Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 11 January 2009

Not the eight o’ clock news...

Natalino Fenech has a lot of chutzpah. Pity he lacks the cojones that proverbially go with it.

For those unfamiliar with the name – Natalino Fenech, not cojones – I refer to the person who is currently head of news at the national station, PBS. In media terms, this is what insiders term a “position of responsibility”; that is to say, its occupant is responsible for ensuring that the general public thinks the way the government of the day wants it to think... regardless of the truth, which is very often something else altogether.

And Natalino, it must be said, is very good at his job – how could it be otherwise, when he was handpicked for the post by none other than Austin the Infallible? – and on Tuesday 23 December, he wanted the Maltese public to think that MaltaToday Midweek (a newspaper I just so happen to work for) dishonoured its legal commitments by refusing to publish a letter, sent by himself as a “right of reply” under the terms of the Malta Press Act, within the stipulated legal deadline.

In fact, this formed the substance of an entire news item on the PBS 8 o’ clock bulletin– and rightly so, I might add, for as rule number one in the book of media ethics so eloquently puts it: “a professional journalist should strive at all times to turn his own personal grievances, no matter how inconsequential (or for that matter unfounded), into matters of national importance, for all the world as though he himself were of greater significance than the actual news of the day”... or words to that effect.

In any case, Natalino Fenech complained that a letter he had written himself – significantly dated 10 December 2008 – was not published within the time-limit established at law. This bulletin, by the way, was aired on Tuesday 23 December. Please keep both these dates – 10 and 23 December – in mind, as they will very shortly become important.

Now, for the benefit of those who – unlike myself – do not retire each day with a copy of the Laws of Malta for a little bedtime reading, the Malta Press Act specifies that the maximum time-limit within which a right of reply must be published is... two weeks.
And for those who – evidently unlike Natalino Fenech – were born and raised in that curious place called “Planet Earth”, a “week” is defined as the number of “days” that remain when the time Planet Earth takes to revolve once around the Sun (i.e, one “year”, or 365.75 days) is divided by 52.
Yes, I know it’s a completely arbitrary way of measuring time, and if you’re not happy with it, I suggest you address your complaint to the ghost of Pope Gregory XIII, whose ridiculously flawed calendar we still observe to this day. But to all practical intents a “week” will remain the space of time outlined above: which, once you work it out, turns out to be... seven days.

But what, I hear you ask, is a “day”? This one happens to be a good deal less arbitrary: it is the time it takes for Planet Earth to revolve once around its own axis. This may be further divided into 24 “hours”... which in turn are subdivided into 60 “minutes”... each consisting of 60 “seconds”... and on it goes, until we enter the realm of nano-seconds and pico-seconds; at which point, even people from Planet Earth tend to get a little lost.

So let’s limit ourselves to “weeks” and “days”. Having established that one “week” is seven “days” long, the question becomes: how many days do TWO weeks make?
Hmmm. Terribly difficult, I know... and Natalino Fenech may be forgiven for getting the answer so hopelessly wrong, seeing as he evidently comes from a planet in which things are calculated somewhat differently. But as a rule, people from Planet Earth would argue along the following lines: 7 x 2 = 14.
And few indeed would even consider contradicting them.

But Natalino, of course, is special. He thinks differently from you and I. He thinks a week is not seven days at all. And as for a "fortnight"... well, the concept is evidently beyond his capacity to even comprehend.
So remember those two dates referred to above? The ones I said would shortly become important? Well, seeing as we received Natalino Fenech’s letter on 10 December, and the Malta Press Act specifies that a maximum of two weeks may elapse before publication... the latest date we could have published becomes fairly easy to calculate.
Using the following, tried-and-tested magic formula – 10 + 14 = 24 – the answer we eventually came up was 24 December: Christmas Eve, which this year happened to fall on a Wednesday.
By a huge coincidence, this was also the day AFTER Natalino Fenech ran his own little news item: you know, the one in which he accused us of breaking the law by not publishing his own letter within the legal deadline... when in fact this deadline had not even expired yet.

Discerning readers may at this point wish to ask: why did we leave it to the last day? Why not play safe, and publish it before?
Well, for one thing... seeing as Natalino Fenech’s letter was a pile of toss anyway (now that you know the date, you can all read it for yourselves in our online archives) there was no particular hurry to get it out in the first place. And as long as the publication date fell within the parameters outlined by law, the choice was ultimately ours, and quite frankly I fail to see why we should discuss it with anyone... least of all Natalino himself.
But there was another reason, and this one becomes rather important to explain in some detail. Natalino Fenech’s original right of reply, dated 10 December, was actually addressed to Mr Matthew Vella, editor of our Midweek (Wednesday) edition – and not to Saviour Balzan, as the PBS news item falsely suggested. Furthermore, it was written in direct response to an article which had appeared in the same (Wednesday) paper. For both these reasons, the letter had to be published in the MaltaToday Midweek edition... and not the fine Sunday specimen you are reading right now.

Seeing as Natalino Fenech does not even know what a week is, it might be a little bit much to expect him to calculate how many Wednesdays happen to fall between 10 and 24 December. So I’ll work it out for him myself. There are only two: the 17th, and the 24th.

Well, like I said earlier, Natalino Fenech is particular good at his job... especially when his job involves shamelessly exploiting the public-funded national station to settle a purely personal score; and even more so, twisting facts at the expense of the credibility of others.
But his chutzpah is perhaps best manifested in another, altogether more subtle way. I refer to the remarkable hypocrisy whereby he would first (wrongly) accuse our newspaper of not publishing his right of reply... and then go on to spectacularly contradict himself by refusing, point blank, to broadcast ours.

Yes, folks, it seems that “weeks” and “days” are not the only concepts to fall outside Natalino Fenech’s immediate sphere of understanding. “Irony” is evidently another.
Last week, I sent Natalino Fenech a letter in my capacity as associate editor of MaltaToday Midweek – translated into the appropriate legalese by a helpful colleague – and invoking the selfsame Malta Press Act, and its two-week stipulated time limit.
A few days later I received an equally legalistic reply... and guess what? It seems that Mr Oh-My-God-They-Didn’t-Publish-My-Right-Of-Reply-X’Gharukaza-X’Wahda Din had meanwhile modified his tone, and informed me – without supplying a single valid reason – that he had given the matter some thought, and concluded that he would prefer not to carry our right of reply at all... for all the world as though the Malta Press Act, while applying equally to all Malta’s printed and broadcast media, simply does not apply to the great Natalino Fenech in person.

Well, I humbly beg to differ. It does, and he is still in time to respect the legal time-limit and salvage a little credibility. But of course, this would entail acting decently, and... well...


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