State funding of the national broadcaster has grown by at least 25 per cent over three years.

Figures provided by Public Broadcasting Services, which runs Television Malta (TVM), Radio Malta and its affiliates, including an online portal, show that the annual subvention grew from €3.2 million in 2014 to more than €4 million in 2017.

According to the figures, obtained following a request under the Freedom of Information Act, some TV programmes of a purely commercial nature were also being funded by the State, though it is not clear whether this is in line with the National Broadcasting Policy. The policy lays down that only non-commercially viable programmes of a social, culture and educational nature can be partially or fully funded by taxpayers. However, a National Audit Office investigation in 2010 revealed this was not always the case.

The data provided by PBS shows that while prior to 2013, under a Nationalist administration, Xarabank, the national TV’s most popular programme according to audience surveys, was afforded most public funds, subventions for the programme were cut drastically by the new administration.

Inversely, more public funds were channelled to other current affairs/discussion programmes, particularly those produced by MaltaToday managing editor Saviour Balzan.

During the 2012/2013 TV schedule, more than €400,000 in public funds had been dedicated to Xarabank, the amount dropping to €54,000 by 2016/2017, the last schedule for which data is available.

On the other hand, Mr Balzan’s Reporter, which had received €749 in public funds in the 2012/2013 schedule, was allocated a subvention amounting to €79,836, €168,890 and €83,262 in the following three years.

Mr Balzan started producing a new discussion programme – Xtra – as from the 2016/2017 schedule for which PBS allocated almost €78,000.

Another discussion programme that saw an increase in public funding was Brian Hansford’s Realtà, while Reno Bugeja’s Dissett retained a constant public funding of about €50,000.

Mr Balzan was also tasked with the production of two other TVM programmes, cooking show Gourmet and Dwarna, a socio-psychological discussion presented by his sister, Mariella. Both programmes also got State funding.

The data shows that during the 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 scheduled, TimesTalk, an Allied Newspapers production, was allocated €84,000 and €103,000 of public funds. Though it was the most followed current affairs discussion programme on TVM, it was axed from the PBS schedule just a few weeks after the Panama Papers scandal broke.

Senior PBS sources said that while most of the public funds were dedicated to cultural, educational and informative programmes, there were instances where the system whereby public funds were allocated was not as transparent as one would have liked it to be.

“It is also true that, in the case of current affairs programmes, funds are used by the powers that be to pull some strings. However, this will always be the case as long as PBS is controlled by the government of the day,” they added.

After the 2010 investigation, the National Audit Office had made a series of recommendations to ensure more transparency in the allocation of public service obligation funds to PBS.

These included better-defined rules and the need for the State broadcaster to endeavour to be more realistic in estimating revenue and the cost of each programme to be funded by taxpayers. However, the PBS sources said that “the situation has not improved since the NAO recommendations”.

ivan.camilleri@timesofmalta.com

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