Last autumn, the editorial board of PBS published its annual report. Its title, The Ethos Of Public Broadcasting Under Pressure, suggests unease. Its content, however, indicates unease is for optimists. The report spurns no sign of progress, does not let the faintest ray of hope go unnoticed. But its final analysis suggests we need a new term of evaluation: perhaps, "constructive condemnation".

While detailing various improvements that have been made over the past year, the board still concluded that, in terms of public service, which should be its distinguishing feature, TVM was hardly distinguishable from its rivals Net and Super1.

It fulfilled the letter of its core public service obligation (CPSO) and extended public service obligation (EPSO): the national broadcasting policy stipulates that 50-55 per cent of its programming should fall under CPSO (e.g. news) and EPSO (e.g. discussion programmes, Maltese-language drama). But the board noted that too much of this programming was broadcast during low viewing times.

And PBS offered less of this kind of programming than Net and Super1. Moreover, it offered more commercial programmes, and the least number of in-house productions. Admittedly, PBS led in quality. But the weak public service provision is undeniable. In some areas, like drama, there even was some backsliding.

This state of affairs is probably to be explained, according to the report, by a combination of four reasons.

First, it is not clear that the Lm500,000 given by the government for EPSO programmes are enough: It is not even clear how that amount was decided upon.

Second, even if the sum were adequate (with no study to back it, who can tell?), it is not even clear if the money was being spent exclusively on EPSO programming.

Third, it is not clear if PBS collects advertising revenue efficiently.

Fourth, in the restrained language of the report, "it is not clear to everyone what the mission of a public broadcaster is".

I suspect one reason why people might not be "clear" about this is because they are not being helped to think of themselves as broadcasters nurtured by their institution to give a public service.

Take the newsroom - since the report itself identifies balanced, impartial news and current affairs programmes as "the greatest contribution that PBS can give in the current Maltese mediascape". The report notes several real improvements that have been made over the past year. What makes them striking, however, is the context in which this work had to be carried out.

The long period without a news manager is public knowledge. But I was shocked to learn that PBS journalists cannot check their e-mail or the internet from the computer terminal on which they write their reports. There is no effective system in place for late-night news filming, nor for routine reporting from Brussels, Parliament or the law courts.

TVM journalists often do not get to control the film footage that accompanies - and co-narrates - the story they have written up: how can we have news in TV language? And because of the inadequacies of the archive catalogues, there is unnecessary waste of time in looking up footage.

The report concludes that unless there is substantial investment in technology and personnel, and a "much larger" budget, the newsroom will not be in a position to produce good quality current affairs programmes. And without such programmes, PBS will not fulfil the spirit of the EPSO.

Since the report was published, the chairman of the editorial board, Fr Joe Borg, resigned his post and joined the Ministry of Culture, which is responsible for broadcasting, as a consultant. I would assume that he strongly encouraged the holding of the public consultation meeting about EPSO that Minister Francis Zammit Dimech will hold today and that Fr Borg will use his new post to press for the report's various recommendations to be put into effect.

However, there is one recommendation that the report does not make: that the newsroom will only project a public service ethos if its personnel feel they have the strongest possible backing of their institution to investigate and probe on behalf of the public. Perhaps the editorial board thought it could go without saying. But it should be said, particularly in the light of the report's own observation that PBS journalists still tend to shy away from hard news investigation.

One good thing that Net and Super1 journalists enjoy is the support of their institutions - against harassing libel suits and other kinds of pressure - when conducting investigative journalism. Of course, these investigations are conducted as part of a "party service obligation", not a public service. But the protection and assurance is real. If only PBS journalists could have it.

Will they get it? I do not think so. But at least let the record show that we know what is missing.

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