In 1960, five per cent of Americans said they’d be upset if their child married someone from the opposite political party. In 2010, the number was 40 per cent. In 2020... well, you know about 2020.

In between those years, Groucho Marx quipped that all people are born alike – except Republicans and Democrats. And so he might. People could feel the gulf growing from decade to decade.

At least Americans know that political polarisation isn’t something they can just pin to a single factor, like the media. They can tell a factor can be both cause and symptom. They recognise multiple factors at play.

The media’s financial crisis leads to a vicious cycle, where the business model thrives on sensational news and outrage. And some of the outrage is real: fed by changes in the economy, reduction in the quality of life, rise in inequality and massive distrust in the political and media classes.

Turn to Malta, however, and, somehow, political polarisation can be pinned exclusively to the party-owned broadcasting stations, One and Net. The multiple factors that apply to other societies don’t seem to apply to us.

There’s no room for the idea that, perhaps, polarisation in Malta may be the result of a particular combi­nation of features found in other societies experiencing growing radical divisions – say, the UK, Italy, France, Hungary or the US itself. In this case, our predicament would be a variant of a current globalised form of politics rather than an insular idiosyncrasy.

Never mind. Let’s look at One and Net. Propagandists? Yes. Spinners of fake news? Often enough.

Rival pedlars of two completely different universes, Utopia and Zutopia? Fair comment. Unique in being party-owned? Just about.

Therefore, surely, uniquely responsible for the stridency of our divisions? Not so fast.

This time last year, the two stations between them commanded just over a quarter of the total viewing figures (with TVM at 35 per cent). And that was at a particularly turbulent time when a disgraced prime minister resigned and masses of people had just been out in the streets.

Now I have met my share of people who will swear that little green men have taken over the Grand Harbour if their favourite TV station says so. But even if all of these stations’ audience members are like that, it still accounts for only something between a quarter and a third of viewers (depending on the year).

The argument for special responsibility for polarisation is completely out of proportion. Somehow, the two stations are equally blamed even if One’s figures outstrip Net’s by two and a half times (last year) or six times (a few years ago). Anyone who argues that the two stations are responsible for polarisation must be prepared to allocate the proportion of blame, otherwise they’re not taking their own argument seriously.

Fair reporting and balance in the party-owned stations isn’t a pipe dream

Neither should we.

Don’t let politicians off the hook. But to blame polarisation and contemptuous division only on party pro­paganda is to close one eye to the massive shifts in votes at general elections in the past quarter century.

One and Net were born at the beginning of that era but they didn’t stop voters, as a whole, becoming more footloose. Votes shifted dramatically in 2013 and 2017. But there have been striking shifts since 1996.

We shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook, either.

Polarisation isn’t just party driven. Polarisation based on class, social status and race is rife, too. It’s not going away, even if One and Net close down tomorrow. It’s driven on social media.

None of this denies that our mediascape is seriously unwell. We lack a real public broadcaster whose newsroom can be trusted. Almost all private media houses are currently losing money. When real news is suppressed, or needs to be chased by understaffed newsrooms, it matters. Weak and out of date regulation matters too.

The response to this predicament cannot focus on just one factor. It needs to be three-pronged.

First, some of the solutions are necessarily long-term but we must not let that distract from what we can demand immediately.

Fair reporting and balance in the party-owned stations isn’t a pipe dream. It can be enforced under the current dispensation and it should be.

The PBS newsroom does need major investment. It does need to cease to be the State broadcaster and become, instead, a truly public broadcaster. We should insist that gets onto the political agenda of both parties of government.

But we can also insist that the Broadcasting Authority does its job now. We’d see instant improvement.

Second, we should be under no illusions that fixing the broadcasting balance will see the end of news silos. Not in the age of social media.

Most people don’t follow the news or discussion on TV. They get if off the social media, in selected clips, with the favoured sound bites, thanks to an algorithm that reinforces their news silo. The balance enforced on TV will not survive on YouTube.

What we need besides rules, therefore, is a higher norm that we demand from political parties. We can’t stop private or anonymous groups from mobbing or doxing journalists who break proper investigative stories, let alone private individuals who speak their mind on Facebook. But if these operations can be traced to public or party officials, then we can treat the matter as a scandal.

We know enough to be able to denounce the scandal today. Let’s raise the political cost of being caught running these operations, just as we have raised the political cost of dodgy party funding.

Finally, we can’t do much about the proliferation of sites and blogs offering fake news. But we can do more, immediately, to protect the reputation of regular news organisations.

Right now, the airline industry worldwide is in an understandable crisis. But you don’t see airlines react by attacking the reliability and safety of rivals. The airlines know that you cannot attack the safety of one airline without instilling fears about flying with anyone.

What applies to airlines counts for media houses. If they attack each other – no matter the background reason – they undermine trust in the entire news business. The sooner Maltese media houses realise this, the better off we all will be.

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