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Xarabank stunt has ‘backfired’ on Labour

Analysts say decision to send Debono on TV programme did more harm

Franco Debono protested loudly when he realised he would not go on air and debate against Simon Busuttil (right). Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

Franco Debono protested loudly when he realised he would not go on air and debate against Simon Busuttil (right). Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

It might have sounded like a good idea on paper, but most analysts contacted by The Sunday Times yesterday said Labour’s Xarabank stunt was out of place.

A debate between the Labour and Nationalist parties’ deputy leaders was cancelled at the last minute when the PL announced that Anġlu Farrugia was giving up his debating seat in favour of rebel Nationalist MP Franco Debono, who caused the Government to collapse last week after voting against the Budget.

The incident was completely unnecessary and out of court
- Lino Spiteri

Dr Debono paced the corridors of Xarabank producers Where’s Everybody’s recording studios and demanded that PN deputy leader Simon Busuttil face him.

That never happened, with national broadcaster PBS cancelling the programme. Dr Busuttil and Dr Farrugia were due to debate one another yesterday evening instead.

The PL believes PBS and Where’s Everybody are both biased against the party and that Friday’s move set out to prove that point.

When contacted, columnist and economist Lino Spiteri said: “The incident was completely unnecessary and out of court.”

“The PL has its own popular TV station and could have given Franco Debono as much time as it wanted for him to make his voice heard there.”

Mr Spiteri, a former PL finance minister, said that while the party’s concerns about unbalanced reporting on PBS might be justified, Friday’s Xarabank stunt was not.

“I do believe that PBS is showing bias in its reporting – but this incident has nothing to do with that,” he said.

Media analyst and popular blogger Alison Bezzina felt that while the original idea might have been good, it was poorly executed.

The PL would have done better to let the debate go on as planned and then introduced Dr Debono midway through the programme, she suggested.

“That would have put Simon Busuttil and PBS on the spot. If he had walked out, he would have looked bad. But as things panned out, the PL just ended up linking itself to Franco Debono and giving the PN the option of backing out.”

“I’m not saying Dr Busuttil looked good by not accepting the challenge, but the PL didn’t think things through,” Ms Bezzina said.

University lecturer and former PBS chairwoman Clare Vassallo felt the station had done the right thing in cancelling the broadcast.

“You can’t invite two people to debate one another and then have one of them substituted. It’s just not done. It’s basically bad manners,” Dr Vassallo argued.

The financial cost borne by PBS and Where’s Everybody in cancelling the programme made the matter all the less amusing, she added. “PBS must run along business lines. Prime time on Friday night is not the time or place for that sort of political stunt.”

But historian and one-time PL secretary general Dominic Fenech argued that the hullabaloo surrounding the incident was proof that politicians took themselves a bit too seriously.

“I saw it all as a prank which showed up PBS and the Xarabank producers. Why not go along with the programme? We’re hardly talking about a US Presidential debate here.”

He drew analogies with 19th century Maltese politics. “Back then, politicians would protest British rule by nominating the village idiot to the council of government, to discredit it. Yesterday, the PL protested it being dictated to by PBS,” Prof. Fenech said.

“We’ve long lost our sense of humour when it comes to politics. Yesterday made for good television. Besides, who wouldn’t want to watch a debate between Franco Debono and Simon Busuttil?”

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