Should political parties own TV stations and can they offer viewers the impartial news demanded by our Constitution?
It’s a question that is gaining traction, but one opinion that should carry more weight than others is that of the person running the broadcasting watchdog: the Broadcasting Authority’s CEO Joanna Spiteri.
And according to the thesis she wrote in 2014 (which got a cameo in last week’s episode of Kaxxaturi), Malta has a problem. Our broadcasting laws are not in line with the Constitution, impartiality cannot be observed by the political parties, and the setup of the Broadcasting Authority itself is problematic.
Spiteri’s PhD thesis, published two years before she landed the top job at the broadcasting regulator, is titled “The challenge of achieving impartiality in Maltese TV news programming“.
It focuses on Malta’s “unique” media landscape, where apart from the State broadcaster, the two main stations (One And Net) are owned by the two major political parties.
Spiteri outlined “a clear lack of consistency” between the Broadcasting Act, the Subsidiary Legislation on News and Current affairs programmes and the Constitution of Malta, citing the fact that the broadcasting legislation currently is “to say the least, not in harmony” with some of the practices of its own regulatory body: the Broadcasting Authority.
“The study has revealed that a change in the broadcasting legislation is needed. In its present form the regulatory system is not assisting in providing a fair and accurate news media service mainly because it is allowing the political stations to continue to produce news reporting which is very often economical with the truth.”
So what exactly does the Constitution of Malta say?
The Constitution of Malta requires that in industrial and political controversy, impartiality has to be preserved.
119. (1) It shall be the function of the Broadcasting Authority to ensure that, so far as possible, in such sound and television broadcasting services as may be provided in Malta, due impartiality is preserved in respect of matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy and that broadcasting facilities and time are fairly apportioned between persons belonging to different political parties.
Spiteri explains it this way in her thesis: “Impartiality according to the Maltese Constitution also implies that no point of view may be given undue selective treatment. The constitutional obligation of observing balance and impartiality extends to all stations, including the political stations and not only to the public broadcaster. The Constitution of Malta does not distinguish between party stations and other stations and the Broadcasting Authority has to see that impartiality is there on all broadcasting stations.”
Can impartiality, balance and objectivity ever be achieved by political party TV stations?
As part of her research Spiteri interviewed a number of producers, journalists and writers asking them whether political party owned TV stations could ever achieve impartiality, balance and objectivity.
One producer pointed out that in Malta the idea of balance “is not a healthy one”. He emphasised how the Broadcasting Authority’s regulations hinder discussion because “the Authority’s idea of balance is keeping balance between the two (party stations)”.
Another remarked that the concepts of objectivity and impartiality are a “problem” for a journalist working in a political station because the viewers perceive the journalist’s belief according to which station he/she is operating in:
“…the people see you from a certain point of view, they accept it to a certain extent but they know that your programme will be biased towards one side”.
Moreover, political stations in Malta very often exclude the other opposing party from their current affairs programmes and treat the opposing party in a completely negative light in news bulletins.
In the words of one of her interview subjects: Political stations are “pointing the spotlight at each other, ignoring their remit of being a service to the viewers (citizens); …they are not real stations, not real news, not real current affairs. They are a system of propaganda”.
Another tells her: “The editor would have to stick to the rules set down by the shareholder, rules which might not necessarily be written or declared but would be mutually understood due to shared political beliefs.”
So how did Spiteri propose to change the system?
In the conclusion to her 270-page PhD thesis, Spiteri offered a scathing review of the current system whilst also sharing some of her own ideas and suggested reforms. Besides the changes mentioned above to improve news programming, Spiteri also proposed other key amendments, including to the structure of the Broadcasting Authority itself.
“Another necessary change seen to be needed in the broadcasting legislation is that there should be no discrepancies between the Articles in the Constitution and the provisos in the Broadcasting Act.
The input of the Broadcasting Authority is absolutely crucial but its structure should not be also perceived as providing another ally for the political parties, as it is presently perceived to be.
The Broadcasting Authority, in its administration but also in the legal aspect, has to develop and reform its regulations while being clear in its interpretations in order to help achieve balance and impartiality. It needs to work on clear interpretations when specific pieces of legislation are in place.”
How has Spiteri tried to reform the authority since being appointed CEO?
It’s been four years since Spiteri was appointed in the role of CEO. It’s not clear whether she has followed any of her own thesis’s advice about regulating the sector. The status quo has not changed.
Lovin Malta sent a number of questions to Spiteri more than 10 days ago, but these have remained unanswered:
1. Do you believe the Broadcasting Authority is currently fulfilling its Constitutional role of ensuring impartiality?
2. Do you think there is a conflict between the Constitutional obligation to ensure impartiality and the reality that two of our broadcasters are by design not impartial? In other words, do you agree that political party stations are operating anti-Constitutionally?
3. Do you think it makes sense for the Broadcasting Authority’s board to be limited to people chosen by the political parties given that they have a conflict of interest as broadcasters in their own right? Is that something you think the BA should/would change given that it is now a broader regulator?
4. Do you think the BA has the necessary resources to monitor not online TV content but now the broader audiovisual content on the internet?
5. Do you believe that there is need to amend all legislation surrounding broadcasting to ensure it reflects the text and spirit of the Constitution and create more clarity across the board?
Meanwhile, Lovin Malta’s flagship news satire programme last week announced it would start raising funds to mount a legal case to bring an end to party-owned TV stations One and Net. And it’s getting serious momentum. In less than 48 hours, Kaxxaturi raised more than €5,000.
Just today, the Malta Chamber of Commerce also took a position against TV stations being owned by political parties.
Have you donated to the legal fund yet? Visit www.kaxxaturi.com to be part of this campaign for change.