All research shows that TVM run by PBS is still the most followed TV station in Malta. One of the reasons is that, thanks to the hefty subsidies given by the government, it can produce programmes of better quality than the other stations. Besides, it broadcasts the best football matches on its second station.
But are you – the viewer and the taxpayer who generously subsidise the station – being well-served? The answer to that question lies in the answer to a second question: is PBS a public service or a state broadcaster?
There is an enormous difference between the two. Public service broadcasting serves you and the audiences’ needs as citizens. Its journalism should, for example, keep the government on its toes. It should also serve your need for high-quality entertainment.
State broadcasting, on the other hand, serves mainly the government’s interests. It dishes out government propaganda that tries to manipulate and not enlighten the people.
Last year, in October, the Centre for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) published a study in which it categorised the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) as a “broadcasting means controlled by the government”. This is the worst of the seven categories contained in this report.
The main reason for this was that the study found that the editorial aspect of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is government-controlled.
The director of the centre, Marius Dragomir, said that editorial control by the government is the major problem faced by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
This is not the only international study criticising PBS. A report, published in July 2021 by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), says the editorial independence of PBS is threatened by government influence.
These are not organisations run or influenced by the Nationalist Party. These are international centres.
If I do really need to give examples of bias and manipulation, I will furnish just one. PBS had the audacity to censor Pope Francis and leave out from its coverage on prime-time news what the pope said about fighting corruption, honesty in public governance and the degradation of the environment. If to serve the government they are ready to censor the pope, imagine what else they censor.
This is not a gripe of the PN. The victim is civil society, active citizens wanting to protect their locality and your need (and right) for fair and unbiased information and news. Your right for all this can only be served if PBS is more than one step removed from government control. Otherwise, the editorial independence of public broadcasting is not guaranteed and neither is a healthy democratic environment in our country.
Public service broadcasting should keep the government on its toes- Graham Bencini
We have to strengthen the structures that distance PBS from government control.
We can examine other systems and models in other countries not to copy them lock, stock and barrel, but, if need be, to adapt them to our own requirements.
I will mention a few examples.
In Italy, there was a system called Sistema di Lottizzazione. Each of the three main political parties, before the implosion brought about by the scandal Mani Pulite, controlled a different TV station.
Does this type of system reflect the sociocultural changes that our country has experienced? Does it guarantee serious and professional journalism? Does it give guarantees to voices which are not part of the major parties, for example the civil society, to also be heard?
The BBC, for example, was removed from government control by means of a royal charter. The system works as certainly nobody can accuse the BBC of being controlled by the government. The Conservative government frequently criticises it strongly.
In the book Navigating the Maltese mediascape, published in 2019 by Maltese academics Fr Joe Borg and Mary Anne Lauri, there is a proposal for the adoption of a version of the Swedish model. Here, public broadcasting falls under the responsibility of a foundation which is composed of the different elements in the country, including political ones, and it is financed by specific taxes.
I am certainly not advocating a new tax because I am certain that a different method of public financing can be identified. The overriding objective is that the organisation is kept at a distance from the government.
I am not adopting any model. I am simply saying that there are other models which could give us guidance if you, and not the government, really want to be served by the public service broadcaster. Democracy in our country depends on this.
Graham Bencini is PN spokesperson on broadcasting and sport.
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