No price is too cheap

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - NEWS -

Over the years I have spent as a jour­nal­ist, there have been times when I have de­tested this pro­fes­sion. I have as­sisted as peo­ple have been sav­aged by the me­dia for no other rea­son but the fact that they were re­lated to a po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent. Time has passed but the scars re­main, deeply em­bed­ded in the mem­o­ries of the vic­tims and of their chil­dren – too young at the time to un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing around them re­gard­ing their fam­i­lies.

This has now be­come the norm, the skewed way we do pol­i­tics in this coun­try. A cur­sory look at our news­pa­pers and web­sites shows that we give only the slight­est at­ten­tion to the big themes around us: will there be a no-agree­ment Brexit? Will the Ital­ian econ­omy col­lapse as a re­sult of the new govern­ment’s in­ex­pe­ri­ence? Will post-Merkel Ger­many find a new leader quickly? – or, worse, we al­low our in­for­ma­tion to come through for­eign news agen­cies with their own agenda, while on na­tional news we al­low our­selves to wal­low in juicy tit­bits about our op­po­nents.

That is what we have al­lowed our po­lit­i­cal de­bate to come to: a bat­tle of juicy tit­bits. We have built a no-holds-barred cul­ture with no themes or sub­jects of­flimit or out-of-bounds. Any­thing and ev­ery­thing is grist to the mill.

Over the years, we have seen many of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers be­come vic­tims of this craze – with papers from an an­nul­ment case be­ing re­trieved and broad­cast, with the murky back­ground of one of our po­lit­i­cal greats be­ing broad­cast years af­ter this per­son’s death, and now with mar­i­tal trou­ble in the fam­ily of one of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers be­ing made pub­lic at the un­godly hour of 1.30am by a po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent.

What have th­ese tit­bits to do with pol­i­tics, with the great is­sues of the coun­try? Hardly any­thing at all, un­less one stretches a point. This is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from is­sues re­gard­ing al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion, as long as the lat­ter are proved at least to a de­gree of prob­a­bil­ity.

I won­der what the new gen­er­a­tion of re­porters and/or jour­nal­ists are be­ing taught, and what the man­agers of news­rooms and web­pages and what­not are think­ing about if not the num­ber of clicks and ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue. But is that re­ally what the cit­i­zens want?

The tra­di­tional def­i­ni­tion of the me­dia is to in­form and to en­able its users to form an opin­ion and take ap­pro­pri­ate de­ci­sions. The new me­dia seeks to tit­il­late and to en­ter­tain, which is why it is easy for it to be­come the pur­veyor of fake news.

Do not get me wrong: I am no vir­gin in this field and my past has made me, if not down­right re­spon­si­ble at least indi­rectly re­spon­si­ble. I think I have paid my share in li­bel cases, very few of which I won. There is a rather wide mar­gin be­tween what the pub­lic de­serves to hear about and what is only the re­sult of tit­il­la­tion.

This blur­ring of bound­aries has not just dis­cred­ited the me­dia as a whole (as was seen in a re­cent sur­vey) but ac­tu­ally en­ables the pow­ers that be to play around with peo­ple’s sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ties and, through skill­ful dia­lec­tic skill, shift the at­ten­tion else­where.

The me­dia in Malta (but also else­where) is en­gaged in a race to the bot­tom and is fast los­ing its ef­fi­cacy in the process. And as newer ti­tles come to the mar­ket and ex­pect to turn a profit in next to no time, and as costs in­crease, the pres­sure to es­tab­lish a mar­ket share gets fiercer and fiercer: hence the temp­ta­tion to go the way of the tabloids and in Malta’s in­ces­sant po­lit­i­cal fever that means rub­bish­ing your op­po­nents.

One good an­ti­dote is to ask your­self what if the same were to hap­pen to you or your fam­ily. An­other is the well-known maxim that if you have bad news to make known, it’s bet­ter if you do it your­self than if you al­low your op­po­nents to do it for you in their own in­ter­est. ngrima@in­de­pen­

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