Labour’s fixation with PBS gives candidates a handy punching-bag to rally voters

Both Chris Fearne and Robert Abela say they want reforms inside PBS, but the vision never goes beyond a few buzzwords

Chris Fearne hammers the message home (left). Even Abela has echoed this PBS mantra
Chris Fearne hammers the message home (left). Even Abela has echoed this PBS mantra

In Paola on Thursday evening, Robert Abela has only just started to address his final rally, where he pays tribute to staff at the Labour Party owned television station One. Then he turns to the national broadcaster, also ‘owned’ by the government and by extension, the party-in-power. “Our country deserves neutral, independent, and effective national broadcasting… one of my first priorities will be this much-needed reform at PBS,” he said to raucous applause.

“These are courageous decisions which we must take,” Abela said, stopping short of explaining why Labour’s next prime minister should be concerned about the message imparted by PBS to its viewers when the PL’s own television station is on the crest of a ratings wave.

Even at Chris Fearne’s rally, PBS is a lightning rod that sets Labour voters alight.

He referred to a recent PN proposal to turn the Public Broadcasting Services into an autonomous entity, and expanding its TV offering into several channels, such that it may render party broadcasting obsolete and finally do away with the expense of running costly television operations.

“Now that they have financial trouble, they want to stop all political broadcasting… these are the same people who 20 years ago would broadcast from Sicily because they claimed there was no liberty,” Fearne – a member of the socialist youths during the Mintoff and Mifsud Bonnici eras – said in a tone-deaf soundbite.

It is a case of grievous historical revisionism: the PN’s ‘underground’ broadcasts from Sicily were down to the national broadcaster’s state-captured bulletins.

But additionally, Fearne also has a bee in his bonnet for the PBS, constantly reminding his audiences of pre-2013 years when, the same state-captured broadcaster could guarantee any Labour MP a hard time on the air. Fearne made special mention of the PN candidate Norman Vella, and his former employer and PBS veteran Peppi Azzopardi, the Xarabank presenter.

“We’d always be playing away… I’d have Vella and Azzopardi coming at me from both sides.

“And make no mistake, we still have people in PBS putting the stokes in our wheel. It is time to take decisions and make reforms there.”

This is part of Labour’s rote dislike of Peppi Azzopardi’s televisual legacy, which was forged together with one-time presenter Lou Bondì before he was taken under Joseph Muscat’s wing with a hefty government salary to run national festivities. Yet Bondì, now a publicist for the mega-hotelier Silvio Debono, is less out of favour with Labour than the neutered Azzopardi.

Even Abela has his own beef with PBS. On Thursday he kicked off Xtra on TVM by insisting on a reform of the national broadcaster, including how its newsroom works, the composition of the board and questioning the permanency of Xarabank, which he did not mention by name.

Abela insisted he could not ignore a reality people were speaking about. “The PBS reform had to be done, needs to be done and I will do it if elected leader… the reform will be done to strengthen PBS and make it neutral, effective and independent,” Abela insisted.

“It is important that people criticise us, but when we go debate it is important that we are on a fair playing field,” Fearne told followers on Thursday.

But this massive chip on the Labour Party’s shoulder about public broadcasting seems to live on like a nasty virus, even after Labour managed to take a suitable degree of control inside the PBS, where it appoints the chairman, and also manages to influence certain programming and editorial choices.

The genesis of Labour’s paranoia at PBS has a curious mix: Xarabank’s potpourri of dumbed-down politics, light entertainment, or momentous clashes was originally the brainchild of the Labour-led PBS under Albert Marshall. Azzopardi and Bondì’s Where’s Everybody made the show PBS’s Friday night flagship. After Labour lost the snap election in 1998, Sant accused the WE producers of being biased against Labour, leading the party to boycott Xarabank but also the charity telethon l-Istrina, which WE produced. Bondì, a cousin of former PN minister Austin Gatt, toed the government line with gusto right up to 2013, even attempting to undermine Lawrence Gonzi’s backbench rebel with a duel gone wrong. Presenters like Norman Vella, seconded from their government jobs to the PBS newsroom by the grace of the Office of the Prime Minister after having served at WE, were viewed with suspicion.

Little of this changed after 2013. After the Panama Papers broke, The Times lost its slot on TVM for its role in reporting the ICIJ leak, and more Labour sympathisers were put on the PBS payroll.

If Fearne is as much a visionary as to convene a constitutional conference to resolve Malta’s problems with good governance, he ought to take a leaf out of that same book to make PBS a stronger platform for Maltese excellence or ‘exceptionalism’.

But in reality, the stakes are too high. One TV’s own formidable programming and revenues are too much to let go. Its chairman, Jason Micallef, also has his own chip on the shoulder against the Where’s Everybody legacy inside PBS. He was by the side of Alfred Sant and saw the worst of PBS’s gimmicks, and remains inimical to former PBS chairman Anton Attard, and by proxy, his X Factor Malta stars.

Like Labour’s decision to neutralize Fearne-Abela debates and prevent ugly face-offs that chip away at the patina of unity, when power-players talk about reforms to control PBS it can only mean more centralization of power and influence between Castille and Television Malta.