An open line of dialogue
The Times of Malta may have lost its case before the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life accusing Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi of breaching the ministerial code of ethics when he failed to invite it and, possibly, other media houses to an activity he attended.
However, the independent media stand to benefit because the commissioner, George Hyzler, also concluded that “as a matter of good practice, ministers and parliamentary secretaries should adopt a non-discriminatory approach in dealing with the press and that a more transparent system of invitations should be put in place on a formal basis in order to avoid any further equivocality”.
In the commissioner’s opinion, “the practice of selectively inviting members of the media to ministerial public events is not in line with good practice and ought to be discouraged”.
The message Dr Hyzler wanted to convey in his very first ‘case report’ since taking up office is crystal clear.
Now, of course, everybody has the right to decide who to speak to, when and where. Still, when it comes to ‘official’ events and ‘official’ announcements, Cabinet ministers are expected to want to give them as wide publicity as possible to ensure all sections of society are reached. In fact, article 10 of the ministerial code of ethics demands that ministers inform the public and the media of ministerial activities “on a regular basis and in an organised manner”. The code mentions the public before the media, which is there to serve society and, thus, ignoring the press is ignoring the people.
The commissioner interprets this article as meaning that ministers have “a specific obligation” to inform the public and the media about their activities but how such obligation is exercised remains at the minister’s discretion. Moreover, he notes, what constitutes information “on a regular basis” and “in an organised manner” gives rise to ambiguity and uncertainty.
It was “in default of a less equivocal wording” of the provision in question that the commissioner did not find the minister had acted in breach of the code. So, Dr Mizzi was saved by the wording, certainly not the spirit. Indeed, when he met the minister, the commissioner “openly expressed [his] concerns on the practice adopted”.
The minister declared that “in a spirit of collaboration and thankful for the mediation by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life in this matter, [he] shall seek that the ministry’s communication team maintains an open line of dialogue with a wide representation of the local media and shall, as far as practical, invite such representation to all official major events organised by the ministry”.
The commissioner has wisely announced he now plans to issue guidelines on the application of article 10 of the ministerial code of ethics to reflect “this evolving good practice” and would, in future, interpret the relevant provision in such light.
While he is at it, perhaps the commissioner can also look into why a non-discriminatory proviso in the old Press Act does not seem to appear in the new Media and Defamation Act.
Under the Press Act, it was unlawful for the government “to issue general instructions that prohibit the giving of information to any newspaper or licensed broadcasting service holding a particular view or to any specified newspaper or licensed broadcasting service”.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial