Between the hammer and the anvil | Tonio Portughese

As TVM’s electoral debate moderator, Tonio Portughese has traditionally always been seated directly between Malta’s opposing political giants. As PBS chairman, he now finds himself in exactly the same position.

Tonio Portughese. Photo: Chris Mangion
Tonio Portughese. Photo: Chris Mangion

To walk into the PBS office in Gwardamangia is in a sense to walk down some five decades of Maltese history. Every nook and cranny conceals relics of a not-too distant past. Archaic cameras, lenses and reel-to-reel consoles adorn each corner, while larger-than-life images of past events and personalities loom large in every corridor.

To get to the office of the chairman you have to walk past an immense (and eerily unsettling) image of the late Charles Arrigo, staring impassively down at you from the wall. Inside the office, you are beset by a similarly outsized image of Prince Philip cutting the ribbon to inaugurate Television House in distant 1960.

Tonio Portughese may not himself have been around since the very outset of public broadcasting – he is around 40 years too young for that, at least if you include Rediffusion – but he has certainly been part of the broader picture for as long as I can remember. Most people still identify him as the man who for years moderated election-eve debates between the two party leaders.

His baptism of fire, as it were, occurred in 1981… when such debates were televised for the first time, against the backdrop of a country ready to almost burst with political unrest. As we exchange pleasantries he shows me an illustration of the debate in a book he wrote himself (‘People Engagement: for Business Excellence and Social Wellbeing’): Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami are prudently seated some 20 feet apart, looking ready blast each other with heavy artillery… with an apprehensive Tonio Portughese sandwiched directly in between.

Clearly, he is used to being caught between the hammer and the anvil. Which is probably just as well, given his current position as chairman of a state broadcaster that invariably finds itself in the line of political fire.

“To understand how public broadcasting operates, you have to also understand the history behind it,” he begins: pointing out how the original decision to open a national TV station in 1960 had been prompted by the fact that RAI – the Italian state broadcaster – suddenly found a foothold in every Maltese household to own a TV set.

As this was still within living memory of World War II, the colonial government felt the need to counterbalance this foreign influence with a local equivalent; and there were commercial pressures, too. RAI also provided a platform from which Italian goods could flood the market; and especially in the years after Independence, the public broadcaster came to be viewed as an essential component of the government’s protectionist strategy.

Times have since changed, and Portughese himself was instrumental in a few of the developments. As director of the station between 1992 and 1996, Portughese oversaw a major transition from part of the government apparatus to a company in its own right: still government-owned, but no longer parastatal, and therefore theoretically at an arms’ length from the political establishment.

“I was entrusted with the migration process,” Portughese recalls almost exactly 25 years later, adding that it was a politically sensitive operation at the time. “This included negotiations with the General Workers Union. PBS had hundreds of employees. We had to restructure it to operate with fewer people, but this was done without any major social conflicts…”

Subsequent restructuring exercises have left the station with fewer people still, and Portughese concedes that lack of resources remains a fundamental issue. But the current staff complement, he insists, does not feature among the main problems.

“Our complement corresponds to our current needs. Obviously as we go along there will be specific requirements that will have to be addressed. Any operations will occasionally need ‘surgical’ resources… to give you an example, with the launch of our website we now need people with specific web-oriented technical capabilities. But this is primarily a company; our decisions are taken in the interests of retaining competitivity and productivity…”

This does not necessarily correspond with public perceptions of the national station, which has all too often been viewed (not unlike other government-owned companies) as a means of accommodating well-connected political favourites.

“I can’t comment about anything that happened before my time, but since being appointed chairman a year ago there has not been any interference. Not in editorial decisions, and not in operational management either. I was not given any hidden or public agenda to follow. The only thing I was given was a copy of the mission statement…”

But that, he quickly adds, goes only for government. Political interference in other senses of the word is in fact a daily occurrence. But before getting to the ongoing issues between PBS and the Broadcasting Authority, I am curious to know what guarantees the station’s independence from government in financial terms. It’s all very well to say that government doesn’t interfere directly; but if government holds the purse strings, surely it can still influence operations simply by threatening to cut funding. How autonomous is PBS, anyway?

“Government does give a sum of money to cover part of our public service obligations, but it is nowhere near enough. We struggle to raise the remaining 70% of our financial needs through advertising revenue…”

Meanwhile, Portughese reminds me that the other pressures are all still there. PBS now operates in competition with not just RAI, but every station available on the combined resources of cable and satellite TV. But its chairman has good reason to be upbeat in spite of everything.

It is with visible pride that he lets slip a few details from the latest – unpublished at the time of the interview – Broadcasting Authority survey, which reconfirms TVM as the market leader par excellence, occasionally reaching the scarcely believable peak audience of 150,000 viewers. Overall, the station accounts for 33% of the entire market, including all foreign stations.

Compared only to local competitors, it is miles ahead and steadily gaining momentum. “PBS news viewership has grown by 4.4% over last year,” Portughese continues with evident satisfaction.

How does he account for this success? “I think that, in spite of everything, these figures confirm that we have credibility with the Maltese public. I would like to think this is down to our capabilities as a team.”

With specific reference to the 8 o’ clock news – the PBS’ ‘cavallo di battaglia’, as Portighese describes it – he points out how the editorial standards of news reporting has evolved since the days when every government movement, no matter how trivial, had to be given prominence.

“It is no longer a case that we feature any old press release we are given. We still receive press releases, but we will only run them as a story if there is a news angle worth reporting. Everything gets discussed: why should we run this piece of news? Where’s the public interest? How does it fit in with our mission statement, with our declared ethos, and so on? We also apply rigorous ethical standards in journalism. Our news reports report the news. They do not comment on it.”

This has not stopped the station from receiving its fair share of criticism and complaints over political imbalance. Portughese admits these have shown no sign of relenting. “We have had 30 official complaints brought against us, but the number of times we have been found guilty was zero. Besides, no one can really argue with these figures. We wouldn’t have audiences peaking at 150,000 viewers, if the constant complaints about imbalance were true.”

Political interference, he continues, is more of a regular distraction than a reflection of wider discontent with the local station. “You’d have to be naïve to think there isn’t interference. Political parties always want more. But that is not why we exist. We are not a noticeboard for everyone to have their say.”

Do the complaints only come from political parties? “No. There are always a number of complaints from outside politics… mostly NGOs or some other special interest group. Recently the hunters’ lobby complained about an imbalance in Animal Diaries, a TV show hosted by Moira Delia. We have had complaints by band clubs about our coverage of a local festa… that sort of thing. When these are justified we take the necessary action; people do have a right to complain if they feel they’ve been unfairly treated.”

On a separate level, PBS is also often criticised (though not through any official mechanism) for wasting taxpayers’ money… with the most-frequently cited example being its decision to participate annually in the Eurovision Song Contest. The festivity is organised by the European Broadcasting Union, and technically it is the state broadcaster (and not the state itself) which actually chooses to take part at its own expense, and also organises the local Song for Europe festival.

Portughese smiles as he is reminded of this annual controversy. “I honestly don’t know where people get their information from. The Eurovision, a waste of taxpayers’ money? It is one of our biggest financial successes. This year we couldn’t even accommodate all the people who wanted to take out advertising. And it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a cent, either. All expenses are paid for through advertising revenue.”

One thing people don’t complain about, he tells me, is the World Cup. “This year we competed for and won the rights to show all 64 games on TVM for absolutely free. Not even RAI shows all the games… they tend to focus only on the Italy matches.”

Portughese is reluctant to divulge the exact amount paid for this privilege [note: an Independent article estimated the cost at €65,000… which provoked considerable mirth at the PBS offices], but describes it as a “six-digit” figure. “Again, this comes out of our advertising revenue. It does not cost government a penny.”

Yet the perception remains: no matter how often PBS tries to correct the inaccuracies, that its output is heavily subsidised by government. Some of this perception may be down to popular confusion between the Broadcasting Authority – which is a Constitutional body entirely independent of the station – and PBS. The recent controversy surrounding the banned campaign spot of Imperium Europa is a case in point. Although it was widely reported that PBS had objected to the BA’s decision to allow the controversial ad to be shown, the perception remains that it was a PBS decision that was later rescinded.

“If it were up to me I would not have run the ad unless it conformed with existing laws and standards,” Portughese declares. “But legally we had no choice once the BA took its decision.”

The controversy however works both ways. Complaints about the ad were many and various, but there is also an argument against censorship even in such extreme cases. Like it or not, the IE ad reflected popular concerns which are very real (though whether they are justified is another matter). Isn’t there a danger, then, that by suppressing such views one ultimately might play into the hands of racist forces which can afterwards claim to have been censored?

Portughese acknowledges the dilemma, but insists that as long as there are laws governing what can and cannot be broadcast in this country, his hands will be tied.

Meanwhile, the confusion between BA and PBS also spills over into the aforementioned political complaints. One recent example was a government ad about the reduction in utility tariffs, which was cited by the Opposition as an example of how the state broadcaster was being used to disseminate government propaganda.

“Reno Bugeja, as head of news, was singled out for criticism. But he had nothing to do with the decision. Our public service commitments compel us to run such ads; we have no say in the matter.” If anyone could object it is the BA; but as with the IE ad it saw no objection. “Why, then, does Reno Bugeja get the blame for running the ad?”

Portughese adds that the way the situation was reported reinforces the erroneous suggestion that the ad was itself part of PBS’s own output. “While the complaint was given a lot of coverage, the BA ruling which cleared PBS of any wrongdoing was hardly reported at all. This is consistently the case with complaints made against us.”

All this points towards an inconvenient underlying truth. The Broadcasting Authority board is composed, among others, by representatives of government and Opposition. But these are represented by political parties which are also station-owners in their own right. As a result, the PN and PL have a direct say in the regulation of sectors in which they themselves are key players.

Portughese describes the resulting conflict of interesting as “lampanti” [blatant]. This fact alone, he argues, warrants a rethink of the BA as a whole.

“When we talk about the Broadcasting Authority, we should ask ourselves a few questions. What is it? Why does it exist? It was set up when we were still a colony. Are the realities it was conceived to address the same as those of today?”

The PBS chairman suggests that the time may have come to rethink the organisational structures governing broadcasting. “We need to ask whether the composition of the board is truly inclusive of society at large. Society is made up of more than just the two political parties. At PBS part of our mission statement is to give coverage to all sectors of society. 60% of our output is composed of local productions; we have expanded our sports section to include niche markets such as rugby.

"Cultural programmes have been given more prominence. We have recently been in talks with [Education Minister] Evarist Bartolo to step up our English language output, in keeping with government policy to revive English as a national language. The idea is to be more inclusive, to fulfil our declared aim of being a truly national broadcaster…”

No such commitment, however, seems to condition the laws and institutions that govern broadcasting in its entirety.

“I understand that the BA is a Constitutional body, and as such needs a two-thirds majority of parliament to amend.

“But with talk of a Constitutional reform already under way, perhaps we can also discuss whether the Broadcasting Authority is still relevant in its present form.”