It is indeed unfortunate that the prodigious increase in the variety and accessibility of the means of mass communication that we are now witnessing has not been accompanied by a parallel refinement in the ethic of always relaying the truth. The channels through which ascertained facts and reasoned opinions can travel freely and immediately are often being used to convey half truths and well-crafted spin. What should have been carriers of information have become, sometimes, purveyors of malicious or negligent misinformation.
In politics as in war, truth very often becomes an early casualty. Truth falls foul also of commercial interests. “Populist” television programmes or sensational reporting in newspapers, motivated by the urge to attract a larger audience or readership, may lead some to discard many or all inhibitions concerning the proper way of presenting facts and opinions.
In a free and democratic society, the unimpeded flow of information and dialogue is essential. The citizen participates and exercises judgement on the basis of the information supplied and the opinion that s/he then forms on the basis of fact and argument. Nothing could be more damaging to the proper functioning of a democracy than the distortion of information and artful sophistry hammered into the minds of its citizenzry. Prejudice and bias are not put right or counterbalanced by opposite prejudice and slant. Pluralism in the sources is essential but, at times, not enough. Lies in response to lies do not establish the truth. Striving towards objectivity is imperative on all suppliers of information.
Sources of objective information and straightforward expression of reasoned opinion are essential. It would be naïve were one to imagine that, in merely exposing a prevailing lack of respect for truthful information, one would chastise the whole milieu of the media and bring it to order. Many, perhaps a substantial majority of people in the media, would genuinely aspire to conform to the norms.
What is, however, wrong on the part of the community at large is to accept as inevitable the trend towards subjecting truth to political or party interest and personal or entity profit: it is defeatist to be cynically resigned to deceit. Manipulation of facts and argumentation should be exposed: as a service to democracy and our image as a nation.
We are a stable and safe country. Our crime rate is one of the lowest. We have freedom of expression and association, not only in theory but also in practice. We enjoy the rule of law and full respect for human rights. Some institutions that guarantee this state of affairs receive less than fair treatment and they are patently not in a position to respond. When criticising Parliament, the courts of law, the police, the army, one should exercise extra scruple in establishing the facts. These institutions are not immune from comment and, indeed, in our republic should receive the full benefit of critical judgement on the part of the media as indeed of all citizens.
Negligent reporting and unfair and biased treatment of these emblematic institutions damage our image as a nation with consequnces on our tourism and foreign investment as well as our national self-respect. At times, ammunition is provided for snide remarks from other competitor countries.
It is pre-eminently a matter of principle: How can democratic government (“of the people, by the people, for the people”) achieve its best potential if the people are inundated with falsehoods, half truths and inaccurate statements, which, in their multitude and immediacy, are difficult to rebut. We (using the plural to encompass the whole of the country) have to be vigilant and arm ourselves with critical judgement which can winnow the wheat from the chaff. As in all matters, law presupposes a majority of people exercising self restraint: law can be enforced against an exceptional minority of transgressors. The larger the majority of providers of correct information and reflected upon opinion, who have subjected themselves to self regulation, the wider the area of liberty. Truth makes us free.
It used to be said that one should not expose the sins of the king. That was wrong and harmful. The men and women in authority should feel as if they were living in glasshouses.
Let their vices be known but let us not try to invent more vices than are extant. We should not be afraid to keep in check those who have been entrusted with some power in this state. On the other hand, let us not create the impression that the state of Denmark is rotten when, taken as a whole, warts and all, Malta is a country of which one is proud.
Dr Mifsud Bonnici is Minister of Justice and Home Affairs.