To own or not to own, that is the question. The owners referred to are political parties. The objects owned are radio and television stations.

The subject is up again for discussion after the commercially-owned Lovin Malta decided to challenge in court ownership by political parties – as if such parties are children of a lesser god than the father of businesspeople.

Undoubtedly, this is a very good publicity stunt if there ever was one for Lovin Malta  but in my opinion it is not much more than that.

Propaganda machines

Are the political stations behaving as genuine journalistic media outlets or as propaganda tools? Unfortunately, they behave more as propaganda machines than as journalistic outlets. The amount of manipulation that exists is revolting and is to be severely criticised and condemned.

Truth be told there are mitigating factors. The political agenda of a political station is loud and clear. They deceive only those who want to be deceived. If one tracks the audience surveys published by the Broadcasting Authority one notices that, over the years, the political radio stations lost audiences to the commercial stations.

Last July survey by the BA showed that over 100,000 of Labour voters did not watch One TV and 114,000 of PN voters did not bother to watch Net TV.

On the other hand, the true agenda – political or otherwise – of several commercially-owned media is not always clear. Nice words and the enunciation of great principles uttered by owners are sometimes just a flimsy excuse for compromises made for the sake of commercial survival.

Today, for example, the line between journalism and covert advertising is becoming too blurred for comfort.

Is the remedy against manipulation on political stations the enacting of a law stating that political parties should not own radio or TV stations and would such a law, if enacted, solve the problem? My answer to both parts of the question is in the negative.

History is a great teacher

If we perhaps look at the reason why in Malta political parties own broadcasting stations, we will have a hint as to the possible solution of the problem.

We need a media law which reflects the needs of the current and continuously changing digital media landscape

It was the rampant manipulation on Xandir Malta in the 1970s and 1980s and the dereliction of duty on the part of the Broadcasting Authority that made the PN promise the granting of broadcasting licences to political parties.

Today, PBS Ltd is nowhere near the depravity of Xandir Malta but it is still believed to be (with more than a modicum of fair reasoning) that it is biased in favour of the government.

I believe that part of the solution to the current problem lies with a radical restructuring of PBS. Different countries have adopted different models to ascertain a voice for political parties. Lottizazione in Italy and pillarisation in the Netherlands are two possible models. I have proposed in other fora that we should seriously study the Swedish structure as a possible way forward.

In Sweden, the public broadcaster is owned by an independent foundation. The foundation’s board consists of 13 politicians, representing the political parties in the Riksdag. The foundation, in turn, appoints the members of the broadcaster’s board.

The broadcaster used to be financed by the licence fee but, since January 1, 2019, it is financed by an individual public service fee paid by everyone over 18 and collected via the tax system.

Let’s think outside the box

I am not saying we adopt this model hook, line and sinker. I am saying we should think outside the box to try and find a solution. As long as political parties and, I add, the public, believe that PBS is biased politically there is no way that political parties would relinquish their stations or the public come to believe that such a move would be fair.

Another part of the solution would be the radical restructuring of the Broadcasting Authority. When the BA was set up in the 1960s its board was made of representatives of different sectors of society and not just political parties. It is high time that the BA’s board once more reflects a wide spectrum of society as it has evolved and is now constituted.

Even current legislation would give such a board the power to curb the excesses of the political stations. It could see to it that while these stations would have a bias (every media outlet has bias) they would be penalised if they manipulate, lie, indulge in character assassinations etc. It is still possible to do all this with current regulations.

The current attack on the politically-owned broadcasting media is lost in a time warp. If a newspaper and a news website are not bound by any legal proviso for impartiality or balance, why should radio and TV – which arguably are less powerful – be so obliged?

We need a media law which reflects the needs of the current and continuously changing digital media landscape and not one that reflects the media landscape of the pre-digital era.

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