Malta’s broadcasting regulator scrutinises PBS like a hawk for impartiality in its news coverage, so how would it react to reports by party media?
Lovin Malta decided to test it out, filing three reports with the Broadcasting Authority about recent reports by ONE TV and NET TV which we didn’t think were in line with their constitutional requirements to provide impartial broadcasting.
PN and PL get to nominate four out of the five BA board members, with the fifth nominated by the Prime Minister after consulting with the Opposition leader. Discovering how they would react to complaints against party media was going to be interesting to say the least…
These are the three reports we complained about:
1. ONE News’ report on journalists locked inside Castille
In November 2020, ONE News reported on a court ruling which found three makeshift security guards not guilty of holding journalists against their will when they infamously locked them inside Castille following Joseph Muscat’s last press conference as Prime Minister.
ONE said the “prosecution which defended the journalists failed to prove the case”, omitting the fact that the prosecutors were actually the police, and not the journalists themselves.
It also referred to the Institute of Maltese Journalists’ initial criticism of the incident while ignoring its reaction to the actual ruling, which was to point out that the magistrate had actually criticised the police for failing to properly investigate the case.
Lovin Malta’s argument was that ONE News had twisted a court ruling which criticised the police for not doing their job properly into a formal denouncement of the journalists involved, who were mockingly described as “so-called independent media”.
2. ONE News’ report on Joseph Muscat’s and Edward Zammit Lewis’ French holiday
Also in November, ONE News reported on the reaction of Joseph Muscat and Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis to a Lovin Malta story that they had stayed free of charge at a French hotel owned by Yorgen Fenech’s business group.
ONE’s report gave no context to the politicians’ denial, other than that it referred to a Lovin Malta report about a “family holiday Zammit Lewis and Muscat had taken in France”.
Fenech’s name, or the central claim that he paid for their holiday, wasn’t mentioned at all and Lovin Malta wasn’t given a chance to respond to Zammit Lewis’s accusation that the report was an attempt to smear him.
3. NET News’ report on the Dar tal-Providenza fundraiser
Earlier this year, NET News reported that Dar tal-Providenza had raised €2.5 million in its annual New Year’s fundraiser but without any reference to the donations raised by former PN leader Adrian Delia, even though they amounted to one fifth of the donations collected.
An earlier NET story on the donation reported the PN’s donation to Dar tal-Providenza, but made no reference to the PL’s donation.
Lovin Malta’s argument is that the PN is letting its internal politics define the news that the public receives, going against its constitutional standards to follow impartiality, and to be fair and factual.
How did the Broadcasting Authority respond?
The BA delivered the first two of its rulings today, dismissing both complaints against ONE News. Its rulings give a brief of the arguments made to the board by Lovin Malta CEO Chris Peregin and the counter-arguments posed by Jonathan Attard, the lawyer of ONE’s head of news Edward Montebello.
With regards the Castille story, Attard argued that there was nothing factually incorrect in ONE’s report, that no media house publishes every single statement, and that Peregin could have sued for libel or filed a right of reply if he felt insulted by the report.
He repeated this argument (ie. the lack of a libel suit and a right of reply) for the French holiday, even though the complaints weren’t that the reports were untrue but that they were unfaithful.
The BA gave absolutely no reason for its logic, other than that the complaints weren’t “substantially proven”. In one of the complaints, it also cited how Peregin had noted the political composition of the BA board but entrusted them with delivering a judgement nonetheless.
Lovin Malta’s complaint against NET remains pending.
Does the BA always treat complaints this way?
Absolutely not. Earlier this month, the BA explained in some detail why it had upheld a complaint against PBS by Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi over a report it carried about him.
The report concerned a court ruling by magistrate Rachel Montebello last November following a complaint by Yorgen Fenech, the man charged with conspiring to assassinate journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Montebello dismissed Fenech’s request, saying he had every right to comment in his capacity as lawyer, but urged him to exercise more caution when speaking in public about the case, arguing that his position as an MP means his words carry a certain degree of weight.
However, when reporting on the ruling, TVM said in its title that Montebello had ‘warned’ Azzopardi, prompting the MP to cry foul over unfair and unfaithful coverage.
“The report wasn’t faithful because the journalist misinterpreted the concept of the court urging caution as a warning, we accept Azzopardi’s complaint, and we declare that the title of the news report broadcast on 23rd November wasn’t faithful and fair with Dr. Jason Azzopardi,” the BA said.
“We feel that this decision is a remedy in and of itself. We’re giving a scolding to PBS and urge their newsroom to pay more careful attention on ensuring their reports are accurate. Reports should include interpretations of facts to ensure the bulletin remains impartial, true and accurate.”
Agree with their complaints or not but at least their line of logic was clear to see, unlike that of Lovin Malta’s dismissed complaints.
So why the difference in reaction?
It might have something to do with a clause in the Broadcasting Act, which states the BA is allowed to regulate due impartiality across private TV stations “as a whole”, essentially allowing the political propaganda aired by ONE and NET to balance each other out.
However, this rule doesn’t apply to the public broadcaster, which means it can be punished for the BA for lacking impartiality.
Lovin Malta is challenging this law in court, arguing the Constitution obliges impartiality across all TV stations and not only PBS. And through its decisions today, the BA basically confirmed it doesn’t hold party media to the same standards as the national broadcaster.
What do you make of these rulings?