In our recent book Reforming Malta’s Media System (Midsea Books), we made the case for a radical reform of the broadcasting set-up. There should be one regulator, boards should represent different sectors of society not political parties; PBS should not be owned by the government. We also made concrete proposals about the future of political parties in broadcasting. On all this some other time.
In the light of the recent constitutional court’s judgment, we ask the following questions. Should impartiality in respect of matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy be imposed on all broadcasters? Or is this best suited for the public broadcaster alone? How do we ensure that broadcasters, especially those owned by political parties, do journalism rather than propaganda?
The 1964 constitution justly demanded balanced and impartial coverage of controversies and public policy in a context where there was no external pluralism, since broadcasting was monopolised by Rediffusion.
The media environment is today radically different from that prevailing in the 1960s. According to a MISCO (2022) survey, every day: 95 per cent of the Maltese browse the internet; 85 per cent access online social networks; 72 per cent read a news website while 69 per cent watch TV and 50 per cent listen to the radio. Newspapers are read by only eight per cent.
Web-based news media which are more popular than broadcasting as well as the print media are not bound by impartiality. It would send press freedom and democracy to the grave had the constitution to generally oblige all these media to provide balanced and impartial coverage of political controversy and public policy.
PBS is the public service media and consequently it remains important for it to be constitutionally bound to provide balanced and impartial coverage of controversies and current public policy. Since other broadcasters are not public service media, it becomes questionable as to why they too need to be constitutionally bound to do so.
However, they should not be exonerated from adhering to the basic rules of responsible journalism. The Broadcasting Act, in fact, states that “all news given in the programmes (in whatever form) is presented with due accuracy”.
PBS should be bound by due impartiality and the rules of responsible journalism but demanding that other broadcasters adhere to due impartiality, consequently imposing internal pluralism, would in the case of private owned broadcasters impose upon them a style of journalism which is not up to the state to choose.
The war in the Balkans, for example, pushed Martin Bell away from the BBC style of impartial and balanced journalism towards a journalism of attachment understood as “journalism that cares as well as knows; … that will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right or wrong, the victim and the aggressor”.
What has disintegrated within political party owned media is their adherence to the tenets of responsible journalism
The famous CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour, during a 2016 lecture said that the media, in its coverage of Trump, got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality and crucially, truth. “I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalising the truth.”
Literature speaks of advocacy journalism, wherein journalists “believe that good journalism is accomplished by taking a stand and, in that light, they declare their bias in an open and transparent fashion”. This type of journalism has been a staple in Mediterranean countries, including Malta. It is practised by opinion-oriented organisations such as political parties, the Church and trade unions, which use the media to communicate their particular point of view.
Lately, commercially owned media, which also have a point of view to make and, thus, generally allow limited internal pluralism, have developed a kind of advocacy journalism pushing for civic activism. This advocacy is different from the unbridled propaganda of political media.
During the divorce and hunting referenda, journalists were openly advocating for one side against the other. In the dying months of 2020, several news organisations joined civil society’s call for the resignation of Joseph Muscat.
What has over the years disintegrated within political party owned media is their adherence to the tenets of responsible journalism. In fact, often enough during news programmes they have chosen blatant propaganda over responsible advocacy journalism, which is still accurate, truthful and fair.
To meet society’s today’s needs, PBS must remain bound by both a constitutional obligation for due impartiality as well as responsible journalism. This may be largely imposed by law and implemented by a Broadcasting Authority aware and willing to perform its function efficiently.
Meanwhile, political party-owned media should be expected to meet the demands of responsible journalism while choosing advocacy journalism. This requires much more than laws. It requires that political maturity which is capable of distinguishing between journalism and propaganda and which is willing to change from making gains purely through polarised politics.
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