Former minister rails against media intrusion into private life

Labour MP Manuel Mallia hits out at journalists of independent media houses who ‘spin stories according to their political agenda’ • PN MP Clyde Puli accuses PBS of ‘sophisticatedly manipulating the news’

Backbencher Manuel Mallia
Backbencher Manuel Mallia

Former home affairs minister Manuel Mallia called for harsher laws on hate speech and more “ad hoc legislation” to protect politicians’ private lives from media scrutiny.

“The law should make a distinction between constructive criticism and attempts to harm people,” the Labour MP said on Monday’s edition of Reporter. “Politicians should be allowed to lead normal lives; they should be allowed take their children to school, go on holiday and go to the cinema without finding their faces splashed on the media.”

In one of his first TV appearances since he was sacked as minister when his security driver shot at a driving motorist who nicked the ministerial vehicle in December 2014, Mallia said “politicians and public people” should only be held responsible for their actions in public life, and that their relatives should not be targeted.

“If a public person’s child commits a crime, then it should only be reported in terms of the crime itself without reference to their relatives,” he told host Saviour Balzan.

“The truth is that my wife and I had got a lift to the school,” he said. “Some people have the mistaken idea that they are helping a political party out by damaging people from the other side at a personal level. Political parties should condemn such behaviour.”

Nationalist MP Clyde Puli – also a guest on Reporter – said that journalists must “stick within the limits of prudence” and not target relatives of public figures.

‘Independent press with political agendas, disservice to journalism’

Manuel Mallia called for an inquiry into how recordings were leaked from the police control room to NET TV, in the saga that led to his resignation.

However, he saved his harshest criticism for journalists employed with independent media houses who “spin their reports and stories according to their own political agendas”.

When Balzan pointed out that several newspapers adopt editorial stances, Mallia retorted that some “so-called journalists” never report on the government’s successes but kick up a storm whenever a minor problem occurs.

“Everyone knows who these spinners are, and they are a disservice to the profession,” he said.

Puli similarly warned that some journalists add their personal opinions to news reports rather than simply sticking to the facts. “Everyone knows what to expect from political TV stations, but political opinions can be much more influential if they come from people who present themselves as wholly independent.”

‘PBS sophisticated in manipulating news’

The fiercest arguments on the programme revolved around PBS, with both Puli and Mallia accusing each other’s parties of having used the state broadcaster as a propaganda tool.

Puli – the Opposition’s spokesperson on media issues – said that PBS had started to “manipulate the news in a more sophisticated manner”, by failing to report stories that portray Labour in a negative light.

“PBS is more of a government broadcaster than a state broadcaster and [head of news] Reno Bugeja’s credibility has taken a knock,” he said. “He isn’t only censuring the Opposition, but also [former PL prime minister] Alfred Sant and [Labour MPs] Evarist Bartolo and Godfrey Farrugia who said that Konrad Mizzi should resign [over the Panama Papers scandal].”

He recounted how PBS had last year failed to broadcast a NAO report into how Enemalta lost €14 million after hedging fuel with Azerbaijani state-owned company Socar. “They only mentioned it three days later and simply reported the government’s response, so as to tone the story down.”

Puli accused Reno Bugeja of inconsistency – arguing that he had defended the lack of coverage on Sant’s comments by stating that PBS doesn’t report comments made on Facebook, but soon after broadcast a Facebook status uploaded by Zurrieq mayor Natius Farrugia.

He also hit out at Manuel Mallia, noting that his former canvasser Frederick Testa found a job at PBS back when the state broadcaster had fallen under the former minister’s portfolio.

Mallia insisted that he never interfered into the day-to-day running of PBS and defended Testa as a “qualified” person and Reno Bugeja as a “serious” journalist.

“I agree that changes must be made at PBS but the situation at the state broadcaster was far worse under the previous administration,” he said. “When I was minister, I instantly met up with PBS’ board and told them that I wouldn’t interfere in their work but that they could approach me if they had any difficulties. They used to come to me with problems concerning the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, but I never interfered in their work.”