Bird Hunting
NEWS ANALYSIS| Sunday, 02 September 2007

Throw away the remote – PBS is sure to keep us watching

Karl Schembri

Forget the national television station’s public broadcasting mission: TVM is all about entertainment and fun, so much fun that its programmes schedule is already popular even before going on air.
A big “thank you” must go to the chairman of the editorial board, who has just resigned amid months of high drama and fiery declarations in the press.
When he was appointed 10 months ago, John Camilleri got flak from Labour for his close history to the Nationalist establishment on the same day he was named.
The MLP Secretary General Jason Micallef even took the party’s objections about the possible repercussions of Camilleri’s appointment to the Broadcasting Authority.
“It is very bad for public broadcasting that Camilleri is put in charge of the PBS editorial board, particularly when the country is heading towards a general election,” he said.
This very newspaper had taken the editorial stand that his appointment was misguided.
“It flies in the face of all the things that have been preached since the dark days of Xandir Malta,” MaltaToday’s leader said last October.
Known as “l-Ispider” in the PN’s inner circles, the 60-year-old Nationalist Party heavyweight from Floriana has flanked Fenech Adami ever since the latter was unknown – his right hand man, paving the way for his ascent as PN leader while still in Opposition after Borg Olivier.
Thirty years ago he was appointed both the PN’s first organisation secretary and private secretary of Fenech Adami, following the leader to Castile in the 1987 electoral victory.
He has then served as Malta Trade Fairs Corporation chief executive, chairman of Telemalta, chief executive of the Employment and Training Corporation, and executive director of the PN’s Academy for the Development of a Democratic Environment (AZAD), before moving to Brussels in Commissioner Joe Borg’s cabinet.
Nationalist insiders were, on the one hand, confident in Camilleri’s capabilities as a shrewd organiser, and somehow smug at the prospect of having someone at PBS who would not be a spoke in the government’s wheels.
Others had their doubts whether Camilleri would be as conversant with television, and as forceful on the public broadcasting mission, as his predecessor.
Well, everyone was proved wrong. Camilleri defied everyone’s expectations. For the government, he turned out to be not only a spoke in the wheel, but a veritable obstacle course. From stern warnings to Lou Bondi to stop mixing commercial and private interests with his current affairs programmes to changing the government’s plans to broadcast the Mater Dei opening, Camilleri has proved to be a real thorn in the government’s side.
For one thing, he did the implausible – he chucked Lou Bondi’s programme Bondiplus out of the winter schedule short list and made it public, together with L-Ispjun, among others.
Labour was somehow caught off guard, just as it was somehow getting cosy with Bondi and secretary general Micallef was showering him with praise – “give me a thousand Bondis,” he said. That’s not what Camilleri was saying, though.
Sparks started flying when Camilleri had barely sat in his new position on the PBS editorial board. First, he stopped Bondi from holding a programme on former minister John Dalli on the grounds of conflict of interest, given Where’s Everybody’s links to Joe Zahra – the man found guilty of fabricating a report about Dalli. Bondi immediately came out screaming “censorship” and hitting out at Camilleri, but the latter was unmoved.
Then last December, Camilleri’s board stopped Where’s Everybody satirical programme Skartocc halfway through the winter schedule, apparently for being in bad taste and of low quality, once again irking Bondi.
“PBS gave us no reason except a rather cryptic one – the editorial board does not like Skartocc,” Bondi had said.
In February, Bondi went down in history as possibly the first TV presenter to sue his own guest for libel after a showdown with Wenzu Mintoff on his programme, triggering a Broadcasting Authority warning that is said to have driven Camilleri to eventually rule out Bondiplus from the controversial winter schedule.
At that time the BA had slammed Bondi in a letter it sent to Camilleri’s board, threatening the station with legal action and the removal of the programme if there was to be a repetition of that highly charged face-off.
To be fair, Mintoff was supposed to be discussing Gordon Cordina’s resignation from head of the National Statistics Office, but the Labour education secretary was anything but educated in his scathing attack on Bondi’s evident PN bias.
He stormed the programme like a charged Panzer and Bondi fell for him, “entering in direct confrontation with the participant in question, even with comments of a partisan nature,” according to the BA.
Camilleri now stops short of saying why he removed Bondiplus in the original shortlist but he does point at last February’s rebuke coming from the BA, which had also accused Bondi of breaching its guidelines on current affairs.
Camilleri however did the unthinkable. In publishing the programmes short-listed programmes for the upcoming schedule last April, he exposed what had been going on between the editorial board and the board of directors since the two creatures were created in the aftermath of Austin Gatt’s restructuring process. In publishing that list, Camilleri placed himself at a point of no return, with government insiders whispering that his days at PBS were numbered.
Camilleri said he had published the list in a bid to make sure it would not be “tampered with” – a damning declaration of mistrust in the board of directors, whom he accused of stepping into the editorial remit even when they were supposed to look only at the financial aspect of the programme proposals.
Camilleri’s board had to face PBS Chief Executive Albert Debono – the former financial controller interested in the bottom line and who is a member of the editorial board by default. Debono’s predecessor, Andrew Psaila, is known as a competent technical person who has the public broadcasting mission at heart, having climbed up the station’s organisational ladder along the years.
“When we decided to keep Bondiplus out of the short list, Debono agreed with us,” Camilleri said. “It was a decision taken by consensus. Yet he was getting conflicting instructions from the chairman which went against what we had decided.”
Camilleri’s problems with the board of directors, specifically with chairman Joe Fenech Conti and chief executive Albert Debono, were not really new to the station.
His predecessor, Fr Joe Borg, described more or less the same problems in his last annual report shortly before he resigned two years ago, although Gatt had already made it clear he couldn’t care less about the report back then.
Shedding light on the problems between the two boards when Andrew Agius Muscat was PBS chairman, Fr Borg’s report makes it absolutely clear that “the board of directors has no right to say that a programme should not be broadcast because it is not editorially of good quality”. Nor can the directors’ board “deem that a programme is good for broadcasting when the editorial board has deemed it unacceptable”.
Under the section titled “The schedule and tensions between the commercial aspect and public broadcasting aspects”, the editorial board chastised the board of directors for increasing commercial programmes both during and after prime time to 60 per cent.
Most disturbing is the board’s comparison of TVM with Net TV and Super One. It emerges as the station with the biggest number of commercial programmes, least drama, the least one to have in-house productions, the least station to have core public service programmes, and the one to have the most teleshopping programmes.
“Above all, it is clear that TVM does not distinguish itself from the other stations in the genre of programmes that is supposed to be distinguishing it,” Fr Borg’s report said. “In our opinion the schedule made compromises with the public broadcasting mission that should have never been made.
The board also remarked that it was after its “strong insistence” that certain programmes it deemed unacceptable were not included in the schedule.
“Were it not for this insistence, the schedule would be substantially different, although it still does not reflect well the board’s views.”
What Camilleri did differently from Fr Borg was that he wrote no reports but issued many declarations – in other words he got fed up with the chairman long before Fr Borg, and fought it out in the open.
“Fr Borg used to fight with the board of directors until some form of compromise would be found, and then criticise the directors’ attitude in his editorial report, but John Camilleri just decided it was too much and he called it a day in the most explosive way possible,” sources close to the editorial board said.
There are of course other problems, PBS has no commissioning editor, not even within the editorial board, so inevitably every schedule is ending up like an auction of air time with the highest bidders getting their slot on TVM irrespective of what they have to broadcast.
As Rachel Vella put it – a fascist can end up broadcasting prime time on TVM if he offers enough money to Debono and Fenech Conti.
Besides, there is no balance of power in the schizophrenic battle between Austin Gatt and Francis Zammit Dimech.
There is everything clearly showing that the broadcasting policy needs to be rewritten in an unequivocal language, at least when it comes to defining the powers of both boards.
And having PBS Chairmen Austin Sammut, Michael Mallia and Andrew Agius Muscat, and editorial board chairmen Fr Joe Borg and John Camilleri, all resigning under Gatt’s rule – that surely says something about the minister, doesn’t it?
Now the government is at a loss as to whom to appoint after Camilleri. Sources close to the office of the prime minister expressed their initial hope that Fr Borg would reconsider returning to the hot seat, given that the Archbishop has been changed, but close friends of his say the priest has recited the Act of Contrition since he left the station.
“He intends to sin no more and to avoid whatever led him to sin,” one friend said jokingly last night.
Gatt is surely in no hurry to find a replacement. It took him a whole year to find a successor to Fr Borg, and Camilleri wasn’t even his choice .
Editorial board members Mary Anne Lauri and Dominic Fenech will end up chairing the board on an alternating basis, as they did prior to Camilleri’s appointment, but that would leave the editorial board seriously debilitated with the election just round the corner.
PBS will inevitably get the flak from Labour in the coming weeks and months, although it is more likely that Gatt will be the prime target, rather than the station.
But the show will go on: it will be more fun than ever, and rest assured there will be no commercial breaks – just one, long drawn-out soap opera.

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