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Monday 10 November 2014, Dominic Fisher

Debating the principles of a free press in Malta

A former blogger reports on the Battle of Ideas satellite event in Valetta.

Last week, the Institute organised three highly successful satellite events across Europe, in Stockholm, Porto and Malta. Here, Dominic Fisher, a former blogger, (http://praguetory.blogspot.com/) who landed in Malta in May 2011 and has lived there ever since, passes a critical eye over our first ‘battle’ on the island. 

The question of press freedom arouses universal interest and made a great debating topic to draw in the crowds on a wet weekday evening in Valletta. Ahead of the event – with four well-known Maltese print columnists lined up – my only concern was that the night could turn into an amen corner. Shouldn’t we have someone outside the profession on the panel? Don’t all journalists have a laissez-faire philosophy towards press freedom? As it turns out, they don’t and there was certainly a variety of opinion on display. 

The evening opened with set-piece introductions from the local panelists and Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas and continued with questions, or in some case speeches, from the floor to stimulate the debate. The old chestnuts of the ethics of naming those under suspicion of crimes and the use of libel are hot topics in Malta and featured on the night.

Early on, I found myself agreeing violently with Mark Anthony Falzon of the Times of Malta who labeled the local media ‘predictable’ and ‘docile’. Would this be a call to arms? Unfortunately, the rest of his speech was an honest, but depressing account of how his most enthusiastic censor is himself. I found Father Joe Borg to be an enigma. He made some useful points on the critical relationship between the audience and the media and current journalistic taboos, but gave praise to Channel Four’s Jon Snow for his anti-Israel camera piece. Surely press freedom isn’t about news reporters using their role as a personal platform?

Claire Fox spoke next. Whilst making no attempt to downplay media malpractice, she issued warnings about Leveson and ‘ethical journalists’ and all but implored us to back a no-holds barred media landscape constrained only by the general public. Her argument reminded me of Churchill’s description of democracy as the worst form of government except all those others. By contrast, Raphael Vassallo of Malta Today was disdainful of the tabloid media and online outlets circulating false stories. His only objection to top-down regulation of the media appeared to be the perceived unworkability of such arrangements.

Finally, Ranier Fsadni spoke and placed the ethos of truth at the heart of a healthy media, which was a valuable contribution. The moderator Angus Kennedy was skilled at challenging the guests and developing the theme. As the conversation continued, several points of difference emerged among the panel, including their perception of foreign influence on the media culture and the impact of libel on the work of their profession.

A unifying point was that nobody seemed happy about the state of the Maltese media. Unfortunately, I didn’t gain much confidence that things will improve. Even when talking about press freedom, most of our debaters seemed wary of speaking openly. I think I caught some of the subtleties, but for someone unfamiliar with the local landscape, parts of the evening might have been a bit like listening to a conversation from behind a door. Somebody suggested that the barriers to real press freedom might be amplified by Malta being a small island, which is I think is undoubtedly the case, but as a former blogger I would suggest that if the mainstream media is too shy to take up thorny issues, they shouldn’t be surprised if they find there’s a market for more authentic or braver voices.

I look forward to Claire and her team to come back to Malta again to do some more stirring on another topic.

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