Wednesday 01 December 2021

Journalists are there to ask the hard questions, not to make you look good

This column first appeared in Malta Today

During the Prime Minister’s press conference on Thursday he was met by some hard-hitting questions by a few members of the press.  The questions reflected much of what the general public wants to know, and would have liked to ask themselves if they had the opportunity to be present. However, the backlash against the journalists who posed the questions, especially against Nicole Meilak from this paper, once again exposes the poor grasp many people have of the raison d’être of journalism. 

Journalists are not there to write puff pieces to make politicians look good; after all, they have their own people for that, who churn out press releases and plaster flattering photos all over social media of “il-Ministru” when yet another project is unveiled.  But when the excrement hits the fan like it did this week, and an already Covid weary public is faced by the prospect of restrictions being re-introduced, curtailing their lifestyles but even worse, jeopardising livelihoods, then the journalists’ only role is there to speak on their behalf. Not only is it their role, it is their duty. 

There are those who claim that some journalists were too arrogant in the way they addressed the PM and that challenging Prof Gauci about whether she feels she should resign was beyond the pale.  Ok, let us say, for the sake of argument, that they could have used a better tone. However, this does not mean that any of their questions were any less valid. What perturbed me more, in fact, was the way the PM handled it because it is clear he has still not learned how to cope with being under media pressure. He became defensive, riled up and visibly angry when asked whether he should apologise for giving people false hope.  Considering his previous bravado, instead of being rattled by the questions, I would think he should have expected them and mentally prepared himself not to lose his composure. There are several ways to smoothly counter a question like, “Don’t you think you owe the people an apology?” – and probably the best reply would have been a humble admission that yes, he had got it wrong.

And no, he would not have been struck by lightening. The most that would have happened would have been a stunned press room as journalists tried to digest the novelty of a politician acknowledging that he had made a mistake.

But owning up to one’s mistakes is as rare as the Dodo bird on this island so instead, what Abela decided to do was go into counter-attack mode and listed a whole range of decisions and actions for which “I am not going to apologise”.  It is true that the Government has got some things right, but Thursday’s press conference was not the day to boast about them.   Does the PM have any advisors?  Is there anyone in his entourage skilled in PR capable of gauging the public mood? Well, if they exist they are not doing a very good job because they should have forewarned him about how he would come across on that particular day when a worn-out, angry public was being told that we are basically back to square one because the infection rate was out of control. 

As for those who are so quick to badmouth journalists who are doing their job, just bear this in mind. Every day, FB is teeming with questions by the public demanding to know how this pandemic is being handled, but if it were not for the press putting pressure on politicians, many of the answers would never be forthcoming.  

Fearne loses his cool …

In an interview on Monday, Health Minister Fearne dismissed calls for a short sharp lockdown or introducing more restrictions as a ‘circuit breaker’ saying that it was the vaccine which would serve as the circuit breaker.

By Thursday, when he had to face the nation along with the PM, he probably regretting saying these words. It was clear that the plan to allow everything to remain open while vaccinating the population was not working out for a number of reasons. The more contagious UK variant has wreaked havoc, spiking the number of positive cases, and the vaccination rate is still not as brisk as it should be because we depend on the supplies we are receiving.  Lack of serious enforcement and a segment of the population which has dropped its guard have further compounded the situation. 

Now I realise that like the PM, Minister Fearne is also under extreme pressure to get things right, but the display in Parliament on Tuesday night was not a pretty sight. It was the first time I have ever seen Fearne lose his cool as he was asked about those jumping the queue to get the vaccine, to which he replied that Opposition MPs had also asked for preferential treatment. As the heated accusations flew back and forth, it felt like we were watching children squabbling in a schoolyard.  I think everyone really needs a time out. 

In this volatile situation, there needs to be complete transparency regarding the vaccination process. I will repeat the question I asked last week: are Government employees being given unfair access to the vaccine ahead of others? If this is being done in order not to waste vaccines when people do not show up for their appointments, then this should be clarified.  However, there are still elderly people and vulnerable people who for some reason have not received their letter to get vaccinated, so if preferential treatment is taking place, Fearne should put a stop to it immediately. No amount of theatrics in Parliament will justify any wrongdoing, especially where lives are at stake.  

One year on, and how do you feel?

A Facebook poll which I posted on The Salott revealed that most people have now resigned themselves to having to live with the virus because it will not go away. They report still feeling anxious and scared because of the new variants and that their lives have changed completely because of this constant unease. In fact, optimism that the vaccine would make things any better was not as prevalent as I thought it would be.

Around 400 people replied, which is a good enough number, but because of the nature of these polls, it was definitely not a representative (let alone scientific) survey. Since many younger people are no longer on FB, the demographics were also skewed towards those who are over 40. 

However, what I found interesting is that while only a handful were honest enough to say that they don’t care about the restrictions and just want to live their life, or that there was no point in following the rules because getting the virus was inevitable – out there in the real world, people’s behaviour which I have witnessed across all age groups, seems to indicate that this is what many really feel.  Otherwise, how can one explain why restaurants and cafes were jam-packed and people were throwing parties, even as our numbers were getting worse and worse? Was the false sense of security brought about by a PM who kept assuring us we were on the right track? Or have we learned nothing at all this year about how it spreads, and merely convinced ourselves that we were doing everything right when, in fact, we were doing so many things wrong? 

With the enforced closure of all restaurants, snack bars and coffee shops, and only takeaways allowed, we are almost back to the way things were in March 2020.  Those who were greedy ruined it for everyone else, because enforcement was non-existent and the situation was chaotic, which is very unfair to all those who did follow the rules. All this because the authorities were afraid to step on a few toes and shut the worst culprits down immediately, nipping infringements in the bud, which would have served as a short, sharp lesson to others.  It’s like dealing with toddlers or teenagers: empty threats are meaningless unless you follow through with consistency to show you mean it. 

What is evident is that one year on, we are still quibbling over what is allowed or not, rather than using our heads and asking, what is safe or not?  I think allowing four households to mix in private homes is patently absurd in the current situation, but just because you “can” meet with four households at home does not mean you should. One year down the line, it is high time we stopped trying to figure out ways to find loopholes because we are merely prolonging this way of life unnecessarily. 

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