week since you announced, in a Facebook update, that Xarabank had ended its un on the national station. How did you originally find out about the decision? Was there any form of discussion or negotiations going on in the background?

I no longer get involved in any of that myself. Today, I am just an employee of the company that produces Xarabank. My employers are the ones who apply for programme slots on PBS; it is they who then enter into discussions with the PBS board.

After the last meeting, I got a phone call informing me that the board no longer wanted Xarabank on PBS. They were ready to discuss other programmes, but not Xarabank.

And that’s how I got to know. At first I said nothing; I felt it was none of my business, as a mere company employee. But then, I started receiving so many calls and messages - among others, from journalists - asking me if the rumours were true… and I felt awkward: I am a journalist too, and I was uncomfortable not giving any answers.

Then I started getting down about it. At first I planned to make an announcement on Thursday; but I got a sort of panic attack, and didn’t go ahead. To tell you the truth, I even spoke to [psychiatrist] Dr Anton Grech: who helped me prepare myself to break the news on Friday.

Because at the time, it felt as though I was killing my own baby: something I had raised myself.

Today, however, I see things differently. Now it feels like having a son who finds a good job in Australia. I’d be sorry to see him boarding the aeroplane; but at the same time, I’d be happy that he’s going to have a better life…

Your analogy suggests that Xarabank, too, will continue to have a future. Are we to understand that the show will migrate to a private station instead?

No, I’m not thinking that far ahead. To be honest, right now I’m in a situation where I don’t even want to take any decisions, or plan for the future. This is how I’ve always been anyway: I never even keep copies of my own programmes… if it wasn’t for my mother recording all my shows, I wouldn’t have any archives at all. As far as I’m concerned, the future doesn’t exist.  Only the present matters.

Right now, Xarabank already has a very strong online presence: as strong, in fact, as it was on television. This is something I certainly don’t want to lose. And it also goes to show that, even if people have enough power to stop me on a State channel… they can’t stop me from talking.

So if there was anyone out there, who thought that they would be shutting my mouth by removing Xarabank…. they are mistaken, as they were mistaken before.

In the past, they tried to silence me through violence. I was arrested; put in prison, boycotted… but throughout all this I continued speaking my mind, and expressing what I believe.

Because when I believe in something, I have to express it. I’m the type who can’t even sleep otherwise. These days I try not to answer the phone after 10pm: because I sometimes get calls from, say, a mother who wants to talk about what her son is going through in prison… and that’s it. I won’t be able to sleep.

I think I have a problem, to tell you the truth: because I get so worked up when I hear these things – so overcome by the need to do something about it, right way – that it’s better if I hear them in the morning…

Before turning to the question of why Xarabank was actually terminated: this facet of your character certainly came across on TV. The show has in fact often been criticised for overplaying the popular sentimentality card: and perhaps for overstepping its remit, by doubling up as a philanthropic charity event. Do you think you may have overstepped your role as a TV host, by projecting such a Messianic image?

To be honest, I think that stems from the influence of Christianity. I might not be ‘religious’, in any conventional sense; but Jesus Christ as a philosopher, or political figure, has had a huge impact on me. Even as a I child, I used to feel he was inviting me to do something… to make some kind of difference, in the world… and now I’ve reached a stage where I worry that the world may end up changing me instead.

This is something I have always resisted. And I’m not saying this to boast: because it could be a problem, too. It is something I hear from the people around me all the time: ‘Why do you feel you have to be responsible for all the world’s problems? Why does everything always have to end up on your shoulders’?

But then… how can I ignore it, when I am approached by somebody – with an interest in appearing on Xarabank, mind you – who tells me he is living out in the street?  And when I go out to meet him, I find him sleeping under a tree? How can I just walk away from something like that, and do nothing?

There is, however, a difference between highlighting homelessness as an issue, and focusing on the plight of the individual concerned. Couldn’t it also be argued, in those circumstances, that you’d be ‘exploiting’ that man to boost your viewership ratings?

In this particular case, I myself told him that there was no need to appear on Xarabank. I didn’t want to make a public spectacle of him. But this is also true for 98% of the cases that reach us. The reality is that the vast majority of stories that we hear don’t end up getting aired on the programme. We will do what we can to help anyway… but we are selective when it comes to what actually gets shown, or not.

As a rule, I will first evaluate whether the issue is important enough to be given publicity. And very often, the answer will be ‘no’. But the remaining 2% - the very few cases that do end up on the show – those will be cases where the issue itself was clearly important enough; and where it is simply impossible to portray it without making the protagonists’ voice heard.

To give you an example: in the case of a man who has been unjustly imprisoned, there is only one way to raise public awareness. It’s no use writing letters to the authorities. He has to appear on the show. It has to be made public, that: ‘this is the man who is in prison for nothing’.

As for whether I’m doing this to boost my ratings… obviously, yes, I am. I’d be lying, if I claimed that there was no intention, at the back of my mind, to also create a programme that would be interesting enough for people to watch.

But if ‘getting people to watch Xarabank’ also means just bundling every issue into the mix, indiscriminately, at the expense of the people involved… then I’d say no. That’s not something I would do.

In fact, this is what I tell all new Xarabank employees at the first coaching session: ‘People come first; then the programme.’  That’s the premise from which it all begins…

Nonetheless, the public podium you occupy gives you considerable power over audiences. Sometimes you give the impression that you are less concerned with informing the public about issues… than with swaying – some might say ‘controlling’ – public opinion according to your own biases. How do your respond to that sort of criticism?

I have always made it clear that I am not unbiased; and I’m not neutral, either. As far as I’m concerned, you will only ever find ‘neutral’ or ’unbiased’ people in a graveyard. The way I see it:  you can either bullshit people by pretending to be neutral; or else you can do what I do, and tell them what exactly what you think.

In all the programmes we did about joining the EU, for instance, I always used to say from beforehand that I was going to vote ‘yes’.  I would always declare my bias to the audience, in order to allow them to properly form their own opinion.

I always try, as far as possible, to be fair [heavy emphasis] – because the word ‘fair’ is important – all the same, however, as the presenter of a television programme… yes, I am biased. There is no such thing as an ‘unbiased’ TV presenter…

Turning to the decision to axe Xarabank: the PBS board has since argued that, after a good 23-year run on the national station, it was time for a change. Don’t they have a point? Do you feel you have some form of automatic right to permanently occupy a prime-time slot on PBS?

Not only do I not have any ‘automatic right’… but the reality was that we had to apply for that slot each year: without ever knowing whether we were going to get it or not. Which is very unfair, mind you. They should at least offer contracts for three years. But that is now a matter for others to take up, not me.

So no, I certainly don’t feel I have any ‘right’ to be on PBS. But then again: if you have a programme that, according to the latest Broadcasting Authority surveys, is once again the most watched programme on the island… tell me, which station in the world would axe it?

We are, after all, in the business of communicating. I ask anyone in the line of media and communication: if you have someone who communicates well with the people – like a journalist or contributor, whose work is read by everyone – on what basis would you just sack them?

Unless, of course, the decision was taken for other reasons…

What do you think the ‘other reasons’ could have been, in Xarabank’s case?

In all honesty, I don’t know…

But you’re also arguing that the decision was taken to ‘silence’ Xarabank. Do you think the reason was political? And have there been any specific episodes recently – or political issues raised on the show – which you think may have contributed to the decision?

It’s hard to say, because we’ve probably done more political episodes over the past few years, than ever before. So many things have happened recently, that it was impossible not to.

But to mention one example: when Melvin Theuma testified that he had been given a government job – which he didn’t even want - he was immediately contradicted by the head of the Civil Service.

And when I saw Facebook comments calling for Theuma’s pardon to be revoked… I smelt a rat. So I did some digging, and within an hour I found a document proving that Theuma had been telling the truth. He really was given a job in the public service.

And I made it public, on Xarabank.

Now: I’m not saying that this, in particular, was the reason for cancelling the show. But don’t tell me that this sort of thing makes Xarabank ‘comfortable’ for the people in power. Clearly, it was the other way round: we were uncomfortable.

But so what? That’s what we’re here for, after all:  to make life uncomfortable for the powers that be…