When I refer to O&N (One & Net) I refer in very broad terms to all bodies and strategies which contribute to the outward faces of Malta’s major political parties. It is no secret that O&N continually fail the electorate by undermining its capacity to make informed choices about its own future. What might be controversial is the claim that the independent media shares some of the blame for our current situation.
It is clear that O&N require a watchdog that not only informs the electorate about O&N’s constant misrepresentations of the state of affairs in Malta, but also a watchdog that educates the electorate about the techniques employed by O&N to misrepresent that state of affairs to the public. One way the independent media goes wrong with respect to O&N is that it all too often limits itself to faithful reporting, merely describing what was said or what transpired, and in doing so failing to put things into context or including any cues which could lead an audience to critically regard what is being reported.
It is probably unreasonable to expect the independent media to be the watchdog over O&N – this would be time-consuming and expensive – but it is not unreasonable to expect the independent media to adopt better standards across the board when dealing with anything produced by O&N. Below, I will consider a few examples where the independent media could have done better, examples which are either considered generally or are typical cases.
Consider a recent article from Lovin Malta, in which it is reported that Julia Farrugia Portelli appeared on Pjazza and claimed that we would have been blacklisted had the FATF been aware of some scandals that took place under the Nationalist administration. The author of the article faithfully reports JFP’s claim and gives some information about the scandals in question. But in this article, the claim is neither contested (despite the claim being ridiculous) nor do we find any information about what the claim is meant to accomplish or how it is meant to do it.
Farrugia Portelli, to put it crudely, argues that the Nationalist administration is a garbage can and then claims a Labour administration look goods when compared to a garbage can. By setting the standard so low, we don’t have to worry about how the Labour administration compares to competent and respectable foreign administrations. In this article, Lovin Malta unwittingly serves as an extension of One’s Pjazza, delivering Pjazza’s unaltered messages to people who may have not seen Pjazza (or people, who, like myself, make a point of not watching Pjazza).
A second example has to do with how the independent media approaches the subject of party leaders. Consider that a central part of O&N’s long-term election strategies is that of presenting the party’s leader as the lynchpin of their political plan and as a prime example of competence and whatever values the party thinks are fashionable. The PL under Muscat for instance, built and maintained a personality cult around the Muscats, and it did this so successfully that to this day many still believe in the sublime statesmanship of Joseph Muscat and the hyper-competence of his wife Michelle Muscat, in spite of the fact that a commonsense view which takes into account his and his government’s performance leads one to conclude that Muscat was either massively corrupt or incompetent. Currently, the PL is pushing Robert Abela as a reformer and provider of solutions to problems whose causes the PL prefers to keep vague and unstated.
The PN, on the other hand, presents Bernard Grech as the leader of a party that is reviving itself and correcting its flaws, a leader who is a driver of this process. Each presentation – whether of Muscat, Abela or Grech – comes with the promise that this time things will be different, that this person is not like his predecessors. These concocted personalities seep into the independent media in the form of interviews, faithful reports of tweets, Facebook posts, and so on, and speeches delivered on political stations.
There are two points that should not be forgotten in connection with this, two points that the independent media often fail to emphasize. First, the individuals who end up becoming political leaders from the major camps require boosts from O&N before they can ever be relevant. It is necessary, for obvious reasons, that they and their views are familiar and attractive to their target voters. One recalls Bernard Grech’s frequent appearances on NET in the months and days leading up to him assuming his role as opposition leader.
However, since O&N are, for equally obvious reasons, unlikely to promote individuals whose views differ in significant ways from people who already receive publicity from O&N, then it follows that is unlikely that Muscat, Abela or Grech ever intended to steer their parties in new directions.
Second, due to Malta’s size, in many domains (sport, philosophy, music, and art), it is commonly assumed that what we normally consider the best in Malta tends to be mediocre in an international context. This commonsense assumption, taken for granted by most of us, tends to be forgotten by the independent media when it comes to politicians and political leaders. Even if politicians were subject to a process that ensured that only the best of them were likely to be successful (they’re not), the safest assumption for us, beforehand, would be that our politicians are, at best, mediocre. However, since they’re not in fact chosen by a meritorious process, the safest assumption, beforehand, is that our politicians’ abilities fall somewhere between incompetence and mediocrity.
There are obvious exceptions to this in every domain, but the exceptions are only discovered when we have a performance to evaluate. Without the possibility of such an evaluation, we have little reason to believe in the reformers and celebrated personalities that O&N parade before us.
The independent media does little to inhibit O&N in this regard; rather, it contributes to O&N’s efforts in a variety of ways. In its faithful summaries of the speeches given by the party leaders on O&N, it fails to emphasize that there are much higher standards for political speeches. Our political leaders and politicians generally give speeches that are superficial, extremely partisan and in more than one instance perilous to the common good.
For an example of this last feature, consider Prime Minister Abela’s insubstantial reservations about the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. Given that his remarks were anticipated and parroted by the government whip and various spoke-persons – including Rosianne Cutajar, whose stake in the matter is now well-understood – those remarks were probably no more and no less than one step in a propaganda pre-campaign intended to eventually undermine the results on the inquiry, should those results earn the ire of the PL.
The failure of the independent media to refer to these higher standards contributes to the illusion that the major political parties are helmed by potentially responsible and competent individuals; it eludes the fact that the party leadership operates within very strict parameters, and that the competence and moral character of the person at the helm is neither a given nor necessarily representative of competence and moral character of the much larger political institution behind him or her or the interests driving it.
The independent media also contributes to the divide between the two major political camps. By reporting, faithfully, their attacks on the leaders or members of their competing parties, it gives importance to the futile and infantile ad hominems and tu quoques that have come to characterize political rhetoric. For instance, consider how the independent media assisted the PL in highlighting the Opposition Leader’s tax issues, thus enabling the PL media to draw a contrast between Abela and Grech in terms of their desirability as leaders.
Today, we can see individuals in PL circles claiming that Grech shares responsibility for the FATF greylisting due to his tax evasion. This attack was puerile because Grech’s behaviour (assuming, for the sake of argument, that the PL did not lie) is merely symptomatic of a much larger problem in Malta that results in rampant tax evasion. It is the latter that the PL should be concerned with, and it is the independent media’s responsibility to make it clear to the electorate that it the PL has hitherto ignored this problem. It is the height of absurdity that Grech if he did commit tax evasion, seems to have gotten away with under an administration helmed by his political opponents.
The futility and irrelevance of such political attacks would not be missed if the independent media made it clear that the two majors parties have failed to address this issue or to correct the culture that underlies it; neither of them has the political will or competence to act. In such cases, the independent media must do more than report, word for word, the hackneyed tit-for-tat that passes for politics in this country.
Third, in connection with this, the independent media places undue attention on the spouses and children of party leaders, enabling O&N to leverage them for PR purposes. With all due respect to the persons that belong to this category, the fact of the matter is that the spouses and children of politicians are irrelevant baggage as far as the electorate is concerned.
They have and should have no role in the formulation of policy and its implementation and administration, and therefore they have and should have no role in the electorate’s choice between one set of policies and another. Given this, they merit no consideration whatsoever by the independent media even if O&N manage to utilize them in their public relations stunts.