Minister for Education and Culture Dolores Cristina has called for a revision of the National Broadcasting Policy, which was published four and a half years ago.
Speaking to MaltaToday, the former Family and Social Solidarity Minister, who took sole political responsibility in the second Gonzi administration for state broadcaster Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) Limited from Austin Gatt and Francis Zammit Dimech respectively, said the National Broadcasting Policy was “old enough to be revisited”.
Asked to comment about the fact that PBS has now passed under a single ministry, thus resolving the dichotomy of the past legislature, Cristina explained that “PBS is generally under the responsibility of the Minister of Culture, since that is its natural environment”.
However, following the 2003 elections, “an exception was made and PBS was placed under the responsibility of two ministries. One was responsible for the investment side, the restructuring of the company and its financing.
“The other was responsible, among other things, for the programmes that benefit from the Extended Public Service Obligation contribution. Now that the restructuring has been executed it makes sense that PBS should return to its natural environment: the ministry responsible for culture,” she told MaltaToday.
Asked about her priorities for public broadcasting, Cristina said that she would first meet all the people on the ground before taking any substantive decisions.
“It is an exercise I consider to be essential in that it will help me to better understand the strengths and the weaknesses of the organisation as well as the threats and challenges that face it in the coming years. Only then will I move towards appropriate action,” Cristina said.
Last Wednesday week, Cristina toured PBS for the first time, where she had a long meeting with chairman Joe Fenech Conti, chief executive officer Albert Debono, and the board of directors.
Asked whether she was aware that the PBS editorial board was currently without a chairman since the controversial resignation of John Camilleri at the end of August last year, Cristina said: “I have been aware that the Editorial Board is without a Chairman for some time, and not solely since becoming Minister responsible for PBS.”
However, she was rather tight-lipped about the second part of the question, that is, whether she had identified a person who would be serving as a Chairman of the PBS Editorial Board and whether she could state the name of this person.
Asked whether she was going to change the members of Editorial Board or the Board of Directors, or review the dichotomic relationship between the Board of Directors and the Editorial Board, which has led to friction in the past, Cristina was cautious in her reply.
“I do not intend to make any changes simply for the sake of change. I will be meeting the full Board (of Directors) again in a short while and the direction I have given is that it should be ‘business as usual’ for the sake of the organisation and the workforce.
“For now, the current structures will remain,” Cristina told MaltaToday.
Asked whether she was aware of the recommendations of the editorial board, which have been ignored until now, Cristina did not mince her words: “Yes, I have read all the literature handed to me that is relevant to PBS.” However, she was dead silent as to whether those recommendations were going to be implemented or not as her predecessor had made it amply clear he could not care less about the recommendations.
Asked by MaltaToday for her opinion on whether PBS had become too commercially-oriented in its programming and financial outlook and has lost its public service ethos in its quest for ratings, Cristina said: “The type of programmes, as well as their quality, are undoubtedly at the top of my agenda.
She added: “One of my priorities is to strengthen the ethos of our public service broadcasting in the light of government’s stated policy that PBS should be the best broadcaster on the island and that it has to have the best programmes and serve the largest number of people possible within the parameters of financial sustainability.”
Cristina explained that there were a number of deadlines in the coming months where broadcasting is concerned. For instance, the Audiovisual Media Services Directive became part of EU legislation in December 2007. “It has to be transposed into national legislation by end 2009. This directive will affect TV and TV-like services.”
In addition, digitalisation in the television and radio sectors was just “round the corner”.
“By the middle of next year, the contract between government and PBS comes up for renewal, while the National Broadcasting Policy will be four years old this month; old enough to be revisited," Cristina told MaltaToday.
Asked whether the new administration was going to maintain the financing formula currently used for public broadcasting (an annual grant for EPSO programmes currently standing at Lm500,000) or revert to receiving money from licence fees as it was till 2004, Cristina said: “The financing of PBS as well as several other facets of its most important mission will be looked at in the perspective of the whole scenario.”
One thing will surely not change for now in public broadcasting: the Minister’s advisor in the field, the ubiquitous Fr Joe Borg, who has survived the electoral earthquake that has shaken the country on March 8. He “will be staying on as my advisor in this sector,” Cristina told MaltaToday.
This is not Cristina’s first foray into broadcasting as she served as a member of the PBS’ board of directors between 1992 and 1995, when public broadcasting was first under the hands of Francis Zammit Dimech and then passed under the responsibility of Michael Frendo in March 1994.
PBS back in its natural home
The decision to put PBS back under the Education and Culture Ministry was universally welcomed by the media experts contacted by MaltaToday for their reactions.
Dominic Fenech, acting chairman of the PBS Editorial Board, said: “I think it's a good idea to have culture and PBS together, especially if there is the intention of continuing the present system of subsidy. Previously you had a situation where PBS as a company was under the Ministry of Investments while the regulator of how the government subsidy was to be used was the Ministry for Culture.
“In the end the Ministry for Culture was quite ineffective and all the shots were called by the Ministry for Investments. I never quite understood how one minister made all the appointments while another minister paid out the money,” he told MaltaToday.
Speaking in his own personal capacity, Fr Joe Borg was also elated at the news. “The Editorial Board in its very first report had suggested that the dual accountability situation PBS was in would be reviewed following the completion of the restructuring exercise.
“I cannot but be happy that the situation was reviewed. The justification of the decision taken in 2003 does not exist any longer,” the University lecturer told MaltaToday.
“Now that PBS is accountable to one minister – and the Minister for Culture at that – a particular direction can be given to the search for the much needed balance between financial sustainability, programme quality and popularity,” he said.
“This balance is not something static: one does not reach it once and for all. It is a response to a dynamic and evolving reality. We have to continuously strive for it,” Borg told MaltaToday.
On his part, veteran former broadcaster and journalist Charles Flores said: “It is a wise, albeit long-overdue, move that should hopefully and finally do away with the behind-the-scenes bickering and confusion of the past few years.
“Minister Cristina is also a shrewd choice and augurs well for the future well-being of both the national broadcasting company and its employees,” he told MaltaToday.
The road ahead
Asked for his view about what should be the priorities for the new Minister as regarding public broadcasting, Prof. Dominic Fenech said: “The priorities of the new minister, I imagine, will be those of any new minister tackling this totally problematic operation.
“The aim, as always but with more determination and goodwill, should be to make PBS credible politically and excellent in terms of production. I believe more leeway and priority should be given to productions by the company's employees, especially the excellent journalists in the newsroom.
“They have shown in recent months, for example, that they can produce superior current affairs discussion programmes than outside companies. Given opportunities and resources, they could come up with more and better products.
“I also think that the new minister should take a new look at the National Broadcasting Policy which is unclear on some crucial points, especially where the relationship between quality and profit are concerned.
“The ambiguity over the respective roles of the editorial board and the board of directors, and the terms of the relations between these two needs to be sorted out, unless of course the new minister decides to change the structure altogether.
“But whatever the case, I would hope that ultimately the decision-making process should be driven by quality control, obviously without prejudice to the financial solvency of the company.
“Until now, it has been mostly profit-driven, with quality being sometimes completely sacrificed. Bottom line is that whatever policy is put into place, it should recognise that the production houses are PBS's contractors, not its clients, and that its clients are the viewers/listeners, and that its prime responsibility is towards the latter,” Fenech told MaltaToday.
On his part, Borg explained that EU Member States have up to December 2009 to transpose the Audiovisual Media Services Directive into their legislation.
“I think that this should not be treated simply as a legalistic exercise. As a country we should ask ourselves what role the media should play in our society.
“We should discuss the role and future of commercial and political stations as well as the role and future of our public service station. We should discuss the role of the regulator. As already mentioned our public service broadcaster should be part of this examination and the National Broadcasting Policy should be re-evaluated in the light of past experience.
“The above can keep the Minister more than busy considering that PBS and audiovisual policies are just a fraction of her responsibility,” Borg told MaltaToday.
On his part, Flores said that the restructuring exercise carried out four years ago at PBS – which cut off the workforce to a third – was “a total disaster”.
“Apart from the (purpose of) ethnic cleansing that it so obviously served, PBS all too swiftly and predictably fell into the beckoning arms of a restricted circle of so-called independent producers to the detriment of most PBS full-time staff and other independent production houses.
“The first priority has to be a return to a fairer distribution of in-house and farmed-out programmes for both radio and television.
“Other priorities should include a complete technical refurbishment that would make PBS independent again (as well as the best on the island) and the retention of the privilege to cover all national events, including the traditional activities on the calendar,” Flores insisted.
He said the PBS News sector also required “urgent attention”.
“A parliamentary body that oversees its daily work and regularly updates its guidelines would preferably take over the work from a politically-appointed editorial board that has sadly been found to be subservient to an omnipotent Board of Directors,” he told MaltaToday.
Asked by MaltaToday whether the government should increase funding for public broadcasting or not at this moment, Prof. Fenech said: “If public funding can be increased it's always better. But more importantly are the conditions attached to the government subsidy.
“I also believe in the establishment of a strong and efficient advertising set-up, to maximise advertising revenue without having a situation where the station sells airtime to producers who then become its direct competitors in the limited advertising market.
“Selling airtime in my experience is a recipe for bad quality programming. It gives free rein to a production house to use the time available to it to make the most money, rather than to produce the best programme,” the university professor said.
Fr Borg did not commit himself on whether financing should increase or not. “The financing of the public broadcaster should be part of the items under scrutiny since the financing methodology has a lot to do with way the company is managed and with the content it broadcasts,” he told MaltaToday.
On the other hand, Flores insisted that “Government is duty-bound to increase funding until such priorities are seen to and PBS is strong enough to cut the umbilical chord and move forward.
“However, to do so it first needs to be accorded a proper national policy that is based on its Constitutional responsibilities. So far it has merely been the unhappy victim of one policy after the other on the part of one government after the other,” the veteran former broadcaster said.