42/08 - 29Sep2008

Revision of Broadcasting Authority Requirements as to Standards and Practice applicable to
News Bulletins and Current Affairs Programmes


In May 2004, following a lengthy process of consultation, the Broadcasting Authority had issued a set of guidelines on the production of news bulletins and current affairs programmes for the purpose of self regulation by local broadcasting stations. However, it eventually became clear that the expected result was not being achieved and accordingly, following another process of consultation held during the last quarter of 2006, the Authority adopted a revised set of Requirements, several sections of which were codified into Maltese subsidiary legislation. These sections consist of provisions which are generally intended to promote good ethical behaviour in the production of news bulletins and current affairs programmes. These provisions address various subjects, including rights of respect and privacy, children’s rights, the use of hidden microphones and cameras, the recording of telephone interviews and the use / editing of interviews.

Legal provisions on impartiality and due accuracy in the local broadcasting media have long been in existence in virtue of article 119 of the Constitution of Malta and of article 13 of the Broadcasting Act and it was, therefore, then not deemed necessary to codify into Maltese subsidiary legislation also those sections of the Requirements which essentially constitute an elaboration of these already existing legal provisions. Moreover, article 13 of the Broadcasting Act enables the Broadcasting Authority, in the exercise of its responsibilities to ensure due impartiality in the broadcasting media, ‘to consider the general output of programmes provided by the various broadcasting licensees and contractors, together as a whole’, although this proviso cannot be applied to public broadcasting services. In fact, successive Boards of the Authority, in dealing with news bulletins and current affairs programmes produced by the politically owned broadcasting stations, have opted to be guided by this enabling provision. However, it is obvious that local public opinion is generally not sympathetic to such an approach.

Although, over the past months, the Authority has sought to enforce the applicable provisions of the above-mentioned requirements (which seek to promote good ethical standards), even in the case of the politically owned stations, this has not in effect helped to reduce the excessive political slant in news bulletins and current affairs programmes produced by the latter stations and, also in this case, it is evident that public opinion is not satisfied with the prevalent situation. The Authority is therefore now revising these Requirements and is codifying into Maltese subsidiary legislation a number of other Requirements as indicated hereunder. These provisions would apply to all broadcasting stations, irrespective of their ownership.

The Authority, of course, cannot and should not impinge on the broadcaster’s right to produce news items about any subject or issue he/she chooses, although this freedom of choice is always subject to the fulfilment of the obligations to ensure fairness and respect for truth. However, in the local broadcasting scenario and in the particular case of the politically owned stations, it is very often the choice of subject which substantially contributes to the existing level of political slant and it will therefore also very much depend on the discretion actually exercised by the editorial structures of these stations as to whether an acceptable level of impartiality and balance will be achieved.

New Provisions

Following a consultation process, the Authority has approved amendments to the above-mentioned Requirements. In brief they are the following:

i) the definition of ‘news’, under section 2.1 (Definitions and Interpretations) is being amplified so that a news item which is essentially only a repetition of an item already featured in a previous edition of a news bulletin cannot be justified for inclusion in a subsequent news bulletin;

ii) section 4 (News Bulletins) is to be codified into Maltese subsidiary legislation in its entirety. Moreover, section 4.1 will be amplified to make it clearer that opinions and comments on news items should only follow an accurate report on the facts, and that such opinions and comments should respect the requirements listed in Section 2.1.3 (Definitions and Interpretations) of the Requirements;

iii) two of the provisions under Section 12 (Current Affairs Programmes) of the Requirements are being amplified.

Section 12.1, which deals with the content of current affairs programmes, will now make it clear that ‘a series of current affairs programmes should be balanced with a diversity of topics, including topics of a social, cultural, educational, environmental, economic, industrial and political nature, as well as other subjects of general interest. Where the topics selected address issues of political or industrial controversy or of current public policy, the broadcaster is to ensure that, at least over a series of programmes, the selected topics adequately reflect the current debate affecting the whole political spectrum in the country.’

Section 12.5, which deals with the choice of participants in current affairs programmes, will now specifically make it clear that ‘where the subject matter refers to an issue of political or industrial controversy or addresses public policy, participation in the programme should reflect a balanced and adequate representation of all the interested parties, political or otherwise’ and that ‘the use of audiovisual material, including clips and features, in such programmes should reflect in a balanced manner the views of all the parties concerned. Where the programme involves the active participation of an audience, the audience selection process should, to the extent possible, ensure that the audience is composed of persons with different views’;

iv) the ancillary and supporting provisions included under Section 2 (Definitions and Interpretations), Section 8 (Integrity and Responsibility of the Broadcaster), Section 20 (Application of Requirements) and Section 21 (Editor for the Purposes of these Requirements) will also be codified into Maltese subsidiary legislation. This means, in effect, that, with the exception of Sections 17-19 of these Requirements, which specifically refer to the public service broadcaster, the Requirements would be fully enforceable. The Authority has legal advice to the effect that Sections 17-19 cannot be enforced by the Authority itself.

Entry into Force

In due course, these Requirements will be published in the Government Gazette and will enter into force on 1st November 2008.

Dr Kevin Aquilina
Chief Executive
29th September 2008
Ref 89/01