I am no fan of arguments for cross-party consensus. I appreciate that negotiation can be productive where confrontation is not. But in political discourse, disagreement is essential to ensure transparency in argumentation, an honest pursuit for alternatives, and the avoidance of collusion between political forces at the expense of the public.
A dialectical process is necessary for a functioning democracy that challenges itself and struggles for a way out of the status quo. Admittedly the way out is not always an improvement. But if one wants a guarantee of stagnation mutually assured applause is just what you need. Unanimous standing ovations and operatically enthusiastic cheering is for Kim Il Sung Square on May Day, not for a democracy.
There are obviously limits to this. For the dialectic to be productive it must be confined within a broadly agreed set of rules. So Labour and Nationalists will disagree on most aspects of policy but will agree to give up power when they lose an election and not to resort to violence to enforce their point of view. We did have episodes when Labour crossed those lines but that is history.
We are still to this day however plagued by our colonial pre-democratic methods in some other respects and the dysfunctional consequences are manifest in the abnormality of our democracy.
Immediately after 1987, newly emerging from the coldest, darkest years of our post-war history, the new PN government set about stripping itself of powers of authoritarian control it inherited from its MLP predecessor.
They granted Maltese citizens the right to petition European courts against their government in cases of human rights breaches. They re-established constitutional review of their own powers by the independent courts. They set up independent corruption watchdogs. They re-established civil service autonomy. The list goes on and on.
But the biggest divestment of political control was the opening up of broadcast media that were up to that point in colonial control. It is hard to imagine a time now where people could not express their opinions by typing on their phone. Information was mostly distributed over radio and TV and that was monopolised by the state. The PN was silenced and censored brutally until 1987. And then, when it was its turn, it paid back the favour by liberalising broadcasting.
The opening up of the media landscape was such a revolutionary step for a country still colonised in its mind if not in its constitution that even now, so many years later, it is hard to criticise the authors of that move for their glaring errors we still suffer from to this day.
Since those heady days of media liberalisation, the political parties have entrenched themselves in a 3-decade face-off over TV and radio. They have locked themselves in a stalemate very early on in this conflict, taking turns at pointless attempts at going over only to be pointlessly mowed down. Every so often, from the comfort of their headquarters, one set of leaders orders their media to undertake a superhuman effort to push their drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin. And then they’re pushed back.
The most obvious frustration in all this is the utter futility of the expense in energy and resources committed by parties to keep up their arsenal of broadcast and print media. They employ dozens of people and spend hundreds of thousands in space and equipment in an activity which should not be the core business of a political party, but an ancillary nice to have. They do so at the obvious expense of their core duty of nurturing think tanks and developing policies to benefit the country.
When the PN first set up Radio 101, its genuine zeal for democratization and the normalisation of our society meant that it saw the radio frequency as a form of insurance rather than a goebbelsian propaganda engine. So much so that when it first started broadcasting, the station’s rule was not to have any politics outside the news hour.
When Labour opened its TV station, the PN preferred to stay away from the tube declaring political TV as an excessive intrusion into people’s ordinary lives and an occupation of space better served by private, commercial enterprise.
In the blame game after the 1996 loss, not having a TV station was the generally accepted (albeit entirely groundless) explanation and that was soon rectified with an elegant alternative to the crass Super One TV.
Since then the two parties spent immeasurable resources in these broadcasting nuclear arsenals capable of nothing but mutually assured destruction. There is no hope of productive political discourse from either medium. They produce their version of reality without filter and counterpoint. There are no gatekeepers between spin-doctors and the broadcast. Journalists and mouthpieces are one and the same. There’s no pressure to counter-argue. There’s simply no real debate, no dialectic, no way out of the rut of auto-persuasion.
Political parties are essential, vital, indispensable components of a functioning democracy. But only if they do their job properly. Their job is articulating political projects, stress-testing them within the membership and the wider-community, mobilising support, recruiting, mentoring and training leaders, crystallising discourse and legislative deliberation.
That job is different and distinct from the job of the media, an equally essential, vital and indispensable component of a functioning democracy. The media’s job is most definitely not to mobilise support for any political program or other. It is to question that program, analyse it, pull it apart and back together again, confront it with alternative views, give voice to objection, throw light on dark corners dropped out of the political agenda of any or all political parties.
Yes of course we have independent newspapers, but they are not the future of media. And we can all see for ourselves that individual youtubing, facebooking and tweeting alone, without the professional dedicated exercise of the critical functions I describe will not serve our democracy to the extent it needs and deserves.
We are left with parties who neglect their core functions to occupy the functions of others that can only be fulfilled if the two are kept strictly apart.
The crowding and suffocating of critical independent discourse in the broadcast sectors bludgeoned by the bullying monopoly of party-controlled and resourced infrastructure has a direct consequence on the intellectual abilities of the owners of our democracy: voters.
We speak today of obtaining new civil liberties because, happily, people can remarry if their prior attempts at bliss failed or marry the person of their choice irrespective of their gender. These are liberating developments that effect substantial portions of our community.
But we have not yet started the fight for the civil right and civil liberty of thinking critically as free individuals endowed with the exercise ability of thinking for themselves. Political parties owning the broadcast airwaves think for us. Our mind is set in the comfort zone of either black or white and our thinking muscles have atrophied. In their place our thumb abductors have grown thick on the steroids of our social media commentaries.
I’m not going to don a bandana and start waving red flags. I don’t think there’s a power conspiracy, a machine we should all be enraged against.
I think political parties as much as electors are drugged to these political realities out of habit. We are all addicted to it and cannot seem to find a way out.
Political parties are trapped in an arms race, somehow funding a nuclear arsenal they do not need and do not want. And no one is more acutely aware than they are that this is not the way things should work but realpolitik holds them back from facing these realities.
Let us take a realpolitik view of this situation, shall we? The reality is the PN has been financially bankrupted by the crippling burden of sustaining its media. The Labour Party appears to be very much on top of its financial requirements not because it’s particularly smarter or its members are richer but we all think, I expect even those among us who would not admit it out loud, it played and it plays most foully for it.
There is an inequality of arms in a nuclear environment of mutually assured destruction. And where the balance of power breaks, the theory of mutual deterrent falls apart.
Our poorly served democracy risks becoming entirely dysfunctional at this rate.
The solution clearly is a process of controlled disarmament. Political parties have an obligation to nurture critical thinking and to submit themselves to the scrutiny and criticism of the media rather than continue to own it and control it as extensions of themselves.
I am sensitive to the notion that political parties, as much as any other group of people in society, have a right to exercise their freedom of expression. My argument is that given their size and dominance in our society they also have the responsibility to exercise that right with circumspection.
When the PN took power in 1987 it had the legal right to continue to monopolise the media. Instead it gave that right up in the wider interest of building a liberal society. That was but the beginning of our long walk of Europeanisation and democratisation of this country and we are nowhere near the end of that road.
Do I have any realistic hope that a Labour party led by Joseph Muscat, brought up in a political party where politicking and vicious media spin are one and the same thing, would agree to start a process of divestment of political media? No I do not. Nor that this is likely to happen after he leaves because effectively the entire breed of Labour politicians coming up the ranks are Super One reporters on early retirement.
I rather expect them to exploit the PN’s vulnerabilities: a long-standing and deep-set political culture within the PN of embarrassment of the outlandish excesses of totalitarian propaganda; a manifest financial disadvantage; the fact that media people who are sympathetic to its political mind-set are just as likely to prefer to work outside the party as within it.
But demands for missing civil liberties never start when they are already likely to be met. We cannot expect long-standing structural paralysis to give way without first confronting the fact that these are realities we are under no obligation to continue to expect.
The basic civil liberty we need to ask for is having a normal democracy: a plurality of views, honest debate, media scrutiny and political parties who focus on getting their job done properly. And leaving journalism to the professionals.
The PN unilaterally, even surprisingly to those on the other side who measured it by their own standards, led the Europeanisation and liberalisation of Malta in the 25 years after 1987. I can only argue that it’s time to start working again.