I remember when radio stations were first liberalised in Malta. I remember Michael Frendo piloting the law through parliament. Eons ago now. But there was another eon that had just ended when the Nationalist Party was hounded like a para-military organisation on suspicion of possessing equipment it could use to communicate without the regime eavesdropping. And when it had to resort to iron-curtain Voice of America tactics by broadcasting its message from Sicily.
Upon being returned to government, the PN returned the favour by granting the Labour Party a radio station license before anyone else. It handed its opponents the whip they would use against it for 25 years.
Then liberalisation brought about the opening of commercial radio stations, even those unattached and unaffiliated to the established powers of the time. It was an exciting time where radio was rediscovered here like it was the 1930s all over again. People would stay up for late night radio chat shows. Well, I did anyway.
There was another piece of magic that came with liberalisation in the early 1990s. The radio phone-in. Warhol’s fifteen minutes had come to pass. Everyone and anyone could be on the radio if only for some time. At first it was a manic bargain hunt of people answering absurdly simple questions in exchange for gifts and knickknacks provided by sponsors still excited by the new advertising medium. The national sport was collective cringing at repeating the worst answers to the silliest quiz questions imaginable.
Presenter: Name the four evangelists.
Contestant: Give me a clue.
Presenter: One of them was John. Can you name the other three?
Contestant: Paul, George and Ringo.
You get the idea.
But the real revolution came when people were given a phone-number to call and regale the nation with their wisdom about anything and everything, particularly of course, that science that requires no expertise, politics.
Generations submitted to the thought control pre Die Wende, stepped out of a world where the state could conceivably order a Pharaonic ban on the pronunciation of the name Eddie Fenech Adami from the airwaves to a world where people could grab their phone and speak their mind for all to hear.
Nineteen eighty-seven was when the dark suppression of Xandir Malta had ended. Nineteen ninety was when the airwaves were opened up. By 1992, people were calling Super One in their thousands asking “doqqli tal-bidla ħi!”. That was one of the supreme ironies of history, when Labour adopted a poor translation of The Scorpion’s classic rock ditty about the collapse of Socialism as its campaign theme song. Funny old world.
But that liberating feeling of democratisation was soured by a general sense that a civilising edifice was crumbling under the weight of barbarian invasions. When it was not mouthing official state propaganda or running reruns of Ġensna – that melodramatic self-pitying piece of apocryphal hagiographic drivel set to electric guitars and bongos – pre-1987 radio still carried residual nostalgia for times when broadcasting was taken seriously by professionals who saw it their duty to be a civilising and entertaining contributor to the community’s culture.
Now that the “people” had the microphone it was open season for mindless anger, invective, prejudice, circular argumentation, polarisation and a blanket conspiracy to get absolutely nowhere with debate except where it first started.
If, as the Romans put it perhaps in an entirely different context, the voice of the people is the voice of the gods, than the gods clearly had better revise their Aristotle.
For this is the critical point of pain. There can be no doubt that freedom of expression is preferable to its suppression. But when what is expressed is so hopelessly unedifying and, what’s worse, contributes to deeper entrenchment of illogical and baseless views, must one continue to smile and consider all opinions as having equal merit.
And what must one do in the midst of all the noise to find the space and the time to argue cogently and attempt to persuade on the basis of facts. In a world of pure inventions what, if anything, can be accepted as fact?
The radio phone-in show has all but died out.
Its place has been taken by Facebook groups, anonymous trolling on comments pages of blogs and news-sites, tweets by profiles with generic names and pictures of random cartoon characters.
The new liberation of internet communication, also liberates a fresh wave of barbarian cackling hags armed with bloody pitch-forks. For every thought through argument there’s a hundred trolls repeating inanities aimed at rubbishing the speaker rather than what is said.
Our modern busy lives are used to justify an unwillingness to read, think and answer, angrily and loudly if need be but by addressing the issues soundly and logically.
The thing with barbarian invasions is that they do not really change much. There is no golden age in the past where everyone was wrapped in togas talking sense until everyone left the agora happy their views have been absorbed fully by the crowd.
It really is a constant battle to keep our nose above the rapid river of noise that seeks to drown us. It is a constant battle not to allow oneself to be swept by the noise, indulge in it and indulge it, chasing the gratification of applause for having said nothing but still managed to touch the nerve of anger that many want tickled all the time.
Flattering and indulging the people’s whims of today is a dangerous game even for the flatterer. Views change. Quickly. Strongly.
Robespierre too ended up on the guillotine.