Publishing is a business, albeit a shrinking one. Advertising is a business, though its fundamentals are shifting rapidly. Public relations is a business, its future as undoubted as hairdressing and funeral homes. Journalism is not a business. The moment it becomes one it stops being journalism and it becomes publishing, advertising, or public relations.
This is not an ‘old’ way of thinking things. I know it feels that way as the old business models that sustained journalism for decades crumble. Nobody waits for news on morning newspapers anymore. Nobody expects to pay anything to stay informed. Nobody books adverts through an agency or directly with a media house anymore, or almost nobody anyway.
Those conventional businesses returned profits for their owners. Journalists were paid by those businesses to do their thing. On the back of their work, owners sold more and made money.
Even as global brands and media conglomerates find ways to reinvent themselves and thrive, local papers, radio news, and web services with a local focus struggle from one day to the next. This is true of the thousands of city or county media in larger countries as it is true of the national press in a small country like ours. It’s clear that we are in a profound economic crisis for local journalism. The means to sustain it are falling off and it’s hard to imagine what is going to replace it.
Let’s not beat about the bush. When commercial interests drove the media that supported journalism the tension between the business concern and the independence of journalists did not always go the way of journalists. The effort to keep a clean distinction is not always successful.
Like justice, the independence of journalism must not only be claimed but must be seen. Times of Malta journalists are absolutely clear that when the CEO of the company they worked for, Adrian Hillman, was in the pockets of Keith Schembri that fact alone did not influence their editorial decisions. Malta Today journalists are adamant that the fact that the owner of their business, Saviour Balzan, does PR work for government ministers does not influence the lines they take even on ministers their boss advises.
The difficulty these journalists have is in being believed they can be so entirely free of influence when their job security and their livelihood depend to some extent on the favour of the business managers or owners they work with or work for. It’s not just about how it is, it’s about how it looks.
The analogy with the justice system and its independence goes a little bit further. The most visible journalists of all are the ones on local TV. There was a time when the news bulletin at 8 pm was a daily Mosaic descent from the Sinai. It went through a crisis through the years of iron curtain manipulation in the 1980s when editorial policies included the rule that the name of the Opposition Leader was never to be pronounced on the airwaves like a banished rebel of old Egypt. Since then, TVM has gone through an alternation of mistrust depending on which particular tribe was in government at the time.
TVM represents best how the owner of a medium can crush and obviate journalistic independence through the threat of dismissal, the manipulation of funding, the control on recruitment, and the exercise of brute force influence. When people watch a journalist speaking on TVM they don’t expect and certainly do not get to hear the work of an independent investigator, analyst, or critic. They are getting instead the paraphrasing of the official story, curated to suit the owner’s needs, the government’s diktat.
The fact of the matter is that state-ownership and public funding need not necessarily make a government-mouthpiece of a public broadcaster. After all it is not the government that pays the salaries at TVM, it’s tax payers and TV viewers. What binds TVM journalists in chains is the fact that the government exercises control on the salaries paid to and budgets spent on TVM, thereby controlling the content they produce.
We don’t think judges should get paid by the people appearing in front of them. If we have that system (which was the case in pre-modern times) only the richer people ever won a court case. We expect rather that judges and the justice system is funded at fixed rates in an autonomous system run by the state. We still expect judges to be independent from and act independently of the government even if it is the Treasury that signs their pay cheques. When a judge hears a case brought by you or me against the government they needn’t worry they won’t be paid a salary if they rule in our favour.
Journalists getting a cheque from the state do not have the same protection from their owner. Even, for that matter, journalists working indirectly for the state by working for political parties. There’s no doubt who is the boss and that is entirely reflected in what they write and what they say and what questions they ask.
I don’t want to paint a picture of coercion, of daily newsroom battles between intrepid, free-thinking reporters on one side, and cigar chomping bosses wagging their glittering cufflinks ordering editorial changes on the other. People who go to work for party-political TV, or even for state-owned TV in our context, are loyal to the owner from the outset. They go there because they’re comfortable pretending to be journalists while acting as mouth pieces.
This has utterly discredited journalism in the local context. It has altered the meaning of the term, cancelling notions like loyalty to the truth, initiative, critical analysis, holding power to account, and replacing them with propaganda.
TV news is also a shrinking business certainly with younger generations who get their information from elsewhere. On line a plethora of news brands is sprouting some re-inventing redundant old brands like “Gwida”, the old TV guide brand, some riffs on classic mastheads like “Malta Daily”, and some refreshingly new names like “Stradarjali” and “Side Street”.
There’s always been varying grades of quality of journalism. For every The Guardian there’s a Daily Mail. For every Washington Post there’s a National Enquirer. Even local web services run content with varying degrees of quality. There are islands of brilliance sprouting out of oceans of drudgery.
The new news pages suffer from all the ailments of the ‘old’ journalism they think they’re replacing. Clickbait is just a fancy term for sensational front-pages on newspapers designed to drive up circulation. Lovin Malta’s “front page” equivalent yesterday was a blurry video of a man wanking on the Pembroke seafront presumably oblivious of the fact that he was being filmed. The Daily Star would have been proud. I won’t pretend to be shocked (at the news coverage, never mind the outdoor wanking). Tale as old as time.
Of course, when journalists fall for clickbait (or for circulation drivers) they’re less in the business of journalism and more in the business of publishing. They’re in the business of advertising when they run a story that pretends to truly admire a restaurant’s food without saying the reporter is writing in exchange of a freebie. Free press lunches were invented well before the Internet.
And they’re in the business of public relations when they give a platform to characters from public life without examination. There’s this Malta Daily interview with Joseph Muscat that Fabian Demicoli did. Fabian Demicoli is a capable journalist, though his years working for the PN’s TV station will have numbed his intuition and initiative. Perhaps you could call that a range of skills. If the mood takes him he can ask pointed questions and write a strong story. If the mood takes him he can equally work as a propagandist for his employer.
What would he have done if he was in Emily Maitlis’s place interviewing Prince Andrew? Would he have asked him about ‘mummy’ or about his convicted paedophile friend and his encounters with a minor?
What was he doing on that interview with Joseph Muscat? I say ‘interview’. It was more of a massage. It was yet another opportunity for Joseph Muscat to wipe away his record and speak like a reinvented and much misunderstood Messiah. It was like having an interview with Bernie Madoff and talking about his love for gardening. It was not an exercise in journalism. It was plain PR.
But Joseph Muscat does not own Malta Daily. What’s happening here? Why did they do it?
There’s no way to know for sure unless someone somewhere blows the whistle. But it has to be asked, why would anyone, even a re-invented on-line based media business, do PR for anyone for free? Or are they not doing for free?
Have these new media organisations found what they wrongly believed to be a new business model for journalism? Are they charging for content that is agreeable to its subject? Is this how they free themselves, if this can be called freedom at all, from the tightness of the resources for journalism?
Is this how they replace One TV?
This, if this is what happened, is not new. We can’t know what off the record conversations Joseph Muscat had with the medium owners when he agreed, or asked, to sit for this interview. All this could be perfectly innocent and just the product of wilful revisionism or grotesque spontaneous incompetence.
The alternative would be much worse. It wouldn’t be new. Bribery is as old as time and a journalist can be bribed as much as a judge or a minister can. Journalists do not have a license to be dishonest however low the standard has been taken down by propagandists working for the government and political parties. And not just them.
Now it’s perfectly possible Malta Daily did that interview that way because it wanted to, needing no incentive to behave the way it did. But then, why? Even if not compensated through rewards or bribes, why sell your public a lie? Why make Joseph Muscat look good when, you know, he isn’t?
The business of journalism is not business. It’s journalism. Try it sometime.