Beyond the hype | Immanuel Mifsud

Award-winning novelist Immanuel Mifsud blames the Malta’s intellectual poverty on lacking alternatives in the media.

“Consider how much hype is being pumped in to this blessed Eurovision. No wonder that the people react to it in this manner.” - Immanuel Mifsud
“Consider how much hype is being pumped in to this blessed Eurovision. No wonder that the people react to it in this manner.” - Immanuel Mifsud

Novelist Immanuel Mifsud was surely not watching the Eurovision final yesterday.

In most other countries people enjoy watching the continental pop music contest, but take it with a pinch of salt. With the exception of authoritarian ex-Soviet central Asian republics, Malta is one of the few places where the festival is taken very seriously. It is this precisely this seriousness which troubles Immanuel Mifsud. 

"Consider how much hype is being pumped in to this blessed Eurovision. No wonder that the people react to it in this manner."

In fact the Eurovision hype epitomises all that is wrong in the media. TV programmes obsessed with audiences take a free ride of the popularity of the festival while in turn creating even more hype.

But Mifsud does not believe that people are just dumb and gullibly swallow whatever is thrown at them. What irks Mifsud is the lack of alternatives for such hype and the "concerted effort" to milk events like the Eurovision beyond any sense of proportion.

But is the Eurovision not part of Maltese popular culture?

"Popular culture is extremely important as it is the expression of the people but one has to be very careful on how one defines popular culture."

The problem in Malta is that popular culture is immediately reduced either to sterile traditional stereotypes like Wenzu u Rozi or to their modern equivalents, the Eurovision singers.

Mifsud does not accept the idea that everything popular deserves inclusion in our definition of culture.

"One should not be very patronising but the idea that anything goes is not culture."

He contrasts the cultural wasteland of the Eurovision with what he considers a fine example of popular culture: the folk rock band Brikkuni.

"The way they express themselves is very popular.  Their lyrics are topical and related to daily life. Even if they define themselves as a pop band, I would rather listen to them anytime than any of our crop of Eurovision singers."

Neither is Mifsud remotely interested in perpetuating an elitist culture, recalling that novelists like Guze Ellul Mercer used to write for the working class. That is why it is of paramount importance for Mifsud that the official media starts offering more elevating stuff for the masses.

Mifsud has recently claimed that the Maltese "are not people who think a lot".

Mifsud admits that his provocative statement was a generalisation, something which applies to any comment one makes about society in general.

Mifsud's aim was to provoke a discussion on whether Malta has "an environment which is conducive to thinking". 

His bete noire is the media, particularly television, which is actively working against "an environment which stimulates thinking".

But aren't programme producers simply giving the masses what they want?

"The problem with that is: what criteria are we to use to determine what the people want?"

Secondly, according to Mifsud, this could be another self-fulfilling prophecy.

"If we have been for a long number of years feeding the people the same things, it is obvious that the majority have become accustomed to having it, believing that it is what they actually want."

It could be a completely different story if people are offered something different, as is the case in Italy where people have a choice between many crappy TV shows and more elevating stuff.

This brings to mind the success of programmes like Vieni Via con me and Quello che no ho, both co-presented by Roberto Saviano - a committed intellectual and author of Gomorrah, a book which denounced organised crime. On one occasion, Vieni via con me was even watched by more people than Grande Fratello (the Italian spin-off of Big Brother). Could something like that ever happen on Maltese TV?

"I believe so... the problem with Malta is that you have a number of TV stations which are basically homogenous."

But are Maltese intellectuals willing to engage mass audiences as Saviano does in Italy?

"I am not sure whether the intellectual class is being given the tools and the space needed for such a thing. We do not have at least one TV station which is willing to allocate a number of slots for such programmes..."

But does it make sense to subsidise programmes, which might have a very limited appeal?

"That kind of thinking is based on the logic of profit... there are certain things in life which cannot be measured in that way."

So what would Mifsud like to see on Maltese TV?

"I would simply like to have alternatives to what we have. People can watch as much crap as they want but should also be offered other things, which are not crap.  It's should be your business to choose..."

What is wrong is that to watch certain programmes one has to tune on to Italian or other continental TV stations.

Another aspect of this media phenomenon is the association of the Maltese language medium with mediocrity. This opens another can of worms.

According to Mifsud, the biggest threat to the Maltese language comes from modern day celebrities who cannot speak in a proper way. For one thing which Malta lacks are role models on the media for the eloquent use of the Maltese language.

"You cannot expect the people to respect their language if the role models are so defective in expressing themselves with it."

He recalls how fascinated he always was by the eloquence of some foreign politicians.

 "I never agreed with much of what Gianfranco Fini used to say, but I have always enjoyed listening to his eloquent speeches in the Italian parliament. I don't think we have politicians in parliament who are so eloquent. "

He also believes in the responsibility of the media to respect linguistic standards.

"You cannot have certain journalists on TV who pretend to be opinion makers and who cannot really get a message through without making all sorts of mistakes while they are speaking..."

But to enforce linguistic standards one does not need the language police but simply use the talent coming out of university.

"We have a number of graduates each year some of them cannot find jobs... each newspaper, publisher, radio station should have a team of people editing each single word being broadcasted... you have to have these things if you want to respect yourself."

He recalls once being phoned by a foreign radio to check how his surname is pronounced.

"Just note how foreign surnames are pronounced..."

While far from nationalistic or a language purist, Mifsud disagrees with the proposal recently made by Labour MP Evarist Bartolo to make English the language of instruction of schools instead of Maltese.

"Without giving any hint of romantic or nationalistic ideas, you have to respect what is your own and if there is one thing which we do not respect is our language."

He points out that deteriorating standards of English is not only a problem faced by Malta but also by many other countries including English speaking ones.

He refers to an international survey showing that the best English spellers are women over 65 and the worst are males between 18 and 24.

"The crisis of English in Malta is clearly not because we instruct many subjects in Maltese, and I'm not sure whether instructing children in English will improve the situation."

I turn the leave to another topic.

The Maltese might not be people who think a lot but a year ago, they did vote in favour of divorce despite the opposition of the Church which had traditionally held an enormous influence on the way people think.

But although he welcomed the outcome, Mifsud does not think that the arguments brought up by both sides reflected a lot of thinking.

Rather than a question of "philosophy and principle", according to Mifsud, divorce was introduced because a large number of people felt a personal need for it.

"We realised that there were so many dysfunctional families and divorce was the only cure for such families."

While Mifsud finds this to be perfectly understandable, he does not think that this will augur a brave new liberal future.

"Just compare the debate on divorce with that on other topics like abortion or immigration."

He argues that in some instances, faced with new realities like migration, Maltese society is becoming less tolerant and open. But this process is also happening in liberal societies like the Netherlands once known for their openness.

"It is not only in Malta, to quote a slogan I hate to use."

Neither does Mifsud see any signs of deep political change, seeing the same pattern of previous elections repeating itself all over again.

"You have as you had for the past decades, two parties who have a number of followers who will never change their opinion and are struggling to attract those who are under a question mark who are not so numerous."

He does welcome the fact that youth and education are featuring more in the debate but even here he is not entirely satisfied with the direction of the debate.

"Both political parties are very much concerned with numbers and statistics but hardly do they ever talk about quality. They always come up with the number of illiterates, or the number of students at university, the number of school leavers at secondary level, but it seems none of them is really concerned with what level of education and culture the hundreds of graduates we produce yearly have."

He is also sceptical about a proposal made by the Opposition to lower the voting age in local elections to 16.

Although in principle he thinks it is positive to have younger people participating in a democracy he warns that this will simply perpetuate the partisan divide.

"I am afraid that we will see a repeat of what is happening in student politics today on a national level... you have two blocks with obvious political affiliations fighting and competing for every vote. "

With regards to the country's cultural sector Mifsud welcomes the greater transparency and fairness in the system regulating the funding of cultural initiatives.

"The present Minister for Culture [Mario de Marco] is surrounded by capable people who genuinely want to do new things". 

He predicts that if there is a change in government, "we won't have the usual musical chairs" where people are changed simply because these were appointed by the previous government.

Still, Malta lags behind other European countries when it comes to cultural initiatives. For Mifsud, although funding is important, the lack of money should not always be used as an excuse for our shortcomings. 

"That is a very good excuse...but one should really see what is happening abroad and adapt ideas which have been successful there..."

Another problem is the traditional association between culture and tourism, something perpetuated by the inclusion of the two sectors in the same ministry.

"This mentality is wrong as it is only when locals are experiencing their own culture and that of others that you can start catering for other people."

I turn the subject to literature, which in the case of Mifsud is deeply intertwined in a historical and wider social context of the 1970s and 1980s. 

Apart from Trevor Zahra and to an extent Oliver Friggieri, novelists shied away from writing about the political situation of the 1970s and 1980s. However, Mifsud notes it was quite different with poetry and theatre.

"A number of poets did propose bold political statements about what was happening in those years. As for theatre, the Grupp tan-Numri, Alfred Buttigieg and Ateatru were very political in their heyday."

The memories of the 1980s are constantly re-evoked by the PN to demonise Labour. On its part, Labour seeks to rehabilitate its Mintoffian past by associating it with the social reforms of the 1970s.

"What I fear most is that it is the political parties who are pushing this polarising view of our past... it is not the people who do not belong to any side who are revisiting the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s."

But at the same time Mifsud acknowledges that any claim to "neutrality is a chimera which does not exist".

What Mifsud expects is "an informed opinion detached from partisan passions".

John Paul Sciberras
And also I think he should have been more critical of the Maltese intellectual circle for the way its members simply abstained themselves from the censorship debate which, one should keep in mind, was sparked off at the university. Of course Mifsud himself is on the academic staff so ...
John Paul Sciberras
Sorry I think you are totally wrong Mr Borg. Mifsud's interview on The Times and this interview created a lot of talk on the social media. Which is why you're being told to address the people. That is where the people are, not in ivory towers. Have you checked with Malta Today how many responses it had when they quoted The Times interview as an online vox pop? Of course I don't think Mifsud is right in every thing he says. For exazmple his belief that divorce was voted in simply because of egoistic interest is, for me, a very facile way how to look at the issue.
The names mentioned are public intellectuals and have made their claims publicly, using all possible public means. The number of responses this interview is receiving is perhaps indicative of the level of non-interest in anything that is intellectually challenging. Carmel Borg
John Paul Sciberras
If you have been harping about this fact among your 'intellectual' circle, then no wonder no one ever took notice. Intellectuals need to talk to the people not harp.
I voted for democracy and did not watch the contest which is no longer one .... what a waste of money!
It seems that we have suddenly realised that Malta is a nation of non-critical thinkers. For the past thirty years, Kenneth Wain, Peter Mayo, Ronald Sultana, Mary Darmanin and myself have all been harping on this fact. Carmel Borg