Labour leader Alfred Sant yesterday challenged Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to a series of pre-electoral campaign televised debates, suggesting that these should be organised according to rules established by “independent journalists’ institutes” as opposed to “entities which have a financial or commercial interest in the media aspects of debates”.
In a formal letter addressed to the Prime Minister and distributed to the media yesterday, Sant also revealed details of private conversations with Lawrence Gonzi, suggesting that the prime minister himself had complained about the standards of local televised debate of Where’s Everybody? productions such as Xarabank, hosted by Peppi Azzopardi on TVM.
“It is in the national interest that serious and civil political debates between the leaders of Malta’s two foremost political parties are held on the national station,” Sant wrote yesterday, hours after informing the producers of Xarabank that he would not be accepting an invitation to participate in this Friday’s edition.
Coming after a number of public spats with Where’s Everybody? producers – the most recent involving a clash with Lou Bondì over the MLP’s economic proposals – and the ongoing showdown between the PBS board of directors and editorial board, yesterday’s move has widely been interpreted as a direct challenge to the Prime Minister to address the issue of standards at the national broadcaster, which Sant himself has repeatedly referred to as “Mandra Malta” (“Mandra” being the Maltese word for a pigsty.)
In his letter to Dr Gonzi, the Labour leader openly rubbished the organisation of Xarabank, arguing among other things that the popular Friday evening discussion show is characterised by a “primitive” running order, that its presenter was a “journalist (?)” (sic) and not a “moderator”, and that the audience is organised in such a way that, “as usually occurs on Xarabank programmes when you and I participate, one side heckles the other to the detriment of the debate and of civil behaviour.”
“This is not a serious way to conduct political debates between the leaders of the two parties on the National Broadcaster on the eve of an election campaign,” Sant wrote, significantly adding that: “This is not the first time that you and I have spoken privately about this (issue), that this is not the way to put forward political arguments in a serious and civil manner.”
Contacted yesterday, the Prime Minister refused to be drawn into commenting on the above alleged exchange with Dr Sant: “It is not my habit to comment publicly on private conversations, be they with the Opposition leader or anyone else,” he said through an OPM spokesman.
But in his formal reply to Alfred Sant, Lawrence Gonzi also dealt a subtle barb of his own: indirectly reminding the Labour leader of his own recent experience on One TV, where he was subject to some shabby treatment by a particularly ill-mannered Charlon Gouder.
“I am convinced that journalists, even when one disagrees with them and with the way they run their programmes, should have the opportunity to ask us about our policies and our public behaviour. For this reason I make every effort to accept invitations to meet them.”
Meanwhile, Xarabank host Peppi Azzopardi yesterday addressed a press conference, in which he said he failed to understand Dr Sant’s reasons for turning down the invitation, after the Xarabank had answered all the Labour leader’s technical questions – some of which bordered on the intrusive – regarding Friday’s programme.
War of the airwaves
While yesterday’s unusual exchange between Opposition leader and Prime Minister has already been lost in a labyrinth of countless pre-electoral campaign stunts, little has been said about the serious issue which underpins an otherwise specious confrontation: the state of national broadcasting in the 21st century.
On one level, Sant’s motion of no-confidence in Xarabank echoes a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the standards of popular debate in general. Few would deny that Sant has a point with his references to heckling audiences and uncivil behaviour during such programmes.
But at the same time, his decision to boycott Friday’s episode – even if he himself refuses to acknowledge it as a boycott – betrays an inconsistency in his entire approach to Where’s Everybody? productions. Sant has clearly not learnt any lessons from the last election, when a similar confrontation bruised the MLP infinitely more than either Xarabank or Bondiplus. To rekindle the animosity now, a few months away from an election, smacks heavily of political masochism.
On another level altogether, the Labour Party has once again revealed that it hasn’t really grown out of its obsession with total control of the airwaves. In his correspondence with the producers of Xarabank, Sant displayed a disproportionate interest in the production details: demanding to know, among other things, the precise position of cameras, the duration of commercial breaks, the identity of audience members, the seating arrangements, the allotted time for interventions, and much more beside.
Sant’s idea for a totally new infrastructure governing televised debates also illustrates the extent to which the two parties now dominate the airwaves to the exclusion of all other issues. In particular, his suggestion that televised debates should take place “by means of an agreement between representatives of the two parties” suggests that the Opposition leader still considers this country to be a two-party State, in which bipartisan consensus automatically eclipses all other considerations.
It must be said, however, that Lawrence Gonzi’s terse reply failed to take into account of the occasionally serious issues raised in Sant’s challenge. For instance, the Prime Minister ignored the unsubtle dig at the ongoing “war” between the PBS board of directors and the editorial board; especially the Labour leader’s facetious suggestion that the PBS editorial board organise debates on TVM… despite the fact that the same editorial board is currently operating without a chairman, after a public face-off between the last incumbent John Camilleri and the PBS director Joe Fenech Conti.
Likewise, the Prime Minister chose not to react at all to Sant’s proposal for a series of debates, choosing instead to simply go along with the existing – and largely unsatisfactory – vehicles for popular discussion.
All things told, the episode served as an entertaining opening salvo in what is likely to grow into a no-holds-barred media war on the PBS battlefield. It is too early to proclaim any victors; but the losers are easy to identify.
They are TVM’s long suffering viewers, who can now look forward to the MLP and PN hogging all the available limelight at least until the election, and most likely beyond.