Political party TV stations have dominated Malta’s media landscape for decades, but debate over their future has intensified in recent months.
During the past weeks, Lovin Malta carried out an online survey about party media among its readers, which received 1,371 responses. And while this exercise was not a scientific one, its results nevertheless make for interesting reading.
Here’s what we found.
1. Just under half of respondents watched party media in the past month.
Although respondents weren’t asked to specify which channel they preferred, a Broadcasting Authority survey from last year re-confirmed that ONE is significantly more popular than NET among viewers.
In the survey, 18.91% of respondents said they watch ONE, compared to only 6.79% of people who said they watch NET.
2. But most expect their consumption of these channels’ content to increase during an election campaign.
Not exactly surprising, considering how politically-engaged Maltese people tend to get during general election campaigns.
3. The vast majority of respondents knew the Constitution requires impartiality from broadcasters.
Malta’s Constitution obliges the Broadcasting Authority to ensure TV stations preserve “due impartiality” when discussing current affairs or matters of political controversy. However, in practice, the BA only lays down the law on PBS, such as when it criticised the state broadcaster for the title it used when reporting a court ruling concerning PN MP Jason Azzopardi.
Meanwhile, ONE TV and NET TV go completely unchecked, seeing as the Broadcasting Act allows the BA to regulate the impartiality of programmes by private broadcasters “as a whole”. Therefore, one party’s propaganda supposedly ‘cancels out’ the other’s and both ONE and NET are allowed to broadcast propaganda… just so long as the other station does too.
It follows that both ONE and NET require each other to exist to survive themselves.
Lovin Malta is set to challenge this unconstitutional state of play at the Constitutional Courts.
4. Over 80% don’t think party media can ever be impartial.
However, 204 people (14.9% of respondents) said it’s possible that they can become impartial one day.
5. But most don’t feel the independent media is impartial either.
Just over half of respondents said they don’t think Malta’s independent media is generally impartial, while only 38.5% said it is, results which should certainly serve as food for thought for the local press.
6. Most weren’t aware that political TV stations haven’t published their accounts in over a decade.
But that is indeed where we’re at right now. ONE TV haven’t published their accounts since 2010, while NET TV haven’t published theirs since 2003, back when Malta wasn’t even an EU member state.
No visible action has been taken against them and both parties have refused to confirm when they plan to get in line with the law.
Last June, Prime Minister Robert Abela pledged to address this problem but ONE’s accounts remain unpublished.
7. Only half were aware that public funds are being used to keep party media afloat.
Announced behind closed doors, a relief package to help media houses cope with the financial stress of the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly favourable to ONE TV and NET TV.
Party media stations are entitled to €45,000 of public funds a month each, more than all four Maltese independent newspapers combined, with the scheme capped at €400,000.
The government never announced these details itself and it only became public knowledge after Lovin Malta filed a Freedom of Information request.
8. Vast majority believe ONE and NET make political parties vulnerable to corruption.
Quite a staggering result, but not exactly a surprising one. Huge maintenance costs leave the PL and PN pretty much dependent on business donors to keep their TV stations afloat.
Favours must be repaid, which means this constant dependence on donations creates fertile ground for corruption, particularly since political parties never inform the public who their bankrollers are.
9. Most are aware Malta is the only European country where political parties own TV stations.
Both major parties have consistently defended the status quo in Malta’s broadcasting landscape on the grounds that political parties require a medium to get their message across to the public.
It sounds like a fair enough argument at first glance, at least until you realise that all other European political parties besides PL and PN manage to speak to their voters despite not having their own TV stations.
BONUS: Vast majority agree with Lovin Malta’s case.
A significant majority of respondents – 79.8% – said they agree with Lovin Malta’s constitutional case against party stations. In a nutshell, the case is that ONE and NET’s political propaganda, and the clause in the Broadcasting Act that allows them to broadcast it so long as they both broadcast it, is unconstitutional.
Victory at the courts could signal the most widespread changes across the broadcasting landscape in recent Maltese history.
Here’s a selection of some explanations from people who said they support our campaign.
“In the hope that one day this country will mature away from this bi-partisan mentality and the removal of the stations is the first step. However this must be followed by strict regulation of independent stations and a watchdog that is truly impartial and monitoring everything – otherwise nothing will change.”
“Because it is tiring to see good people being brainwashed by political views and individuals that have only their well being in mind and not the country’s best interest.”
“People out there listen to one-sided biased political stations. I only agree that parties own their TV stations for revenue purposes with 100% impartiality, such as having an entertainment or educational channel with no hidden agenda which can provide its owner with a revenue stream.”
“Political party stations and propaganda is just not on. When PN was in government, my family used to call NET ‘tal-ġenna’ and One ‘ta’ l-infern’. Now that PL is in government, obviously the roles have shifted and all you hear on NET is bad now (ta’ l-infern), while on ONE (tal-ġenna) all you hear is good things.”
“Because we need political parties who are not beholden to big business in order to support themselves. These stations instil an acceptance of tribal politics and propaganda as news.”
What do you make of these survey results?