Several people have asked me what I think about the contents of the now infamous emails between Sabrina Agius and Joseph Muscat…”don’t you think it’s outrageous that a politician should be so familiar with a journalist?”, they demanded. “Isn’t it terrible that he was trying to “groom” her to be his ‘mole’ within RTK and possibly other media houses?”
I can understand why the man-in-the street is taken aback, but as I have already pointed out, these things happen more than the general public is aware of. Cynical as it might sound, it is quite common for politicians to try and cultivate contacts with what is known as “the friendly media”, the world over. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama, for example, knew that if he went on certain talk shows presented by liberal Hollywood celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres and Jay Leno, he would be treated with kid gloves.
These talk show hosts are not journalists, of course, but they are probably even more powerful. It is often said that Oprah Winfrey, who has tremendous clout because of a combination of wealth and media control (the woman has her own network, her own magazine and a dozen other ancillary media companies) was instrumental in getting Obama elected.
Where is the Fourth Estate in all this, you may justifiably ask, and you are right. Who is going to give us the truth about politicians and how do we know which is the ‘real’ truth if we cannot trust the press not to have its own ulterior motives?
It is a slippery slope when politics and the media start to merge in what is often seen as an unholy alliance. Throw in the interests of big business and big money and the shadowy unseen hands become even more adept at pulling strings.
Does this happen in good old Malta? Give me a moment while I stop laughing.
What the general public is blissfully unaware of is the sheer amount of pressure which is placed on any journalist in the independent press who “dares” to write honestly about politics in an opinion column. Especially when that columnist is not exactly waving the PN flag.
As someone who worked for a national newspaper for 13 years, and who has been writing about politics for the last six years, it is true that I was never directly told what I could or could not write, but that does not mean that there were not attempts being made from external sources to shut me up. It is not always done blatantly, of course; it’s more what I might definite as ‘gentle persuasion’.
At first there was the ‘sweetener’: a trip to Australiain July of 2007 (which I wrote about last week) as part of the Prime Minster’s media entourage (despite the fact that at the time I worked in the Features department and not in the newsroom). Even when I was told about it, I immediately thought it was very odd that I should be given this plum press trip, especially when journalists are renowned to ‘kill’ for such opportunities. Usually the Features department is offered the crumbs, such as a one day trip to Sicily and back.
I am not a person who can be bought off however. I came back from Australia and continued to write as I felt about the political situation and that unforgettable 2008 election campaign.
But then, after the elections, even though the PN had won, it was clear that something was wrong: the victory, as it was, was nothing to write home about. The Nationalist party was incensed that it had only managed to scrape through with just a slim majority.
One fine day, just a week after the 2008 elections, I received a very interesting email from someone with connections to the paper I worked for.
Here are some choice quotes:
“In putting your political sentiments and rivalries before the interests of the organization for which we work, you are being disloyal to that organization and erroneous in your reasoning. This is despite the fact that I honestly believe you are doing the newspaper more harm than good by constantly harping on views that I can sense are greatly at odds with those of our readers, and which are therefore alienating them. People with your views read Malta Today.
“…you seem to forget that you do not work for the Labour Party/Alternattiva Demokratika.”
“…you could try seeing me for a change as somebody who helps contribute to Standard Publications’ bottom line, in my own small way, and therefore to your pay cheques. I suggest that you put an end to this ceaseless one-sided battle because it is not doing the business any favours. There is more to be gained by cooperating, and I am sure you are quite capable of controlling yourself.”
Needless to say I did not reply to the above email, but I was careful to save the original on my computer while printing several hard copies of it. I knew that one day, it would come in very handy, if only to prove a very important point.
And that day is now.
Those who got all choked up with rage because Muscat and Sabrina exchanged emails tried to make it seem as if the Opposition leader had crossed the line, and was diabolically planning some major takeover of independent media organizations.
Frankly, Joseph Muscat does not have that kind of cunning. With all due respect, when it comes to plotting of this kind, the Labour party doesn’t even stand a chance – they are amateurs when compared to those who are masters at the game.
The manipulation of the independent media is not carried out through emails, because nothing is ever written down (except for the email quoted above which was a glaring miscalculation on the part of the sender).
The way it is done is that phone calls are made and ‘informal’ business lunches are arranged with editors and hand-picked journalists. Stories are planted the next day on the front page after a journalist has been tipped off by a politician – yes, my dears, it happens all the time.
And if politicians want to “get to” a journalist who is not toeing the line, it is all done in much more insidious ways. Ways which are difficult to fight against when your job is on the line and there are veiled attempts at intimidation as above, which carry the clear warning for you to shut up. And if you read the papers carefully, you will realise that this intimidation does work. After all, how many people would risk losing their job just for their principles? Principles do not pay the bills, as we all know.
So I would ask you to take whatever you read with a pinch (or a barrel) of salt. There is a lot happening behind-the-scenes, and we haven’t even seen the worst of it yet.
Leave a comment