Fr Joe Borg, often sighted (yes, not cited, sighted as in seen) as an expert witness on media matters in court, has been busy asking questions about how the mainstream media is tackling “Plate-gate“. We add some of our own.
In his blog post on the Times, Borg asks a few questions that we have been asking for some time now. We are sad to note that the media expert seems to not read J’accuse as assiduously as one would think. Our “noting” results from the following statement by the media guru: “Wherever you go, people are discussing this issue, taking, quite naturally, different sides. However, wonder of wonders, for the mainstream media it is as if nothing is happening. I find this silence quite strange or ungilded”. What Fr Borg did next was to direct a series of questions to his readers. The aim, it seems, is an online exercise of disquisitions on media and ethics. J’accuse couldn’t be happier that such a discussion is finally provoked – better late than never. We will oblige by providing the set of questions (and adding a few of our own) to this particular free thinking (1) corner of the world.
First, here are Fr Borg’s queries:
- What should be the relationship between the public life of public persons and their private lives? I will not repeat my comments in The Sunday Times about this subject? Has a line been crossed when some media make a feast day from a quarrel Daphne had with her husband? Is Daphne herself crossing a line with her comments about the Magistrate and her friends? The line I refer to is not necessarily the line demarcated by criminal law but a finer line demarcated by journalistic and other professional ethics.
- Were these stories of legitimate public interest? There is a difference between a story being of public interest and it being of interest to the public. The first refers to the public right’s to know. The latter refers to the public’s curiosity, which begets no rights. Information about criminal behaviour, gross misdemeanours or infringements of professional codes of ethics by public persons is normally considered to be within the public’s right to know.
- Who is a public person? Daphne seems to adopt a restrictive definition and considers those being paid by public money as the qualifiers for such a title. Is not such a definition too restrictive? Are journalists to be considered as public figures? Moreover, what should one say of singers, artists and public performers whose public persona exists because the media continually nourishes it? Where do we draw the line?
- If private persons are participating in a legitimate activity together with public persons (whose participation, for the sake of the argument, goes against their professional code of ethics) should they (the private persons) be considered fair game for media reportage and comment?
- Should the posting of a photo on Facebook be treated as the posting of a photo on a public billboard? Or should Facebook be considered as a legitimate extension of one’s sitting room? Could it be realistically considered to be the latter? Can it be used indiscriminately by the media or could it only be used where there is an overriding public interest?
Now, I’ll add a few of my own (questions and observations).
- Is Fr Borg aware that what he is referring to as a “feast day” amounts to a law court report on l-Orizzont? One similar to tens of others that appear weekly? Does anyone remember the man who took a coffin to his house in order to threaten his wife? Surely, the reporting of a court case does not become a “feast day” solely when someone feels threatened by it, particularly, if I may add, when that someone has a record of commenting on such cases on a very regular basis (just don’t mention the Gozitans).
- Is Daphne crossing a line? We need to be more specific Joe. Is she crossing a line? By uncovering a potential rot in the judicial (and political by proxy system) she is not crossing a line. I think that should she substantiate any of the allegations she has made about issues (or events or circumstances) that may have affected the performance of the judiciary then she has performed a service and is crossing no line. Is she crossing a line by opting for the rabble voyeur jury rather than the proper forums? Definitely. The line was crossed the day the public service became subservient to public humiliation. the reason the law exists is so that the proper punishments are meted out as agreed to by society. If Daphne, or anyone else for that matters, is unhappy with the judicial remedies then he or she should be striving to get the appropriate authorities (legislative) to revise the laws. Somehow I think Anna Mallia got it right when she said that DCG has lost faith in the institutions – that does not however make her virtual public lynching of personalities any better.
- We must bear in mind that although there are very serious allegations in question, what happened on the Runs was a general tornado of muck-raking. The “muck” jury found people guilty for being present at parties. We got spin-off gossip of the low degree based on the by now trendy denominator of “Taste”. The wheat could not be separated from the chaff once the dirt machine got spinning. The good thing is that it appears that both the Justice Minister and the Chief Justice are now in possession of what is necessary to take the required action.
- Incidentally, we must look at the “petition the Chief Justice” issue for a moment as a prime example of the dangers of action outside the proper fora. For 14 days, DCG was quite happy with the idea that her readers believed her to be petitioning the Chief Justice to have a magistrate sitting on her cases changed. For 14 days there was no denial of any sort – or at least an acknowledgement that this course of petitioning was not only not being followed but absolutely impracticable at law. For 14 days, as you rightly said, the “informed public” – whoever read what there was to read – could not be blamed for assuming that the petition went ahead. Not only that, on the 14th Februay, DCG once again refers to the possibility of petitioning the Chief Justice again (case before Magistrate Micallef Trigona this time). Until the 15th February, when the Chief Justice did the right thing (not that I am going to be the one to tell Chief Justice Degaetano what the right thing is) and dismissed the “petition” issue as nonsense, DCG seemed to have been as comfortable as the Malta Today reporters with the idea of a petition. That, you see, is the problem with these open courts. In times of revolutions the people are called upon to form makeshift courts. I like to think that the judicial system might have its rotten apples but is still fully workable and that there are persons like our Chief Justice who are there to ensure that the law is applied. leaving readers with the impression that some “petition” could be effective is not only misleading but also uneducational.
- On public persons and public interest. These are the sort of definitions that the law is more than capable of elaborating upon. The jurisprudence of hundreds of years will not change simply because the medium is different. I have said this before and will say it again. Let the law do its work. As for ethics and the media. It is true that their main guide as to what is permissible is the very same jurisprudence but it is also true that they have a (I would add) moral duty as the fourth estate to trigger investigation. I don’t think anyone is questioning the “scoop” or the need for it to be investigated when it comes to the judiciary and its behaviour. What was questioned there was the use of the information and allegations beyond what was necessary for the public to know. Plategate began as a vendetta. We have asked for weeks now: Why now? That is the essence of the error made. Why now and not before? As for Daphne’s definition of what is a public person I can only say that I am surprised. When a fellow blogger asked her to remove a disparaging comment against me on her blog her reply was “If he can dish it out, he can take it”. When I signalled the lack of observance of netiquette on her blog I was told in no uncertain terms what I could do with it. I could end by saying it only goes to show but it does not. I have only illustrated DCG’s attitude to net ethics and public persons. I believe that the issue of public vs private remains grounded in relevance. In the case of the Magistrate the measure remains, in my view, whether any of her actions in private or public can compromise her fulfillment of her public function.
- My answer to your question 4 is that those private persons are not the only ones who deserve to have their privacy preserved and protected. Even if a person who in other situations could be considered public – let us say a DJ or a Local Councillor was present at the party – then, unless his actions or behaviour was such as to be important to substantiate the allegations being made he or she still has a right to privacy. Otherwise what we end up having is a ridiculous exercise of guilt by association – the same kind as the last PN “zokk u fergha campaign“.
- Finally the use of Facebook is and will remain controversial. Chief Justice DeGaetano has announced a step in the right direction. The judiciary have no place on facebook. Other uses are not so clear cut. In some jurisdictions it is illegal for a potential employer to refer to facebook to vet job candidates. Why so I ask? Is the law in that case allowing candidates to obtain employment on the basis of what they are not? The “Use of Facebook” discussion merits its own blog post so I will stop that here – i will only add one thing. Like everything else on the net, facebook is only a tool – don’t blame the tool when things go wrong : blame the user.
As for those of you asking yourselves what is meant by the title: well, Fr Borg referred to an ungilded silence. It might be a conspiracy after all – the silent (or dumb) form a guild in protest to the public mauling that is being served in some quarters. Then again I think that were Fr Borg to put his ear in the right places he’d hear a lot of noise. The problem is that it’s hard to outshout the baying rabble at this particular point in time.
(1) Free thinking incidentally seems to be limited by my spam filter which apparently does not allow comments via “anonymouse”. What that means is that you either have to invent an alias and email address in the hope that your content is reasonable enough to prevent my automatic revulsion to nicknames and anonymity from setting in and clipping the comment. Or. Or you could actually write in your own name and stand full square behind your arguments. No worries. I am not the type to bandy IP addresses about indiscriminately or to use the info to threaten you in return. The argument above all is what J’accuse is about.