Beauty and the broadcasting beast | Owen Bonnici

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici has inherited public broadcasting from the spoils of Manuel Mallia’s former ministry. Can he deliver on promises of impartiality where all others have failed?

(Photo: Chris Mangion)
(Photo: Chris Mangion)

Maltese politics can be a repetitive subject at times; and one mantra that consistently crops up is the state of the national broadcaster PBS. 

Times have clearly changed since the days of Xandir Malta, when former minister Wistin Abela once declared that the aim of the national station was to “foster a new Socialist generation”. But the perception that State broadcasting remains a political weapon, to be wielded by the government of the day, still persists… kept alive in part by the political parties themselves, which routinely inundate the Broadcasting Authority with complaints regarding unfair coverage. 

On paper, TVM has an editorial obligation to observe the norms of impartiality when covering “events of national or political importance”. In practice, however this policy has consistently proved both troublesome and elusive. 

But before turning to the minister now responsible for the national station, a word about the inauspicious circumstances that landed Justice Minister Owen Bonnici this hot potato in the first place. 

By now, the echoes of gunfire in Sta Venera have long died down. But the implications for the present government still linger. Labour was elected on the promise of greater transparency and accountability… and this single incident, resulting in the dismissal of a cabinet minister late last year, seems to have single-handedly raised the bar on public expectations of politicians. Has the fall-out from ‘Mallia-gate’ affected how ministers operate? 

“Yes, the bar has been raised,” Bonnici replies from across the table at the Justice Ministry in Valletta. “It was a very serious accident; but there were equally serious accidents in the past and nobody lost his job as a result. In this case, two people lost their job: not only the minister, but also the police commissioner. As a result of the minister being… how can I put it? – ‘sacked’ isn’t the right word. Technically he was removed from office… but as a result, all his staff moved out with him. So yes, the bar has definitely been raised. This is what people voted for in March 2013…”

And yet, now that the dust has settled, the entire incident seems to have had little effect on Labour’s electoral advantage. At the time of this interview there were already indications to this effect. Our survey, published today, seems to confirm that Labour has lost nothing of its national majority as a result of an issue presented as a serious blow to its credibility. How does Bonnici account for this?

“I think it’s because the prime minister took the difficult decision. I have been told by a very seasoned politician that when confronted with a choice between the easy and difficult decision, always take the difficult one because the easy decision will come back to haunt you. That is what the prime minister did. And it was a very difficult decision because it dealt with a colleague of ours, and therefore a friend. But the fact that Muscat took the decision… people out there said, ‘OK, this guy is different from the rest’. Hence the ratings...”

Bonnici adds that the Opposition may also have mishandled the case. “I think they [the PN] are making a very crucial mistake. When they speak, they should refrain from trying to please the hardcore PN supporter, but should speak in a way that inspires hope in the people of a better future. For instance, when Dr Busuttil gave his speech in reply to the budget, did you notice that throughout his speech he never mentioned schools or education once? Because that is basic for me: a future prime minister should explain how our kids will have better schools, for instance. He didn’t do that. He focused his entire speech on attacking each and every government minister: which is fair in a democracy, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not the yardstick by which Opposition leaders are measured. The yardstick is that family with two kids, working overtime to try to make needs meet. Did he make a difference to how their life might be if he became Prime Minister? The answer is absolutely not. So I think they’ve got a messed up strategy, to be honest…”

Perhaps, but let’s stick to the government’s strategy for now. There is a slight inconsistency in Bonnici’s earlier remarks. He himself just admitted that the ‘bar has been raised’. Yet part of the Labour Party’s entire campaign strategy in 2013 was precisely to raise the bar on such matters as transparency, accountability, meritocracy, etc. The campaign projected the message that the new government would take political responsibility more seriously. 

So isn’t it also the case that Muscat’s government got a wake-up call… a reminder that it had yet to deliver on those promises after almost two years in government? 

“No I don’t think so. In the 18 months he was minister, Mallia got a lot of things done: in particular with regard to drugs in prison. He was very tough on this issue. If you put everything in the equation, you will find that Minister Mallia was doing his best to move things forward. And some aspects of his portfolio did go forward…”

Speaking of Mallia’s portfolio, this has now been apportioned among the Justice and Home Affairs ministries. In the process, Bonnici’s ministry was enlarged to also include public broadcasting… and a ‘reform of public broadcasting’ was in fact one of the items in the PL’s manifesto, significantly under the ‘Democracy and Transparency’ heading.

Owen Bonnici has already declared that he would like to see the PBS acting as an ‘impartial’ voice in the community. So how does he plan to achieve this aim where so many have failed? 

“First of all, it is very difficult to define impartiality. But when you see it, you will immediately recognise it. It’s like beauty: no one can properly define beauty, but everyone has an opinion on what is beautiful…”

That’s an unfortunate analogy, when you consider that people’s concepts of ‘beauty’ can often differ considerably…

“The same is true of impartiality. Still, I do think the national station should be impartial: it should attract the trust of the people on the basis that what it says is without an agenda, and provide a service to democracy. Two things are crucial to achieve this: the people involved, and the actual structures which guarantee an arm’s-length approach. Who are the people involved? I think that Minister Mallia was very good in choosing people there. You have a chairman, Tonio Portughese, who I am sure no one can accuse of being affiliated with one party or another. He led ST Microelectronics for years – still leads it, as far as I know – and has undisputed managerial skills. There is Joe Sammut of Caritas, formerly also chairman of the Broadcasting Authority’s editorial board. As CEO, there is Anton Attard, who comes from Net Television. As chairman you have Reno Bugeja, who I think attracts the trust of the majority of people…”

Actually at least two of those people were not ‘chosen’ by Mallia: Attard and Bugeja were already there in March 2013... 

“Yes, but they were retained under this administration…”

Fair enough, but I think we all know that the problem does not lie so much in the people, but in the structures. Past reforms have not been particularly successful: and there doesn’t seem to be any tried and tested formula guaranteed to achieve success, anyway. This is a problem for all national broadcasters, not just Malta’s. But here, matters are complicated by economies of scale. The BBC model, whereby the station is guaranteed financial autonomy through licence fees, cannot possibly work with such a small population. This raises the question as to what model, if any, can work in Malta…

Bonnici however counters that past reforms did not work because they were not concerned with impartiality at all.

“The most recent broadcasting policy was drawn up in 2004. I have been informed it was pretty much the work of [former IT minister] Austin Gatt. Some criticised it as being the recipe in order to diminish the number of employees at PBS. Is it time for revision? I think it is. We have to revise our national broadcasting policy. I’ve been told by experts – in fact the first thing I did was call Prof. Kevin Aquilina [dean of the Faculty of Laws, and CEO of the BA for 15 years] to ask him for advice. What he told me was that even the term ‘broadcasting policy’ is ancient: now they use the term ‘media policy’, as even PBS has more than just a television station. It has a website too. I think the time has come for a truly contemporary policy governing all aspects of the national station.”

OK, but how will this new policy differ from its predecessors?

“Let me tell you what I told the BA board. You are talking to a guy who gets constantly criticised for court delays, but doesn’t have the authority to speak to judges and magistrates to speed up their work… because they enjoy independence and impartiality. So I know what an arm’s-length policy is, because I live it with the judiciary. This is the way forward for broadcasting: the less politicians are involved in the running of PBS, the better….

Yet it has always been the declared intention to engender a culture of political impartiality at PBS. As far as declared intentions go, Bonnici’s vision is not that new. What tends to happen, however, is that when elections approach, governments find it increasingly difficult not to interfere with what is ultimately a super-weapon in the arsenal of any election campaign. Labour has yet to reach this stage: what guarantees do we have that Bonnci’s own resolve will not likewise falter, when push comes to shove? 

“I think that politically… and I have to be careful how to word this… I think that when the PBS was used as a mouthpiece for the Nationalist government, it worked against the PN’s interest. I think anyone in his right senses would conclude that, in the interests of democracy – but also in the interest of the party in government – it is better to have an arm’s-length policy. I believe the PN lost a lot precisely because PBS was so pro-government at the time.”

To illustrate the difference in approach, he points out how the Labour Party filed a complaint with the Broadcasting Authority over PBS, just as he himself inherited the broadcasting portfolio from Manuel Mallia. “If that’s not proof that PBS is working differently now, I don’t know what is. Now you have both Labour and PN complaining that the national station is biased against them…”

But is that really such a new thing? As far as I can remember, the Broadcasting Authority has always been flooded by complaints from the parties, to the point that it had to deal with these complaints at the expense of everything else. This points towards another inherent problem with national broadcasting: the centrality of local politics. It is not just when it comes to partisan politics that impartiality is needed: there is a question of media ethics which exists independently of political parties. There are concerns with bias in advertising, for instance. It’s not as though the conditions of ‘impartiality’ are met simply because two political parties are happy with how they are presented on state television…

So isn’t it a case that we have perverted the role of the BA, and turned it into a…? 

Bonnici finishes the question for me: “… a referee between the two parties? Yes, unfortunately that is what the BA has become. A referee to decide whether that programme dedicated five seconds more or less to one party...”

As with the judiciary, Bonnici cannot personally intervene with internal affairs of the BA. But as minister, he is still politically responsible for the sector. So what does he intend to do about it?

“I think it ultimately depends on the parties themselves. I would like to appeal to them to keep in mind that the world is not only about Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil. There are other things to talk about than those two respectable gentlemen. But in the meantime, some structural changes need to be done. One of the things I would really, really like to see at PBS is the appointment of a cultural editor. MaltaToday is in fact a flagship of this concept: you have a cultural editor, Teodor Reljic. The first thing I read in that newspaper is his column. And then politics…”

Similarly, he adds, there is need of a cultural editor at PBS. “All the people involved in culture here are excited at the prospect of finally having a platform to showcase their artistic talent. TVM 2 will start to broadcast opera, prima serata, at 8.30pm on Wednesday. PBS has entered into deals with La Scala and other major theatres. So while I won’t interfere in the internal running of the station, I can and will intervene legislatively, to see that PBS gets its own cultural editor. It’s something I have the right and duty to do, and I will do it…” 

This is great news for opera buffs, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question of how the imminent reform will guarantee more autonomy for TVM. This brings me to another aspect of Bonnici’s portfolio: justice and the law courts. I won’t go into all the ramifications – last year I interviewed Bonnici specifically on this issue – but there is one aspect where the two areas converge. Like the Broadcasting Authority, the law courts are supposed to be autonomous and immune to political interference. Yet Malta’s Constitution empowers the Cabinet of Ministers to directly appoint judges and magistrates.

How does this fit in with an arm’s-length policy? And at the risk of casting a shadow over the judiciary, there is also a perception out there that justice ministers appoint judges and magistrates specifically to strike a political balance. To give an example: over the past 25 years the choice almost always fell to Nationalist ministers. The first time it fell to a Labour minister, one of the appointees happened to be a former editor of a Labour newspaper: Wenzu Mintoff.

Couldn’t this be interpreted as an attempt to redress a perceived political imbalance in the judiciary?

“No, absolutely not. Once a person is appointed a judge, he has the guarantees afforded to him by the Constitution of independence and impartiality. You have to judge a person by the security of tenure he occupies. I am sure that Wenzu Mintoff will be impartial. When he was appointed to the bench, the deputy president of the Chamber of Advocates, Ian Spiteri Bailey [a former Nationalist candidate] publicly expressed confidence that he would exert impartiality as a judge. I have no doubt of that myself...”

But wasn’t it also bound to be interpreted as a political decision? 

He shrugs. “I took the decision, and by all accounts Mintoff is doing a good job. But I disagree with your question that there is political interference in the judiciary. I think, despite all the criticism levelled at judges by the public – some of it correct, some not – no judge or magistrate has ever blatantly decided a case in order to please a government.”

Decided, perhaps not. But what about the case concerning the National Bank, which dragged on for 38 years? The case was against the government, and was consistently deferred for almost four decades. Is Bonnici suggesting that politics had nothing to do with that? And it has also been observed that the case finally reached closure immediately when there was a change of government…

“I have heard comments that there was politics involved, but remember that the magistrate who decided the National Bank case was also the magistrate who dismissed the prohibitory injunction regarding the Casino….”

Bonnici argues that the same man who vindicated the government’s arguments regarding the casino tender, also found the government guilty in the National Bank case. “Sometimes I think people read too much into these things…”