Of heroes and monsters | Peppi Azzopardi

A court ban preventing Xarabank from interviewing Liam Debono – the 17-year-old accused of grievously injuring a police officer – has raised thorny questions about the media’s responsibilities. Peppi Azzzopardi argues that the media can and should give space to the accused as well as the victim

Xarabank is undeniably a dominant influence on Maltese society. You yourself are a well-known public figure, and also exert an influence on public opinion. A lot of people out there feel that, by interviewing Liam Debono when he was still facing criminal charges for attempted murder, you were trying to influence the outcome of that particular trial. How do you respond to that argument?

There are three aspects to consider. First of all, all this has to be put in its proper context. For five months, that boy has been the subject of savage insults and threats: on Facebook, and even on television. Everybody just tore into him… basically, we turned him into a monster. Some of the comments have been frightening: ‘let’s hang him, let’s torture him…’ One even suggested killing his mother, so that she wouldn’t have another son like him.

Even now, after he was beaten up… to be honest, I can’t stomach reading certain comments. Now: my point in interviewing Liam Debono was that – in this particular context – it was right and fitting for his voice to be heard. Apart from the fact that Simon Schembri – who is definitely a victim; I’m not denying that. I’ve met him, and the sight of him mutilated that way honestly brings tears to my eyes. But let’s also keep in mind that, at the time when the court ordered a ban on Xarabank, Simon Schembri was appearing all over the media. It is true that he never spoke about the case directly; it was mainly about the Simon Schembri Blue Light Foundation [a support NGO founded in the wake of the hit-and-run incident].

But still, he made all those television appearances: doesn’t that also influence public opinion? Just seeing him in that state would have an effect… and even more so, when he is interviewed about the difficulties he is going through [as a result of the permanent disability]. And he’s right to do so. He is, like I said, a victim. But let’s be honest: court cases can be influenced both ways. Even if we didn’t try to interview Liam Debono... sorry, but there would still have been an injustice. If the courts really are influenced by the media… then they would still have been influenced by all the coverage given to Simon Schembri.

There was even a public protest in the streets, for crying out loud: attended by all the authorities on the island. Come on! The trouble is… in this country, we don’t have the ability to distinguish between ‘accused’ and ‘guilty’. You’re accused of a crime? ‘That’s it. End of story’. No, sorry. Never mind that you can still be acquitted… the charges against you might change. Evidence might be presented that gives a different perspective: ‘yes, it happened, but no, it didn’t happen exactly the way everyone thinks’. That’s why we have court cases to begin with… 

But that is also partly why people are concerned. We have court cases to administer justice in this country… not television programmes.  

Then why are we only seeing a problem when the subject of the interview is the accused, not the victim? Why do we not see the same problem when the general public creates an enormous bias against one side, and in favour of the other? Doesn’t this also just increase the hatred? As you know, yesterday Liam Debono was attacked and beaten up by five men. I know for a fact that the assault itself had nothing whatsoever to do with the Simon Schembri case…

Sorry to interrupt, but are you sure of that?

Yes. Take it from me, the reason for the attack was unrelated. I can’t comment more at this stage. But people are making a mistake to mix the two things up in their comments. There is, however, one way in which they can be connected. The attack certainly had something to do with the fact that Liam Debono had been turned into a monster. The words that have been said and written about him did have an effect: they legitimised any violence against him. It’s OK to beat him up, because he’s ‘the monster’. This frightens me. It’s a bit like what’s happening in America: nobody can say that Donald Trump personally ordered someone to go and shoot people in a synagogue. But you can certainly argue that he contributed to a climate of hatred, through his choice of words…

OK, but people’s reactions were not limited only to the sort of barbaric comments/actions we’re talking about now. The court itself justified its decision on the basis that it wanted to avoid a ‘trial by media’. An online poll suggests that as many as 90% agree. Isn’t that a legitimate concern?

That’s the second point I was coming to: personally, I am very worried about the prospect that the law courts might be influenced by television programmes, or by news portals, or the social media. Because in that case… Liam doesn’t stand a chance. Not a hope in hell. Let’s face it, if there’s a ‘trial by media’, then it’s been going on for five whole months.

And if the law courts are going to base their judgment on how this case has been portrayed in the media… then it’s obvious that Liam Debono will not get a fair trial. But I also seriously doubt whether there are any judges or magistrates who would allow themselves to be influenced by something they saw on TV. God forbid: if that’s the case, then there really wouldn’t be any justice. I don’t believe that, however. I believe that any serious judge or magistrate will be influenced only by the evidence presented in court, and by the testimony of witnesses. That’s how the justice system works…

God forbid we end up in a situation where we can’t discuss things because they’re ‘sub judice’. By that reasoning, anyone could simply quash any discussion about anything, just by opening a court case

There is, however, a subliminal level at which people can be influenced without even realising. That is, in fact, part of the power of a programme like Xarabank... 

But there’s a big difference between directly influencing the outcome of a court case – something I absolutely have no intention of ever doing – and talking to someone who has publicly been depicted as a monster, so that perhaps… just perhaps… people might see that he is actually a human being, not a monster. To put it another way; I could have spared myself all this hassle – and to be honest, as the Xarabank team we actually discussed this – by simply not running the Liam Debono interview at all, and doing a programme about Simon Schembri instead. We could have made everyone happy by presenting him as a hero… 

With all due respect, however: do you consider your role to be the person who decides whether someone is a ‘hero’ or a ‘monster’? 

But Simon Schembri is a hero. That’s not an opinion of mine; it’s a fact. He suffered what he suffered because he was doing his duty as a police officer. We can all see that…

There’s a danger in that argument, though. For if Simon Schembri is the ‘hero’ of this tragedy… then from the same perspective, Liam Debono really does become the ‘monster’…

No, I refuse to accept that. That’s the typical Maltese attitude, that everything always has to be either good or bad, black or white, blue or red… my point is that: nobody had a problem with the victim being interviewed on TV, even if the case was ongoing. It’s only wrong when the accused was given the same opportunity. Now, there is an added irony: in the light of yesterday’s assault, Liam Debono is also a victim. Would it be ‘wrong’ to interview him now? If no, why was it ‘right’ to interview Simon Schembri?

Fair enough. But the fact remains that Liam Debono is on trial for attempted murder, which also means there is a judicial process going on as we speak. The court ruled that the Xarabank interview would be inappropriate for that very reason. As a media person myself, I am uncomfortable with that ruling… but the vast majority out there agrees. What do you say to them?

That brings us to my third point. God forbid, that the media are prevented from discussing matters just because they are ‘sub judice’. Take the case of Christopher Bartolo, for instance. He was in prison on drug charges, suffering from terminal kidney disease. He basically had no kidneys. And his [appeal] case was still pending. If we observed the ‘sub judice’ rule in that case… instead of going to prison and interviewing him in his cell, through a hidden camera… he would be dead today. If we didn’t raise public awareness about that case, they would have found him dead in his cell. But instead, he was released.

Only because we – not just Xarabank, but all the other media which followed the story – put pressure on Cabinet. Another example was that young woman who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment after running over two elderly persons, killing one of them. We interviewed her while the appeal case was ongoing, and made a public appeal for any witnesses to step forward – because nobody had spoken up until that point. That same evening, I got a phone-call from the former Economy Minister Tonio Fenech, who told me that he had seen everything, and had even tried to offer a helping hand. Elaine Agius, who now works at the President’s office, called to say that she was at the supermarket across the street and had witnessed the accident. And others also came forward. They all testified in court, and that woman was acquitted.

Did we do something wrong, because the case was ‘sub judice’? If we, the media, don’t speak out about these things… what are we going to speak about? The Eurovision? This is my concern: God forbid we end up in a situation where we can’t discuss things because they’re ‘sub judice’. By that reasoning, anyone could simply quash any discussion about anything, just by opening a court case. It’s very dangerous…

From a media perspective, I agree. But I can also see a danger on the other side. Even if you’re trying to influence the justice system for all the right reasons: it’s still an attempt to influence the justice system. Is that really the media’s job? 

It is not the media’s job to influence the justice system, no, and that is not what I was trying to do.  But… isn’t it the media’s job to point out injustices? If we really believe in trying to create a fair and just society for everyone… shouldn’t we be speaking out about injustice? And shouldn’t we be speaking to everyone? Because otherwise, what are we supposed to be discussing, anyway? It would be very easy to do, for instance, a quiz show instead of a discussion programme: just ask questions about this or that, so that everyone claps at the end. But that’s not how I see the media’s role. 

No offence, but part of the criticism often levelled at Xarabank – not just on this issue – is precisely that it tends to reduce the topic of any discussion to simplistic terms. The format of the programme (being so ‘gladiatorial’, as it were) lends itself to shouting matches between emotive audience or panel members, etc. How do you respond to the view that Xarabank sometimes tends to be ‘populist’ or ‘sensationalist’? 

I don’t think we’re ‘populist’…

I mean in the sense that, on sensitive, controversial issues (like abortion, for instance) you choose the most extremist and/or provocative speakers imaginable… 

I still disagree. When we discussed abortion, we interviewed the two founders of the Women’s Rights federation, after they released a statement…

I remember an earlier programme on the same subject, where you gave space to every fanatic on the island (on both sides, to be fair). Sorry to be so critical, but I feel it’s relevant to this discussion. Given the perception that Xarabank tends towards populism, was it wise to interview such a sensitive subject as Liam Debono?

The way I see it is, we give space to ordinary people, not just experts. In fact, if there’s one thing Xarabank did, in its earliest days, it was to challenge the dominant view that ‘the expert’ is always right about everything. Obviously, I’m not saying that experts are always wrong; and we always try to involve the foremost authority on any topic when we discuss it. But I wouldn’t call it ‘populist’ to give a platform to ordinary people. These people do not come to us just with their opinions, but also with their experiences. Who am I to tell the people who are going through those experiences, that they’re ‘wrong’ about it, or that the expert is ‘right’?

To give an example going back around 20 years: there was this professor who came out saying that ‘the children of divorcees’ will inevitably suffer from all sorts of problems and defects… and using that as an argument against divorce. He was what you would probably describe as an ‘extremist’. We, on the other hand, gave space to the [by then grown-up] children of separated couples to have their say. And they spoke out: ‘My parents are separated, and it isn’t true that it has to have all those negative effects’.

We were challenging the dominant mindset of the time, that the expert can say whatever he likes, and no one would dare contradict him. The way I see it, we brought people to challenge expert opinions on the basis of their own experiences. Even when it comes to interviewing the Prime Minister, for instance. We don’t just get technical people to ask technical questions. We will also give space to that lady who will stand up in the audience and say, ‘Mr Prime Minister, my fridge is empty’… or ‘I am living in a garage’… 

I’m not denying that it makes good television. But… is that really a discussion on the state of the economy? An audience member publicly embarrassing the Prime Minister because of her empty fridge?

It is a discussion, yes. Why not? Why does it always have to be about GDP, employment, and so on? These are real issues. I don’t think it’s ‘sensational’ to give space to people to talk about their own experiences. And I include Liam Debono in that, because he is a person too. A person, not a monster. That was the only scope of our eight-minute, pre-recorded interview: not to talk about the case, not to influence any magistrate… but to get an idea of the social circumstances that made him the type of person – not the monster – that he is.

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