The Broadcasting Authority has upheld an impartiality complaint filed against ONE, in a decision that could pave the way for a dramatic change in how party-owned stations are regulated.
The regulator concluded that ONE was wrong to not report on an ADPD press conference about the hospital privatisation scandal and ordered the Labour-owned media station to report the ADPD statement
A ONE newscaster did so during Thursday's news bullettin, though the read-out also included a statement that the government's "strong steps" against Steward Health Care have since rendered much of what ADPD said "irrelevant".
It is the first time that the Broadcasting Authority has ruled that a station owned by a political party broke the rules by not reporting another party’s perspective. Historically, such complaints have targeted the national broadcaster, PBS.
The decision comes weeks after a constitutional court ruling that media analysts say could prove to be a watershed moment in Maltese media regulation.
In that decision, the court said that a constitutional requirement to report the news impartially applied to all broadcasters - including politically owned ones.
Party-owned stations have traditionally argued that their respective biases effectively cancel each other out.
A separate case focused specifically on that impartiality issue is still ongoing.
ADPD: This was a test case
ADPD chairperson Carmel Cacopardo told Times of Malta that the party intended to press on following its BA victory.
“This was a test case,” Cacopardo said. “We will now be filing other such complaints when necessary.”
The party has already asked the regulator to issue impartiality directives in light of the court ruling.
Cacopardo said that a station executive at Nationalist Party-owned NET had acknowledged the station’s failure to report the ADPD press conference and pledged to do so.
“ONE never responded to our complaint, so we proceeded to the Broadcasting Authority,” he said.
ONE, through its lawyer Ramona Attard, argued that it was under no obligation to report on the ADPD press conference as its editors enjoyed editorial discretion.
Attard also argued that the constitutional requirement for broadcasting to be impartial was introduced at a time when no party-owned stations existed. The Broadcasting Act gave the regulator the discretion to interpret that broadly, ONE’s lawyer argued.
In his submissions, Cacopardo argued that ONE systematically ignored the party’s statements and press conferences – the station had last reported on the party back in September, he said. Citing last month’s court decision, Cacopardo argued that editorial discretion did not give a broadcaster the right to breach impartiality laws.
The BA ruled in ADPD’s favour, saying it was “hard to understand” how ONE’s editors had decided that a press conference about a major issue like the hospital privatisation scandal was not worth reporting.
It also concluded that ONE was regularly ignoring ADPD, saying “the facts show that the station systematically failed to broadcast ADPD statements in the past months.”
The BA said that news bulletins must be factual and newsworthy and cited section four of subsidiary legislation 350.14 as it ruled in ADPD’s favour.
That subsidiary legislation lays out the standards that broadcasters must adhere to when airing news bulletins and current affairs programmes.
The section cited by the BA concerns the “accuracy and impartiality” of news bulletins and spells out that the regulator should “secure due impartiality” by broadcasters covering political events.
It also notes that “it shall not be permissible for the broadcaster to claim that news bulletins on other channels will ensure that opposing views will be heard.”