Since Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, unease about standards of journalism in Malta is finally rising to the surface. This concern has now spread beyond these shores.
Last week, eight of the largest world news organisations called on the European Commission to investigate the murder. These included The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, the BBC, The Financial Times, La Repubblica, Süddeutsche Zeitung and El País.
The organisations went a step further. They called for an investigation into the independence of the Maltese media, pointing out that this is the only EU country “that has such extensive ownership of the media by political parties”.
They are absolutely right. Malta is the only Member State where political parties directly own and control television newsrooms. Commentators in Malta have flagged this for years, so far without results. I myself co-authored a think-tank report in 2014 pushing for reform in broadcasting in Malta.
Television is the biggest problem. Despite the expansion of different media like the internet, television remains a main source of news in Malta, as it is globally. The management and regulation of television has a major impact on society, and is crucial to the proper functioning of democracy.
How have we ended up in this situation? We are still in a hangover from the 1980s. In those years, the news bulletin on the public broadcaster was not contradicted or counter-balanced by any other local station, since no other broadcaster was permitted to operate in Malta. A radio station was set up in Sicily by the opposition party, attempting to transmit an alternative version of the news.
A muddled decision of the early 1990s then allowed political parties to own television stations. This was a counter-reaction to having only one State-run station which was blatantly abused, promoting a one-sided political agenda. Pluralism in broadcasting was introduced, to move away from control of the news by one source.
The Broadcasting Act of 1991 led to the granting of private broadcasting licences to the two major political parties, which established radio and television stations. The Church also set up its own radio stations, but other private commercial television licences were issued later. This turned out to be the root of the current weakness in our system.
It established a strong party political presence in television, a situation which persists to this day. As a result, too many Maltese journalists are attached to media outlets owned by political parties. They investigate selected stories to fit a political agenda and cannot be relied upon to broadcast all the news.
Malta is the only Member State where political parties directly own and control television newsrooms
This affects the standards of journalism in Malta overall. Besides freedom of expression, we also need quality journalism. Our broadcasting scenario creates and perpetuates low standards. Journalists whose main focus is to propel their paymasters into political power are doing their readers a disservice. Instead of providing quality journalism, they become masters of spin. The media’s job, as the fourth estate, is to report any stories that the public should know, whoever they might upset or reward. One reason why Daphne enjoyed a huge following is because she was prepared to break big, uncomfortable stories.
This anomalous situation will remain hard to address until the public broadcaster is perceived to be free from undue government and ministerial influence, and until a wider range of independent private commercial television stations is financially sustainable.
It would be dangerous for the country to rely on a single television station for its local news. The existence of multiple newsrooms ensures pluralism. Pluralism in broadcasting is a vital tool for the proper functioning of democracy.
Strengthening the independence of the public broadcaster by making it less directly controlled by the government of the day is a crucial step. Credible changes must be introduced, eradicating the perception and the reality of political bias. More focus on media literacy in schools is also essential, to foster a more critical and informed society.
One new phenomenon on the media scene is the rise of citizen journalism. Everybody now takes photos on their smartphones as they witness events around them. These photos and comments shape the news when people send them to newspapers, or post them on social media or blogs.
But photos and comments are not enough. The stories must be put into context. They need to be supported by in-depth, honest reporting, holding those responsible to account. Stories need punch and insight. Journalists have the duty to dig deeper, not to regurgitate press releases or to parrot official party lines.
Public perception of the media has been shaken. To restore trust, a wider range of journalists must provide accurate, fair and investigative content. Major restructuring of media ownership in Malta is necessary to achieve this. But while standards and expectations have changed since the early 1990s, any proposed changes to the broadcasting sector must ensure that plurality in the provision of local news is not undermined.
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