Monday 23 April 2018

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When media bias takes over

 This article first appeared on Malta Today

A BBC radio 4 programme in the series “Crossing Continents” which was broadcast last week, claimed that it would be looking into the ‘two Maltas’ in the wake of the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder. In the promotion for the programme it was stated that, “Tim Whewell goes looking for answers on an island where everyone knows everyone, but belongs firmly to one camp or the other” and had the potential of being an insightful, well-researched analysis into what makes this island tick.

I was especially looking forward to listening to it because I knew that fellow op-ed columnist Claire Bonello had been interviewed for this programme, and I was interested in seeing how the producers would put the whole thing together.

What I heard instead was a very poor attempt at investigative journalism where the producers clearly started off with a pre-conceived premise, and made sure that everything which was included in the 28 minutes fit neatly into what they had already decided was the reality. Rather than “looking for answers” it was more like “looking for the answers we want”. It is comparable to when someone carrying out scientific research only includes those statistics or findings which fit their theory, while omitting anything which may be pointing in another direction, or which might disprove their theory altogether. Or when, for example, the research questions are phrased in such a way as to elicit certain answers and not others. Or when the whole study is slanted to begin with because of the methods used to choose the sample of respondents to be interviewed. In the academic field, that kind of research is immediately discarded as skewed and unreliable because the researcher would have influenced the results, in order to portray the desired outcome.

Likewise, in journalism, doing proper research beforehand, as well as picking and choosing your interviewees and deciding what questions to ask them are all possible minefields. Setting aside one’s inherent bias in order to come up with as fair and objective story as possible, is a part of the whole process of putting it all together. With broadcast journalism, however, the power in the hands of the journalist becomes even more significant, because they have another tool at their disposal: the editing. Sound bites and the selective use of that particular part of an interview rather than the other can make a great deal of difference to the message conveyed. Or else, you can just completely cut out an interview altogether, and simply not use it, like it had never really happened.

I suppose the first clue that the BBC radio programme was not going to live up to its self-description was when I realized that Claire Bonello’s interview was not even included. Now why would that be? My guess is that a well-respected op-ed columnist who speaks fluent English and who was offering them a different perspective on why Carauna Galizia was so divisive, did not quite fit in with their chosen narrative. Instead they went down the more predictable route and attended a Labour party meeting in Birgu where they asked the supporters questions about Daphne and about the Prime Minister. That gave them the perfect sound bites they wanted, as easy as pressing a button. It was clear that they were never after any objective analysis at all, but simply wanted enough of the ‘right’ material to slide into the allotted slots in their script.

The island, for them, falls automatically into the two socio-economic demographics labelled “this Malta” and “that Malta”. The first Malta is primarily the English-speaking middle-class, which is supposedly the only sector of society which believes in propriety and the now cliched phrase of the rule of law. The second Malta is….everyone else. And they made it clear that under the umbrella of “everyone else” are the staunch Labour voters blindly in love with Joseph, who speak broken English, and who seemingly do not give two hoots about corruption or good governance.

The two Maltas which this programme described and illustrated with their choice of interviews could not have been more stereotyped if they had tried. This was not about reflecting any truth but about conveniently slicing the Maltese community into two separate parts – those who have appointed themselves as the epitome of correctness (and who also seem to be suffering from a severe case of amnesia in the process), and anyone else who doesn’t agree with them on every single aspect of their claims who is then, by association (in their eyes) also corrupt.

The programme portrayed a very simplistic view of our country which does not reflect the whole reality. Of course, the two polar opposite socio-political classes which were mentioned do exist, but what about the many people who do not fit in either demographic? For example, the Labour supporters who are equally disgusted about the Panama revelations and want the truth to come out about Egrant as much as anyone? The Nationalist supporters who may or may not have voted in the last elections, who are doing very well under this Government and couldn’t care less about the Panama Papers? What about those from both political camps who vehemently disagreed with Daphne’s penchant for making anything and everything always about one’s social class?

And frankly, whether one is predominately English or Maltese speaking has ceased to be relevant in the context of the current socio-political situation but is, rather, a leftover remnant of an outdated colonialist attitude which enjoys classifying people’s intelligence and ability to assess current events according to the language they speak. I constantly hear pitiful political (usually re-hashed) arguments by people in both languages, just like I also hear well-argued very valid points, in both languages. This hang-up about associating the language that one speaks with some kind of intellectual prowess could not be further from the truth – but I suppose the BBC crew were in too much of a hurry to cobble their programme together to make this important distinction.

In fact, had the BBC bothered to hang around a bit longer and talk to a wider selection of people they too would have realized that there are many nuances and different shades of opinions. Not everything is black and white. Indeed, there are a number of “Maltas” and anyone who did their research properly instead of relying on others to feed them information would have discovered that. Or maybe, as in the case of the interview they left out, they did discover that, but decided that chopping out the bits which did not quite fit the script, was a more preferable editorial decision.

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