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Times are a changing

Independent and truly public broadcasting is under attack. The popular discussion programme Times Talk presented by Times of Malta’s online editor Herman Grech and former head of news  Mark Micallef has been axed as was the cultural programme Madwarna presented by Salvu Mallia.

Peppi Azzopardi’s Xarabank was doomed to the same fate but the decision was reversed at the final moment. An interest expressed by The Malta Independent headed by successful television producer Pierre Portelli was once again brushed aside.

We can see this news from at least two perspectives. The first one is the purely commercial or business perspective – the national TV station in Malta is under the present model expected to be a partly self-sustaining operation. In the TV business logic, the administrator is forced to give room to programmes which attract audiences and directly or indirectly advertising revenue for the station.

From the commercial perspective we should not therefore blame PBS for axing Times Talk and Madwarna had these been faring badly with the viewers. But was this the case? Not really. A look at the last broadcasting survey publicly available online reveals that Times Talk had over 26,000 viewers – essentially the biggest viewership in that slot over the whole week except Fridays. Madwarna was also faring very well with consistently high viewership.

The national broadcaster has been effectively turned into a strategic arm of the Labour party and government

But above commercial reasons, which could forsake quality and simply encourage junk television just for the sake of higher revenues, we should consider whether this decision is based on reasons that serve the public interest.

As taxpayers we expect that the national station acts in the public interest and strives to present us with programmes which not only entertain but also educate and serve a wider public service including the duty of promoting a wider democratic debate together with the promotion of our culture, heritage and history.

It is pertinent to note here that Times Talk indeed filled that box of providing a platform for different views in a wider democratic debate and likewise Madwarna was particularly effective in informing people about their heritage and history in a fun and creative way.

And without any shred of doubt The Malta Independent would have put Pierre Portelli’s and Rachel Attard’s television skills to produce good quality television.

So the rationale behind the axing of these programmes could not have been based on public service interest. With all sincerity I can find no other valid reason other than government, who already controls the PBS newsroom, getting back at and silencing those others who did their duty and investigated and spoke about the corruption scandals of this government.  Sadly the exclusion by PBS of some of its top programmes and other proposals with high-quality potential was nothing but a confirmation that the national station, financed by taxpayers’ money, is being manoeuvred by Castille as a partisan propaganda tool. It is as such an attack on the free media and freedom of speech.

The national broadcaster has been effectively turned into a strategic arm of the Labour Party and government. It avoids broadcasting anything which does not fit in neatly with Labour’s propaganda strategy. Government’s trivialities have come to be considered by PBS more newsworthy than the inconvenient truths expressed by anybody else, be it the Opposition, a former prime minister, an MEP or the Times of Malta.

Government propaganda strategy is disguised under some PBS policy or editorial guidelines. This is why the Nationalist Party and quite a few others have started to believe that the only editorial guidelines followed unscrupulously and consistently by PBS are the ones dictated from Castille.

Let us not forget that the PBS newsroom has failed the public on numerous occasions: from the failure to report the Auditor General’s damning report about the Labour government’s oil procurement from Azerbaijan to only report it within the context of a government reply two days later, to the outright disregard of Opposition MPs’ press releases regarding such issues as the Café Premier scandal and Panamagate among others.

Slowly but surely people are realising what a 36,000 majority for Labour meant for the democratic credentials and good governance of this country. It is high time that Labour realises that the times are changing and as Salvu Mallia would have it, “they won’t shut us up”.

Clyde Puli is PN spokesman on citizens’ rights, equality, social dialogue, consumer and internet rights.

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