Sunday 17 February 2019

No ‘cens perpetwu’ at PBS

Pictured above: the journalism award was given to the ENTIRE Biografiji team

There are times when only a Maltese colloquial expression will do, and in this case, the phrase cens perpetwu (perpetual ground rent) is the only fitting way to describe how some TV presenters and producers see their airtime on the national station.

In our language, we use this phrase a lot when we are referring to someone who thinks that they have an eternal foothold in some position or other and that no one should even dare think about removing them.

The way erstwhile PBS TV presenter Norman Vella is carrying on (and on) about the end of his very special leave arrangements from his real job, you would think that he has been thrown out into the streets with just the shirt on his back and no monthly income to feed his family.


He has simply been asked to report back to his job at the Immigration Department, a job he himself chose (after all, no one made him resign with a gun to his head from Where’s Everybody and enter the civil service instead).  No, instead Norman managed to wangle himself a vey clever little arrangement.  After working for a while with the media house WE, he decided that a job mal-gvern, although not as glamorous, probably meant more security in the long run. From today’s Malta Today report of events, it seems he never really worked at the Immigration Department at all, because he immediately applied for unpaid leave – a concession which everyone is entitled to – and worked for WE anyway. This way, if things went belly up, he could always scurry back to his boring little desk job which was being kept for him as a fall back option.

This would not have raised any eyebrows except for some very pertinent details which the story in MT has now confirmed:

  1. the public service management code did not allow civil servants to take more than three years of unpaid leave
  2. an additional two years’ unpaid leave were given by a personal dispensation of the former head of the civil service Godwin Grima
  3. after exhausting a full five years of his unpaid leave, Vella was then seconded to PBS, in a decision which was directly approved by the Office of the Prime Minister.

What can I say but, God Bless. I never realized we had such an indispensable TV presenter/producer in our midst. I’m curious, was anyone else given this kind of secondment to PBS or is Norman Vella ultra special?

Those who are so eager to latch on to the “oh no, look at what they are doing to poor Norman” bandwagon, need to understand a few basic home truths about this industry. Working in television is notoriously unpredictable and unstable – if you don’t believe me, ask the many TV producers and presenters who never know from one season to the next if their programme will be accepted.   No one in TV is automatically guaranteed a slot on PBS unless they are on PBS’ official payroll (and sometimes not even then).  Almost everyone else takes their chances every year by submitting a programme proposal and keeping their fingers crossed. To finance their love of TV, they either do it on their own time as a second job or else takes a financial risk and set up a media company.

Let me refresh your memory: Cast your minds back to very popular shows formerly on PBS like Tista’ Tkun Int, Bongu, Arani Issa and Liquorish. They either stopped altogether or else went over to One TV. Ilsien in-Nisa was submitted but not accepted by PBS (because the station “could not understand the concept”) and was picked up by One TV instead. Ever wondered what happened to former PBS presenters such as John Bundy, Ray Calleja, Josef Bonello and others and why they went to one of the political stations?  The answer is simple: PBS is not a cens perpetwu for anyone and they had to accept it. So why is Norman Vella whining and expecting to be there forever?

This answer, too, is simple. It is because for many, many years WE became quite comfortable with the fact that their programmes were there to stay. Other media houses did not have anything remotely resembling that comfort zone.

For example, I always found it puzzling why the popular comedy show Min Imissu  produced by Take 2 Entertainment was not renewed for another season. I think I got my answer when the two comedians who were the lynch pin of the show were suddenly transformed into Gorg and Pawlu and absorbed into the WE fold for the programme called TVhemm.  Maybe it was just a coincidence or maybe it was just deliberate poaching by the very savvy people over at WE.

The thing is that people are so busy pouncing on the ‘Norman Vella is a martyr’ story because of its political angle that they are failing to see that it has been riddled with misinformation (and deliberate spin) from the start. Norman Vella was not “removed”; his very cosy arrangement simply came to an end.

TVhemm has not been taken off the air – it has run its natural course and come to the end of the normal October – June TV schedule like every other single programme on PBS (and other stations).

My question is, if Norman is such a talented producer/presenter why did he go to work for the faceless, humdrum world of the civil service rather than stay with WE?  Wasn’t WE willing to keep him on their books with a good enough salary in exchange for his obviously immense talents?  Or did they prefer to engage him as a freelancer instead (the same arrangement they have now made with their other full timers)?

In 2012, Norman was seconded to PBS, so I take that to mean that he started being paid by the national station for the daily show TVhemm which went on the air in October 2012 – since this comes from our taxes, it would be very interesting to know what the financial arrangement was for us to be subjected to a presenter who was patently unable to control his own political bias.

Another distortion of the truth came from Norman who has described himself as being the driving force behind Xarabank and Biografiji for which he won journalism awards. Really now? When does being part of a production team suddenly mean that you are the person who actually won the awards? I was at the awards ceremony this year and can vouch for the fact that several people went up to collect the two awards for Biografiji, which makes me wonder how they feel when they hear Norman taking credit for all their work.

Some people are trying to make this about freedom of speech – that the “government” is clamping down on Norman Vella because he was critical of the Labour party. If that were the case I would be the first to object.  In fact, what we need on PBS is even more healthy debate and bona fide journalists who openly probe and question the government.

But the problem with Norman’s presentation style was not that his personal beliefs were anti-Labour; it was because he was unable to keep those feelings outside the studio and conduct an objective, civilized, well-mannered discussion like a professional journalist should be able to.

And if you are reading this and still don’t agree with me, let me put it to you this way.

Pretend for a minute that Norman Vella had to keep his show with the same cosy civil service job waiting in the wings arrangement, but instead of being openly pro-PN he had to become openly pro-Labour. I bet the people who are hysterically defending him now would be calling him “a typical Laburist bum who wangled himself a job mal- gvern and got himself transferred to PBS despite the fact that he’s uncouth and hopeless”.

Oh, and there would be a ” jaqq” thrown in there somewhere too.

Powered by