Rewind to a couple of years ago when a really minor brouhaha involving Norman Vella, John Bundy, Silvio Scerri and obviously Joseph Muscat made it to the newspapers. Bundy, now CEO at PBS, told former TVM “journalist” Norman Vella not to blame Muscat or any other (Labour) politician for his return to the immigration department, because Scerri was the one who ordered it. Scerri has since then sued Bundy, but I’m not really bothered about the substance of what are essentially loud and resonating handbags between drama queens.
At the time you could accuse Norman Vella of being preposterous in expecting to keep his TVHemm slot under Labour. Not so much because he held a diametrically different view to Labour, often exuding that familiar visceral hate for the party, like somebody who’d only drive past the Ħamrun Mile End in the presence of an exorcist. Vella was borrowed specifically for propaganda purposes. TVHemm (in Maltese, the word “hemm” could also refer to sadness) was a daily evening slot where Vella replaced some quiz show to make mincemeat of impartiality while Peppi Azzopardi, often dressed in the colourful flair of an ageing Afghan tribal leader, served tea, coffee and made casual mincemeat of wisdom. The programme appeared on the schedule in the run-up to the election, further boosting Where’s Everybody’s already suffocating TV presence, joining heavily slanting monuments of broadcasting like Azzopardi and Lou Bondi (more later) in a mass bukkake of Labour bashing. In fact, after the election, Bondi and Peppi went their separate ways, advert packages for Bondi+ and TVHemm were sold at dirt cheap prices, while Norman Vella was inevitably sent flying towards Migration at the speed of a boomerang thrown by a very angry Aborigine.
That said, in a TVM that subsequently got rid of TVHemm yet remained open to farmed-out current affairs programmes, Vella ought to have had his own slot. Why not? After all Labour promised to do things differently, and despite the visual antipathy Norman Vella inspires, one has to keep in mind that Nationalist, or rather, non-Labourite taxpayers also fund our state broadcaster. Voices of dissent should be welcome on state TV; pretty much like RAI caters for its different demographics and political audiences, by giving space to leftist and rightist hosts alike.
After all, former archenemies Allied Newspapers earned their slot with Timestalk. Peppi himself, his testicles imperiled after a harsh warning from the now-PM, was still invariably on the schedule like a seagull on a Staten Island dump, effectively dashing the audience’s hopes of watching something slightly more intelligent than a discussion between chimps on a Friday night.
Two summers later, basking in the earthquake-that-quite-wasn’t of Panamagate, the pruning seems to have begun. After a false alarm about Xarabank being stricken off the schedule – I almost ran downstairs to pop the champer – dissenters are receiving a chilling, one-liner letter about their programme not being shortlisted for 2016-17.
I had received it in 2013 too, when the naive idealist inside me took the trouble to propose Inċertament to state TV. It was a short, blob-inspired 5 minute slot that would have served to bring some satirical content (and maybe a ton of lawsuits) to TVM. At the time it had more legs than a family of caterpillars and it could have grown into a serious project. A partner in crime told me there was no way the PN, masters in sanitisation, would accept something like that on TV, but Labour might. Of course, some blogger from the Benelux whose name escapes me decided I was part of the “Tagħna Lkoll army,” as somebody who often confuses green with blue, or monuments with dildos, would be expected to do.
It was refused, as expected, without a hint of explanation, leaving me with a thousand rationalisations of my own: maybe TVM isn’t ready for satire, maybe I ain’t ready for TV, maybe the stars weren’t aligned, or maybe I used too much saliva to seal the envelope. I murdered a caterpillar and got on with life.
Problem is, the programmes being chucked out of next schedule aren’t your run of the mill amateurs vying for airtime, like a race between sponsored sperm – they’re Timestalk and Madwarna.
Both programmes have had spats with the government of the day. Madwarna’s Salvu Mallia has had an excessively public Facebook spat with government media henchman/blogger/candidate/wine connoisseur Glenn Bedingfield. Herman Grech is guilty of working for the Times, a newspaper that was until recently accused of powering PL to government, and is now guilty of all sorts of anti-government activity through its reporting. (Co-presenter Mark Micallef no longer works for the Times, having dedicated himself to a tour of the world’s migration crisis hotspots that will, invariably, land him in an airconditioned Turkish jail).
I have little sympathy for the Times, for some of its reporting, for its endless typos, for a number of its hacks, for a couple of its bloggers, and maybe I have it in for someone in the classifieds too. But while I carry my distaste for what is Malta’s biggest newspaper on my sleeve, let’s make it clear the Times has no obligation, or duty, to preserve the government’s image. The Times is a privately owned organisation with its own agenda and mission statement (and its orthographic rules too). I would be shocked at the organisation were it to refrain from reporting, say, Panamagate or Gaffarenagate or any other -gate because relations with Labour, before the 2013 elections, had thawed.
In turn, the Cold War between Labour and the Times seems to be well underway after Adrian Hillman’s dismissal. A real torpedo which the Mothership seems to have fired onto itself, salvaging the strongest link between it and government. Allied, or Strickland or whichever part of the massively tentacled animal that is now the Times are way too principled to allow a director to hold a hidden offshore account (or to keep a journalist involved in a sexist rant at a government official on its payroll). While conspiracy theories flew from the blogosphere about Hillman being the source of a pro-PL bias in 2013, the journalists had to defend their work from accusations of being redder than a bell pepper. Accusations that looked, frankly, like the result of menopause-induced spurious envy.
Yet, a board of inquiry was set up and Hillman given the boot in a manner that would have made Romanian law courts, pre and post 1991, to gawp and drool in envy. And then we know what happened next: actually – well, have you heard anything about the inquiry at all? Of course, Hillman “shamed the company” but other Panama accounts from that other director have been defended with an editorial and Saviour Balzan’s histrionics put to bed. Way to go, lads.
But while the Times has undergone this little cathartic coup d’etat where it rid itself of its bad seed and is now run by pure white souls who eat sunflowers for lunch, government has certainly been busying itself. Thanks to its inhouse blogger, the sitwazzjoni infeliċi Kurt Farrugia had referred to in the last ever issue of Timestalk, attacks on Times journalists (and on James Debono for good measure) have been increasing at the rate of pirate raids off Somaliland. Herman Grech, in particular, has been ushered into the spotlight.
The barely controllable surge of acid reflux among Labour supporters erupted when Joe Tanti – a former Nationalist DJ who has found solace in Muscat’s Labour (like so many others) posted a somewhat mystifying comment on Herman Grech’s Facebook wall (you see, nobody sends letters or writes articles these days – just post it on somebody’s wall and see what happens next). Asking him to “stop the drama”, Tanti praised John Bundy for doing “what the large majority of us wanted to do,” going on to say that Grech has become “a pathetic excuse for journalism”.
I read the comment twice, three times, aghast. What irked me most was that this kind of Super One canteen rhetoric has gotten into people like Tanti, a man I’ve known for many years as a good natured, tolerant person. There are plenty of comebacks to be made – one of which includes Tanti’s own journalistic experience, not to mention the fact that his rant was misdirected. Grech has been busier with stories about environment and migration, the latter a topic which, after Muscat’s 180-turn from the hardline pushback stance of 2013-14, finds Grech and Muscat on a cleaner slate. (Tanti later retracted the comment and apologised).
But Grech’s bed’s been made by the feud between his organisation and Muscat’s. A feud both organisations will deny, ready to unsheathe their daggers while you’re not looking.
Meanwhile, I haven’t watched much of it, but Madwarna was one of very few things that could pass as a cultural programme on state TV in the run up to Valletta, and indeed Malta, being the Capital of Culture in 2018. There are, in a country used to being divided by an invisible Berlin Wall, almost logical reasons for the elimination of Timestalk: say, two programmes on Panamagate that must have displeased quite a few people. But I seem to be unable to find none for the axing of Madwarna. Some people on Facebook (not Cinecittà, mind you) have today spoken about a programme bereft of standards and quality; but that reason doesn’t seem high up the editorial board’s list of concerns. For surely, it would spell the death knell for authentic afternoon television holocausts such as Ħadd Għalik or Sibtek, and of course Xarabank.
Let’s go back to Peppi’s threatened testicles: Xarabank is a cash cow, and that’s the kind of cow TVM (and anybody in government) holds sacred. Our own TV Hinduism will see us endure yet another season of fruitless discussion carried out in the manner of a Greek agora on ketamine, a unique forum where any kind of imbecile is given the space to contradict experts and claim the high ground, where the argumentative faculty of the speakers is measured by the effusiveness of the rent a crowd that piles into the studio for a free mobile phone, or even free finger food. Peppi Azzopardi has, for as long as I remember, fed mediocrity and consumerism into state TV, siphoning intellectual fat into Xarabank’s audience, geese ready for their place in a tin of foie gras. Indeed, fil-qosor is the phrase most of us will remember when Peppi finally decides to call it a day, and even then the revolution will not be televised because we’ll have to stop for adverts or some lousy promotion on LiDL foods voiced by PJ Vassallo.
Until some sort of believable explanation arrives from Bundy/TVM, the pattern that emerges is clear, and disheartening: like a sex-hungry extortionist landlord would say, you’ll keep your place as long as you’re nice to us. Peppi Azzopardi has taken the imminent threat to his reproductive apparatus seriously, keeping out of polemics with his new – paymasters? – no, co-tenants is better, seeing Xarabank’s advertising clout keeps the programme on state TV and in turn, it keeps state TV afloat. His former partner, Lou Bondì, who once blogged venom about people who “crossed the Rubicon” like Cyrus Engerer and Marisa Micallef Leyson is now paid by a Labour government to wear a Doors t-shirt and head an organisation in charge of events that are no longer on the agenda. Fortunately, it also resulted in him disappearing from sight, for which we’re largely grateful.
We are two years away from an election, yet the alarming siege mentality has now reached TVM. For a change I’ve nothing bad to say about Reno Bugeja’s capable, unbiased stewardship of the newsroom. But when it comes to programming, after two years of “a bit more tolerance” presenters and their programmes are beginning to bite the dust. In a way it’s ironic that Labour took the trouble of eliminating censorship from the arts, yet encourage that very gaseous form of censorship that is hard to denounce, the worrying concept of ostracism that has become so important in the art of government.
“You might not agree with us but you can still work with us,” said Muscat in 2013. Like 99% of all electoral promises aimed at changing a culture, a way of doing things that is very Maltese, very parochial, and intrinsically based on the red/blue split, Muscat’s Obamesque pledge erupted in a ball of flames in mid-air, like a zeppelin over London. Muscat himself has to carry the can for this: the privilege of politically disagreeable business with Labour seems to be reserved to a very small clique of people who are willing to shut up in exchange for a cushy government job (Bondì) or, in more than one instance, planning permits; what change from the “oligarchic” PN era?
There will be no such reprieve for Timestalk, however. I’ve been invited twice and on both occasions complained about the uncomfortable, hernia-inducing stools; I am assuming that, without TV providing an audience, there will not be a third time, or else I’ll be asked to bring my own stool from home. Is youtube an alternative option? Of course it is, in the way a Bugibba swimming pool full of incontinent British pensioners can be an alternative to a sandy beach on the ocean.
Yet despite all these changes on state TV I long for the safe embrace of that familiar, cuddly feeling we get every Friday evening, now that Peppi’s belt is firmly buckled and the area to its south as safe as houses, as he works his magic and manages to keep the collective IQ of the nation firmly anchored to the ground.