5th November 2014 / By John Cordina
The government’s manipulation of public broadcasting in the 1980s is largely at the root of the present weaknesses in Malta’s broadcasting sector, according to a report published by the Today Public Policy Institute today.
The twelfth report published by the think-tank since its inception in 2008 is called “Confronting the challenge: innovation in the regulation of broadcasting in Malta.” Its lead authors are TPPI board members Petra Caruana Dingli and Clare Vassallo: the latter had actually been chairman of the Public Broadcasting Services between 2008 and 2010.
The report highlights that the broadcasting situation in Malta is anomalous: it is the only EU country where political parties own TV stations and newsrooms. This, it argues, was mainly a counter-reaction to the political interference in public broadcasting during the 1980s.
TPPI highlights that the development of Maltese broadcasting has been closely linked to politics from its inception: the first cable radio station was established in 1935 specifically to counter Italian fascist propaganda on the airwaves. Private broadcasters were not allowed to operate in Malta until a newly-elected Nationalist government introduced media pluralism in 1987.
By then, the reputation of public broadcasting had arguably reached its nadir, with opposition sympathisers often derisively referring to the sole national TV station, then called Xandir Malta, as Dardir Malta.
According to the report, “the memory of the 1980s keeps the country in this anomalous situation, which will remain difficult to address until the public broadcaster is perceived to be free from undue government influence and until a wider range of independent private commercial television stations is sustainable.”
The report warns that the end of political party TV stations on its own would be inadvisable, as ultimately, it was the existence of multiple newsrooms which provided pluralism.
“Without credible changes in the newsroom of the public broadcaster to eradicate the perception and the reality of political bias, and to diminish the possibility of government and ministerial interference, it would be dangerous for the country to rely on a single newsroom for its news,” TPPI insists
Broadcasting Authority ‘encourages polarisation’
It is the Broadcasting Authority which regulates all radio and television broadcasts originating from Malta, and its responsibilities include ensuring political balance. But its results, according to the TPPI, leave much to be desired.
The think-tank argues that the most urgent issue that needed to be addressed was the BA’s composition.
“Despite its function as a constitutional organ of the state, the authority is compromised by the manner in which its members are nominated,” the report states, noting how the prime minister and the leader of the opposition each nominate two members whilst the minister responsible for broadcasting nominates the chairman.
The authority, TPPI notes, “is therefore limited to only five persons chosen by and in the interests of the two main political parties. This leads to the perception that political interests may be put before the public interest, which erodes trust in the authority particularly since the two main political parties also own and manage their own media outlets.”
The think-tank thus suggests that the representation of civil society on the authority should be increased and widened.
Another issue is the way the Broadcasting Authority interprets its role of ensuring impartiality in broadcasting, particularly in light of a clause of the Broadcasting Act allows it to consider the general output of programmes as a whole. As a result, political party stations are assumed to balance each other out, and are thus effectively free to be as politically biased as they wish to be, whilst other stations
“This interpretation encourages polarization and may serve to discourage impartiality by obliging the political party stations to continually strive to counteract, with equal force, the political bias in the news which is broadcast by their political opponents,” the report’s authors note.
TPPI thus suggests that the relevant clause in the Broadcasting Act should be revisited.
But the think-tank is also suggesting another overhaul in the regulation of broadcasting: merging the Broadcasting Authority and the Malta Communications Authority into a new “Malta Media Authority” which regulates both telecommunications and broadcasting.
This authority, it states, should ensure that all television stations are judged “on their own practice and not in relation to, or balanced out by, programmes aired on other television stations,” which would make running a loss-making TV station a less desirable prospect for Malta’s two largest political parties.
On the other hand, TPPI also recommends that PBS should set up a television channel focusing on civil society and civic participation and engagement, providing opportunities for programmes edited by different political parties, civil society groups and NGOs.
“This would increase pluralism by granting television broadcasting access to other voices within the community without the need to own or manage a television station with prohibitive running costs,” the report’s authors note.