What is happening to journalism in Malta? On October 16, 2017, we know that the most repulsive act in the living memory of anybody involved in the local press happened. In the brazen light of day to boot. Daphne Caruana Galizia was callously and sensationally (since presumably this was a murder with a message) blown to pieces.

Shock, anger, bewilderment. These were all natural emotions. I was the editor of this newspaper for nine years and these feelings singularly and simultaneously gushed through my veins. Other than holding out hope that justice in the fullest sense will be done, what else can one say? Further adjectives and expressions of condemnation are superfluous. Bomb against keyboard is simply unfathomable in a civilised nation.

Except that it’s not. To those who committed this heinous crime, the notion was chillingly fathomable. They, and the people who applauded them, are barbarians without redemption. But perhaps even more shocking, to me at least – after all, what else can one expect from barbarians? – has been to observe those who consider themselves as the civilised half of Malta mimicking, albeit differently, barbaric traits.

Many were those who held up placards emblazoned with ‘Freedom of Expression’ in the wake of the murder in a moment of timely solidarity. Sadly, however, it seems few have taken the time to contemplate what those hallowed words really mean.

Freedom of expression is not carte blanche to say whatever you like. It’s about living in an environment where everyone can state their opinion unencumbered. And, as astounding as this may sound to the social media mob, this opinion does not necessarily have to be shared by everyone else.

No one, however, should ever be free to fabricate or distort facts: not a politician hiding behind parliamentary immunity, nor a commenter behind a fake Facebook profile, and certainly not somebody who describes themselves as journalist and professes to provide the public with news.

In the scramble over the past year to fill the very particular media space skilfully cultivated by Daphne, we have witnessed a mild proliferation of ‘activist journalists’ hastily moulded in her own image who have been utilising a number of springboards – including their own – to enlighten the great unwashed on their version of truth, justice and the Maltese way.

From their singular platforms, they speak authoritatively on behalf of an ungrateful nation to anybody who is prepared to listen or give coverage to their mildly exhibitionist yarn. Interestingly, however, despite projecting a veneer of polished independence, they struggle to extricate themselves from the sticky trap that she astutely avoided: that old bugbear of being involved in an official capacity with a political party.

Journalists cannot be permitted to confuse their audience by passing off opinion as fact

I’m not suggesting that occupying a political post is a bar to the journalistic field. But, as the UK’s George Osborne is often reminded in his modern incarnation as editor of the Evening Standard, such fragile baggage – unless delicately handled – is prone to trammel up bitter doses of consequence.

This political breed inexorably carries it with them into the journalistic arena – and certain chameleons oscillate at will between the two – which prompts those with memories that stretch further than 12 months to wonder, for example, how their burning consciences failed to spur them into public-spirited action when proposals and scandals involving bribery, corruption and money laundering were popping up right under their State-powdered noses. Or why some of them very conveniently gloss over having occupied political posts in the first place in the misplaced hope that no one will remember.

The inescapable reality for them is that the spin they do lives long after their political career no matter how hard they try to airbrush it from our common consciousness.

For clarity’s sake, I am not for one moment trying to equate independence with impartiality. Journalists are fully entitled to hold firm opinions and heaven forbid were that not the case. But irrespective of their medium or viewpoint, they also have a duty to present facts objectively: reporting faithfully, featuring both sides, and providing fair context. Journalists cannot be permitted to confuse their audience by passing off opinion as fact or arbitrarily choosing to ignore happenings or statements that inconvenience their pre-programmed narrative.

These fundamental pillars, today more than ever before, run far deeper than professional ethics and etiquette – for it is the credibility that emanates from these sacrosanct principles that will ultimately distinguish the invaluable journalism, that every society needs, from the social media mire and ensure, along with elusive revenue of course, the fourth estate has a future.

None of the above is intended to absolve the Labour administration of its shortcomings in this field. It was presented with a golden opportunity after Daphne’s murder to take steps that could strengthen the media, which sadly faces a battle for financial survival; however, apart from belatedly enacting a much-needed updated press law, what it actually did was go down the road of suppression. 

That much is visible. More insidious, however, is the threat posed by activists wearing journalists’ hats and whose objective is not the promotion of journalism, but to bring about a political outcome. When that mission is accomplished, they will quickly return to the myopic fold and leave real journalists – if there will be any left by then – to pick up the discredited pieces of their profession.


This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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