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Barrier or bridge?

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi reaffirmed the budget's positive reactions during an interview with The Sunday Times.

He assured readers that members from the opposing party had sent him electronic mail to express their appreciation for such an excellent budget aimed at strengthening our families. He did not mention names as he, rightly so, felt it was unethical to do so.

The Labour Party issued an immediate disclaimer substantiated by a published declaration bearing the signature of all Labour members of Parliament.

The Prime Minister rebutted by saying that members from the opposing party and not members of the opposition parliamentary group had in fact expressed satisfaction at the government's initiatives presented in the budget.

So what's the issue? Did the Prime Minister mislead the public? Did the opposition party jump into haphazard conclusions? Or should the media be blamed?

These scenarios are not uncommon in an electoral campaign. However, this is not the way those involved in politics, including the media, are expected to treat the citizen within a democratic society. Granted, vote catching is part of the game, but not at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

The role of the political parties and the media during electoral campaigns demands a sense of commitment towards the national interest in general and the citizens' well-being in particular. Irrespective of their power, they have no right to deceive the public, to turn facts into spin, to juggle with trivialities or to demonstrate their hyperactivity in sensationalism rather than debating the real issues.

Political parties are expected to cover up their weaknesses while hammering home their strengths as part of their campaign strategy. It's no secret that they spend tens of thousands of liri for propaganda purposes. But their ultimate goal should never be the manipulation of the system to overcome a power struggle. On the other hand, the media is also a powerful influential institution. But its raison d'être is quite distinct from that of the political parties.

During the electoral campaign the primary information link between the population and the political sphere is the media, especially through television, radio and newspapers. Much of what we know about our political leaders, party politics or public policy is actually generated from what is transmitted by the media. In reporting on politics, the media help select the issues that are to receive public attention and help shape the public agenda.

It should never act as an instrument of partisan propaganda as if it were the extended arm of the information or the public relations department of the political parties. The media should try to explain the parties' goals and policies, helping to mobilise and reinforce the public support necessary for effective political action but they should also focus attention on controversial policies, expose corruption and hold politicians accountable to public opinion.

The media has a big say in the formation of public opinion and the public's participation in the political process. This would only be possible if the media itself enjoys the full freedom of expression, that is, its freedom from political interference or from its narrow commercial interest. Unfortunately, we have not as yet come across one single medium, whether it's television, radio or newspaper, which can boast of its absolute independence. Even the national broadcasting station is generally perceived as biased in favour of the party in government.

The public's "right to know" is often sacrificed on the altar of the political parties' agenda during the electoral campaign. Electoral campaigns are increasingly run for the news media and exposure and there is much less concern with persuading the electorate on the party's vision for the country.

Political leaders are after television filming opportunities and great emphasis is laid on the "images" portrayed by the party leaders in formal television debates. Too little is dedicated to the political argument.

Tabloid journalism tends to take over during the electoral campaign. The next election campaign is no exception. Most probably, it would be even worse than the previous ones in this respect. It would be a big mistake for our political parties and the media to underestimate the citizen's right to know what's in stock for the next legislature. It would be a bigger mistake if our politicians and media people keep on delving into cosmetic campaigning and "image" promotion.

It won't be surprising if the electorate realise that the media has become a barrier between the politician and the public rather than a bridge connecting them. What a pity!

matyas@maltanet

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