I got this letter of complaint in my mailbox today:

A desperate call for impartial broadcasting on state-controlled media


I wonder why you keep failing us loyal readers and ordinary citizens with your silence when there’s a continuous scandal unfolding before our eyes – the continuous spin, fake news, disinformation and biased news presented to readers, listeners and viewers on the state-controlled media financed by us taxpayers.

Yesterday, the Broadcasting Authority reprimanded PBS News, headed by former PL media broadcaster and propagandist Norma Saliba. However, you failed to report anything about it (Jason Azzopardi uploaded the decision on Facebook).  Why is that?

I’m desperately calling for an impartial public broadcaster. Am I asking for too much?

Thank you.

I share the reader’s concern and the subject has come up, on this website a number of times. Public broadcasting is not any ordinary news service. It is part of the infrastructure of a country’s democracy and one that when manipulated in the way it is hampers the very functioning of our democracy.

I cannot apologise for not covering every news event on the island. I try my best but this is a one-man show and there’s so much I can write in a day. But of course, the reader is right. Perhaps because I do not rely on TVM for my information, because it is an institution I generally ignore, because its propaganda is so vile and obvious in a Pyongyang TV sort of way, this is one captured institution of the state I too often ignore.

The writer speaks about the upheld complaint by Jason Azzopardi. Dozens of these could be filed every day but the answer from the Broadcasting Authority too often is that the complainant is right and TVM has indeed been unfair, partial and biased in its reporting. But too much time would have passed for any remedy to be provided.

That’s often a matter of balance between government and opposition on matters of political controversy. But the state broadcaster should not merely be on the middle of the scales between two large parties.

It should provide space to minority views in the country, give a platform to civil society, critically challenge authority and act as a catalyst of public debate, not as a mouthpiece for the government. Every day TVM fails to do any of this, by choice. Documenting its daily failures, pursuing action in the deliberately sluggish means of redress governed by a board appointed by the political parties against whom most complaints are filed, is a job that needs doing but will require resources and funding that has not yet been mobilised.

In the past the party in opposition took upon itself to monitor state broadcasting in order to apply pressure to ensure space for itself at the expense of the domineering government. This system wasn’t very helpful. After all, all it achieved, was a neutering of the public broadcaster, too scared to challenge authority, too limited and restricted for any meaningful journalism to even function.

Think of the Broadcasting Authority’s decision a few months ago to order TVM not to broadcast questions by journalists put to ministers during covid-19 briefings for fear that ministers might be forced to give partisan replies to tough questions made by the press. That decision is representative of the outcome of “balance” between the interests of two political parties: better leave something unreported than having to carry both points of view.

The only thing worse than having an opposition party monitor, document and apply pressure to stop imbalance in public broadcasting, is not having an opposition party monitor, document and apply pressure to stop imbalance in public broadcasting.

The PN in opposition has not managed to organise itself to do this job, letting TVM and the Labour Party get away with the most disturbing and blatant bias in their reporting.

I’m afraid the only evidence I have to back up this claim is anectodal. Since neither I, nor anyone else in the community has organised themselves to monitor, measure and document the conduct of our state broadcaster, they can go on denying their sycophancy and faithful coverage of the government’s agenda, without question or indulgence of alternative points of view, even exist.

The way the Moviment Graffitti or Din l-Art Ħelwa take time out to monitor, shadow and were appropriate act when the Planning Authority is out of line (which is most of the time), and the way Repubblika organised itself to act on judicial appointments – to name a few examples – is what the proper monitoring and action on public broadcasting requires.

This has just not been given the priority it deserves. The reader asks if she is asking too much by demanding impartial public broadcasting. The way the question is put is in the form of a customer’s expectations left unsatisfied and unmet. Of course, she is perfectly entitled to her expectations but the problem here goes well beyond that.

Public broadcasting needs to be independent, critical, and undeferring to the government and doggedly determined to ensure it remains that way at all times, not because audiences might find it more pleasant, entertaining, informative or educational if it does that. The independence of public broadcasting is required in the same way as the independence of the judiciary, parliament, regulators and civil society are required for democracy to function properly.

We often say we follow the Westminster parliamentary model. And yet, somehow we think that’s about having our President give a speech from the throne and standing up to ask parliamentary questions. The Westminster model is much more complex than that. To the point, you can’t account for British democracy that, perhaps for nostalgic reasons, we tell ourselves we admire and imitate, without the BBC.

The BBC is not perfect. It is not without error. It is not without grave error out of fear of partiality, staying neutral as it did during the Brexit debate, when it should not have. But precisely in these failings, we see its historical example: of acting as a critical, investigative and impartial, institutional hound on the political classes, particularly governments.

We rightly speak here of the perversion of political parties owning TV stations and making a daily mockery of the concept of TV news and journalism by using the trappings of that trade (fancy camera footwork, shiny graphics, stunning news jingles, photogenic anchors) and perverting them to the service of partisan propaganda.

We rightly look forward to a day when we do not have political party-owned TV stations. We recall Eddie Fenech Adami practically apologising for the foundation of Net TV in 1998 insisting the notion of parties owning TVs was a sign of primitive democracy and that he looked forward to the day when we would outgrow their need.

Until 1998, Eddie Fenech Adami stubbornly refused to follow Labour down the path of owning a TV station. But by then he had lost the argument. Too many in his party argued, wrongly, that the PN lost the 1996 election because Labour had its own TV station and therefore a competitive advantage. He gave in.

The argument goes that when Labour is in government, the PN’s agenda is nowhere near the content of the public broadcaster. It would be obtuse to suggest that PN governments have not sought to exert influence on TVM. We can debate shades of grey until we’re blue in the face. Or red. But that doesn’t matter.

Within whatever extent, parties in opposition cling to the need of owning a TV station because they feel the national broadcaster ignores, censors, suppresses or perverts the ideas they need to communicate to the voting public.

Therefore the primitivity and the immaturity of our democracy that Eddie Fenech Adami had acknowledged in 1998 is still very much there. The PN is horrified at the idea of having its TV station taken away from it. It fears a mute feature for itself.

That may happen either way.

The point here is not the fortunes of the PN. The point here is that while TVM remains an agent of the government all sorts of critical or minority views are blocked out and none of them will ever have the means of access to broadcasting their own ideas. Migrants, people from religious minorities, the poor, government critics, civil society activists: none of these will have their views and ideas represented on the broadcasting platform that should be bringing us together. Not as hegemonised drones in a hive with Robert Abela as its queen, but as a diverse community, a vibrant, critical, autonomous community that relishes debate and embraces its own diversity.

That is what we are entitled to expect and should not be too much to ask. And that is precisely what the government will never concede to give away. But as we saw with the unhindered power of choosing judges, governments may be forced to make concessions under the right sort of pressure, campaigning and effort by people who are not doing that to be an alternative government but for the benefit of all the community.

I agree with the reader. It is time to bring this failed institution up our priority list.