Saturday 18 January 2020

The problem is not ‘the media’, it’s your behaviour in office

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I think it’s high time that the political parties organised a basic course for aspiring candidates in order to learn how to distinguish between ‘journalism’, ‘PR’ and ‘propaganda’.   While they are at it,  established politicians might want to pop in for a couple of lectures to refresh their memories. 

Journalism, done correctly, covers both sides of the story, and gives everyone involved the right of reply.  Now the term journalism can cover everything from reporting to investigative journalism, in-depth analysis and opinion pieces like this one. But even in opinion pieces the basic rule is that you have to stick to facts.  Much as it would be tempting (and quite easy) to simply regurgitate every single piece of gossip and rumour that floats our way, those who write op-ed pieces have a responsibility not to. Expressing an opinion about current events is one thing, but flinging accusations and allegations the way I see people doing on FB based on nothing more than their hunches and wild speculation, their “firm beliefs” and “I am sure’s” is a sure recipe for getting yourself sued.  

Do columnists, newspapers and media houses have their own bias and editorial slant? Yes, it would be unrealistic to pretend that they do not.  However, despite this, the basic tenets still apply: that the role of the Fourth Estate is always to hold those in power to account and to ask the questions which the public is asking.  Unfortunately, as we have learned, there have been too many instances where the narrative has been deliberately channelled in certain directions along with attempts to suppress the truth, leading to more and more people flatly refusing to trust any media outlet at all.  

Having said that, some members of the public also need to realise that the role of the independent media is not to lavish politicians with praise at every turn – they have their own party media organisations doing that daily, glorifying Ministers simply for showing up for work. It is also not our job to defend the indefensible. But the inability of some people to understand this basic concept persists.  This was brought home to me recently in a comment underneath one of my op-ed pieces by an anonymous commentator who complained that, “…I noticed circa 2 to 3 years back an unfathomable shift in her criticism of this Administration.” 

An “unfathomable shift”…seriously?  Does this person (who does not have the courage to use his real name) honestly think that this administration does not deserve to be criticised for its actions?  Does he think that politicians can do what they like once in office, ignore public sentiment, renege on their electoral promises and trample over our rights while the media is supposed to just sit back and clap, “Bravu! Bravu!”   I think commentators such as this are mistaking journalists for public relations officers.  We are not here to massage egos or write fluff pieces every time a politician cuts ribbons or inaugurates some building with their name on it.  There are people (paid out of the public purse) whose job it is to issue press releases for this purpose. 

Those in the public eye also need to get a grip about the role of the media. Mrs Muscat a few weeks ago lamented that, “the media were against us”, when speaking about her husband’s term of office. Now, while it is true that there were some news outlets which picked on her mercilessly, even for trivial reasons, it is also a fact that this cannot be broadly described as all the media.  On the other hand, being in the limelight and courting publicity is a doubled-edged sword, as many people (both locally and abroad) have learned to their detriment over the years. Along with the thrill of being in the limelight, one has to put up with the flak and criticism, the satire and jibes. You are going to be scrutinised, sometimes fairly and sometimes not – but that is the price of being a public figure. 

As he approaches the end of his tenure as PM, Muscat (who in the early days used to be so good at handling criticism) also seems to be showing signs that he believes the media are there simply to kiss the hem of his robe. “It is none of your business” he told journalists when questioned about who paid for his Dubai trip. Excuse me?  Dr Muscat, when one day you become a private citizen rather than someone elected to high office, then and only then, can you reply in that vein.  

Meanwhile, when I hear his most ardent supporters defending his every move no matter how questionable it has been, it once again reinforces my conviction that we need to shut down all political party media and their relentless propaganda. Unfortunately, not only does this not seem to be on the cards, but Chris Fearne has made the suggestion that what the Labour Party needs is an English language online portal “so that people overseas can read our version of events and not only English language newspapers with an agenda against us”.

Surely, the issue should not be about giving “your version of events” but ensuring that the decisions taken by the Labour administration are above board in the first place?  Don’t blame the media for pointing out what is wrong and where you have erred, because that is the media’s job.  Whoever is going to take over the helm this weekend has one job: try to get it right this time and do things properly, rather than continuing on the same path which led to Muscat’s early resignation.  Basically, if you don’t do so much damage, you won’t need so much damage control.  

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