There’s a debate on after the press reported that PBS, the national broadcaster, cancelled a four-part documentary on Dom Mintoff. We don’t know much about what the documentary says but this Times of Malta report says that board directors were concerned that Nationalists wouldn’t like it.
Today’s Malta Today editorial (not yet available online) comments that it shouldn’t matter what a portion of viewers might feel about a documentary and that “balancing” a documentary about a Labour politician with a biography of some nationalist is no way of addressing the issue.
That is, on some level, correct. But it’s more complicated than that. Some of the things I’ll write here agree with Malta Today’s analysis. Some don’t.
One of the functions of the public broadcaster is to educate its audience, including about domestic matters that are not discussed on other local and international media. It is also a function of the public broadcaster to serve as a repository and a point of reference for the community’s collective memory. The telling of history is a big part of that.
Whether in an academic publication or in a TV documentary, history can either be a tool of propaganda and manipulation, a form of entertainment unrestricted by the obligations of truthfulness, or a contribution that allows us to flesh out the hints, often misguided or misinterpreted, of our past, even our recent past.
What history cannot offer is a genuine fly on the wall experience that is as true as anything witnessed by anything like an entirely impartial source from the time and place of the story being told. Memories fail, they change, gaps emerge often involuntarily carved by what is convenient to the storyteller.
No telling of history can be without detractors. Even if free of any bias or direct interest, however ambivalent and honest the historian might be, every narrative has a perspective, makes editorial choices, reaches declared or undeclared value judgements for which there is always an alternative view.
One cannot hope to be complete or perfect or free from any disagreement. One has the duty to be honest, impartial, balanced, rational, and to consider all available facts even facts that contradict one’s initial or ongoing hypothesis.
A telling of the story of Dom Mintoff, like a biography of any historical figure, will always be some form of version of the truth as it is understood by the historian and as the historian seeks to explain it. One should not object to a telling of the story of Dom Mintoff, however abominable one might consider him to have been. To illustrate the point by exaggeration one does not object to the writing of a biography of Adolf Hitler even if they are unlikely to think highly of him.
One would be right, however, to object to a documentary that glorifies Adolf Hitler, lies on his behalf, covers up his crimes, justifies his actions, and misdirects viewers into taking lies for an alternative truth they can cling to.
You see, that’s the difference between a bias in a historical narrative and drawing up a fawning propaganda vehicle. It is true that TVM should not care if anyone objects to the airing of a documentary about Dom Mintoff just because it is a documentary about Dom Mintoff. If that’s the only reason this show was cancelled, then the decision is stupid.
On the other hand, if the narrative is dishonest, it is selective about facts in a way that starves viewers of enough information to make an honest judgement for themselves, then everyone (not just Nationalists or heirs of Dom Mintoff’s victims) has a right to object to it.
History does not merely throw light on the past. It illustrates the present for us as well and sometimes that is the true cause of offence. Consider contemporary telling of the “discovery” of the Americas or the “founding” of the colonies. When I was my children’s age Christopher Columbus was still a hero on which they made films about the glorious “conquest of paradise”. Over the last 20 years our views on the conquistadores have changed.
It is indeed offensive to white supremacists that we now judge the slave trade and the decimation of indigenous civilisations as abhorrent, and that no biography of Christopher Columbus produced today would be likely to portray him as anything better than the greedy, stubborn, not terribly bright, murderous profiteer that he really was.
That’s why there is no such thing as a definitive history book or biography. A documentary about Dom Mintoff would be interested in his own views about how he justified some of his conduct which an objective 21st century historian, documentarist, student, or viewer must contrast with how we should judge that same conduct now. Hardly the marble demigod atop tall pillars facing the Atlantic.
An honest 2022 telling of Mintoff’s story, done well, should both interest and stimulate disagreement in all sorts of viewers because it would challenge the outdated narratives stuck in their minds. No honest telling of Mintoff’s life could possibly fit with the romantic adulation of the keenest of his surviving followers. Nor should it fit entirely into the perceptions of people who followed political leaders who opposed him.
A good documentary about Dom Mintoff is likely to offend the sensibilities of the members of all sorts of partisan herds roaming the concrete hillocks of this blasted country.
Malta Today makes the good point about how Mark Montebello’s biography of Dom Mintoff offended his family because it told stories about his unorthodox sexual mores. An honest biography of Ġorġ Borg Olivier would be similar but different in that respect.
However indifferent historians must be to anyone’s feeling of offence in reaction to facts, a public broadcaster should, in my view, demonstrate sensitivity to and empathy with relatives seeking to preserve the memory of a member of their family. There should be no veto on history and sensitivity must be inversely proportional to the distance from the lifetime of the subject of the telling. It’s one thing to consider the views of the living heirs of Dom Mintoff, altogether another when considering the living descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Malta Today is cynical about the obligation of ‘balance’ for the public broadcaster. I’m less so. I am as indifferent as they are to people who object to a biography of a historical figure being made, however honest and well informed and critical it might be, just because they disapprove of that historical figure.
But I do believe that since it is impossible to consider all facets and all elements of a historical period, one should strive to consider as many facets and elements as possible. Biographies are a poor way of doing this. They exaggerate the role of the subject individual within their historical context, they romanticise the figure, they focus on and inevitably risk misleading their function in shaping the times they lived in.
But biographies, though less honest and impartial than, say, statistical analysis or even social history, are, also because of the romantic dramatizations, much more entertaining.
Dom Mintoff is an important figure of Malta in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and the decades before and after his political apogee. No telling of that period can leave him out. But he’s not all. Understanding that period without several other historical figures, from across politics, and from in and out of it, is inevitably incomplete and therefore incorrect.
There should also be biographical documentaries on Ġorġ Borg Olivier and on Paul Boffa and on Mikiel Gonzi and on Eddie Fenech Adami and on Lorry Sant, to name five obvious counterpoints, not merely to appease the sensibilities of people who were their fans and not fans of Dom Mintoff. Their biographies should be produced because they would throw light on the historical reality that a biography of Dom Mintoff, however honest, could not ever possibly achieve alone.
And then there’s another need for ‘balance’. Like Malta Today, I have not seen the documentary and cannot judge it. But its existence, particularly as it is in isolation and without any known plans for other biographies of figures from the period, presents itself as a risk that in the context of the general conduct of PBS simply cannot be ignored.
There is the real risk that a biography of Dom Mintoff is designed to serve the interests of the government and the Labour Party today. You don’t have to recall 1984 to remember that the greatest tool of power today is the means to edit the telling of past events. Whitewashing Dom Mintoff’s reputation for those unable to measure what they’re presented with in entertaining television against their own recollections or experience serves the interest of the politicians who present themselves to the public as the heirs of his legacy.
History, after all, is rewritten by the victors.
Do I approve of PBS’s decision to cancel this Mintoff documentary? I could only form that opinion if I had seen the show. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.