Resisting mediocrity and the interests it serves: how the Maltese media contributes to the creation of a mediocre audience and then blames this audience for the mediocrity of the media. All in the interests of the ruling social networks. A footnote to a comment by Raphael Vella.

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 6, 2009


Raphael Vella, writing last Sunday in a local English-language paper, argued that “television constantly adapts itself to the mentality of its audience. [Its programmes] essentially confirm the conservative tastes of a conservative public; they challenge no orthodoxies, change nothing, and definitely never tell people what they do not want to hear.”

He concludes that if television “consistently challenged the public’s preconceptions – as art does so often – the grand audience ratings it brags about would suffer as a result, and its power in relation to other cultural products like print journalism and the arts would be greatly diminished [and it…] would lose its cultural and commercial monopoly.”

Raphael’s comment is a good starting point for a radical discussion of the social and cultural role of the media in Malta (all of them, print, radio, television, web-based). The greatest merit of his intervention is that it problematises an institution that has – by and large – so far been allowed to promote – indeed to impose – its own self-image on society, thereby aborting critical counter-images and seducing society into accepting the media’s self-image as the only real and the only possible image.

In my view, nothing Raphael says is in itself incorrect. What he says, however, at least in this particular comment, is not sufficiently radical, in others words it does not quite go to the roots (radix) of the problem. Raphael Vella cites Pierre Bourdieu. Great! But what needs to be done is to follow the signposts planted by this great French sociologist all the way to the roots of the issue. If we, following Bourdieu, do so, then we will have to confront the fundamental problem of power in society, of how the ruling social groups conserve and consolidate their power. This will require us, incidentally, to make use of the conceptual tools developed by the intellectual giants on whose shoulders Bourdieu himself stands.

If we do opt for this radical approach we will wake up to a number of facts, some of which are not clearly recognised by Raphael in his comment. Here are some of them (take them as hypotheses to be tested, if you wish):

1. That all the media in Malta (all of them, not only the ‘popular’ television programmes Raphael focuses on) are tendentially – consciously or otherwise – accomplices in the reproduction of the cultural hegemony of this society’s ruling social groups and, therefore of the cultural preconditions of their social, economic and political power. This, so far, has been true irrespective of political party in power and of the party-political leanings of the owners of Maltese stations and newspapers.

2. That “art” is not spared unless and until it becomes conscious of these mechanisms and takes a position against them. Unless and until it does so, “art” in Malta will continue to be a tool of hegemony, happy in its illusion of independence from the mechanisms of power. To suggest that “art” is excluded from these mechanisms is to ultimately protect them. Unless you wake up to the realisation that you are a prisoner, you will never attempt to escape.

3. That these mechanisms of power are neither eternal nor inevitable. They have a history, they developed over time, they change in response to changing (local and international) conditions. If they are not inevitable they can be changed. It takes courage, intelligence, organisation, patience, skill, creativity and – yes – humility. For an artist it takes a lot humility to realise that she/he is not a Nietzschean superman outside of society, an independent artisan free from the constraints and conditioning of industrialised mass media. Once emancipated from this petty bourgeois illusion (an old fashioned categorisation? perhaps, but still valid), the artist is free to join the (by no means inevitable) efforts to change things (to the extent that conditions make such a change possible). With more artists and intellectuals willing and capable of undertaking a critique of the society they operate in – Raphael Vella is a relatively rare example, in this country, of one such artist – we can resist these mechanisms.

4. Mediocrity is not merely an aesthetic quality. It is also a political tool. It is the principal means by which the diversity and uniqueness of individuals is compressed into an anonymous mass with middling wants and tastes, a politically harmless audience with characteristics clustered around a socially constructed average. The Maltese media play a critical role in the production and reproduction of such an audience. When we are tempted to say – as Raphael comes dangerously close to conceding – that Maltese television is forced to give the audience what it wants upon pain of losing that audience, we absolve it from its involvement in the very creation of that sort of audience. This vicious circle – like Brecht’s Arturo Ui – can be resisted.


Raphael Vella’s article may be viewed at:










8 Responses

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  1. Ramona Camilleri said, on March 6, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    This country’s ruling networks are powerful but culturally backwards and aesthetically mediocre. Therefore the struggle against this country’s ruling networks is a struggle against cultural backwardness and aesthetic mediocrity. Therefore all those who appreciate culture, art and good taste, have to take a position against this country’s real hamalli, its ruling networks…those who wield power irrespective of which party is in government.

  2. Peter Galea said, on March 6, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    You (Dr Vella?) write: “That all the media in Malta (all of them, not only the ‘popular’ television programmes Raphael focuses on) are tendentially – consciously or otherwise – accomplices in the reproduction of the cultural hegemony of this society’s ruling social groups and, therefore of the cultural preconditions of their social, economic and political power. This, so far, has been true irrespective of political party in power and of the party-political leanings of the owners of Maltese stations and newspapers.” Did I read that right? Did you say “irrespective of political party in power and of the party-political leanings of the owners of Maltese stations and newspapers”? Wow!

    • Editor said, on March 6, 2009 at 7:26 pm

      Yes, Peter. It is Mario Vella and yes, you read right. I will be developing this theme in the next post.

  3. Naomi Busuttil said, on March 7, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    I am not sure if I should be happy or sad to read Dr Vella, a former president of the Labour Party (who was on the navigation bridge, from where observations are taken and the handling of the ship is directed, in the glorious period 1994-1996 as well as in the all too brief government experience 1996-1998), indicate that mediocrity pervades all the Maltese media “irrespective of political party in power and of the party-political leanings of the owners of Maltese stations and newspapers”. Is he including the Party’s own radio and television stations?

    On the one hand I am happy that someone with some influence in the Labour Party – albeit an ‘outsider’ with no official position – is finally admitting that One TV and One Radio can do much, much, much better than they are doing now. It is true that they are the stations with the largest slice of the market when compared with all other stations individually but not, we tend to forget, when compared with all the others stations together. For the broadcaster of a political party with an ambitious reformist programme, such as Labour under its new leader Joseph Muscat, this is a crucial distinction. The Establishment (for that is what Labour has to confront, not just the Nationalist party) can count on the support, direct or indirect, of all the other TV and Radio stations. Together they rule waves! To make durable and sustainable inroads into their audience our stations have to go beyond the usual tired stuff they churn out now, generally speaking undistinguishable from what the other stations produce. So, I am happy that we are finally beginning to speak about these things.

    But I am also sad. What the hell have we been doing since 1998 on this front? We’re not talking rocket science. But it’s never too late and I am optimistic that with Joseph at the helm, we’ll see progress here too. Keep it up Joseph, the silent (so far) are with you.

  4. J. Borg said, on March 7, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    I would like to comment on the way some sectors of society use their hegemonic role to promote their own life style, culture, and values while denigrating that of others. I’d like to point out at something which might be taken for granted, why is it that in sitcoms, soap operas, plays etc. etc. aired/staged in Malta, people speaking in some kind of accent/dialect are almost always portrayed as dolts? Doesn’t this make people who speak in dialect a target for ridicule? It seems that the easiest thing to make people laugh in Malta is to imitate some disability or speak in dialect.

    On another note, it’s true that here in Malta the media is mediocre, but I do not think that this is exclusive to Malta. Maltese productions look more mediocre because of the lack of resources. Aren’t The Sun and Bild mediocre? Yet they are the two most read newspapers in their respective countries.

    Why are the news so biased in Malta? And it is not just a matter of local politics. Weren’t news reports completely biased in favour of the Arabs during the last battle in Gaza? Sadly enough, One News and l-Orizzont were two of the most biased.

    Did Peppi Azzopardi have to impress kids by brining a Palestinian refugee on his programme, in an edition which was featuring kids? Did he have to tell them in such a melodramitic voice how Palestinians were being bombed by the (evil) Israelis? Did he have to make such an effort to present a one-sided picture in order to influence kids?

  5. Arthur said, on March 8, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Maltese television is not forced to give the audience what it wants upon pain of losing that audience but upon pain of loosing its revenue.

    This media client’s are no longer [if ever they were] the viewers but the advertisers.

    The powers that be wields the media as a most efficient instrument to numb people’s minds and imagination, gradually rendering them addictive to lazy, lethargic, silly numbness, always craving more.

    Silly television efficaciously inhibits the viewers’ critical thinking abilities. It similar to going through a box of assorted chocolates, eating away to one’s euphoric heart’s content, never realising the harm it’s causing to one’s well being.

    As Daniel Dravot in Kipling’s The Man who would be king says “Do you really think that if a soldier thought twice he’d give his life for queen and country? Not bloody likely. ” Nor for that matter would the Maltese watch Xarabank [li ma twasslek imkien], or any of the penny half penny soap operas that the people are force fed daily.

    So how do we change all this?

  6. Dorothy Camilleri said, on March 9, 2009 at 8:56 am

    So there are still “pure” intelligent and cultured out there, and with this bunch Malta will be saved from mediocrity? I doubt it. However, what I know for sure, is that those who are laughing on their way to the Banks,to Castille and to Pieta and other high powered places, must love such debates. It gives them time to breath, and time to ponder how to accelerate the pouring of mediocrity on the Maltese and the Gozitans media centres. Why? Because they have been in power for more than 20 years, and this state of affairs serve them pretty well. After all they are PROFESSIONAL politicians and their job is to retain their hold on power; in the meantime “purists” cultured, avante-couriers, savvy and nerdish illuminati can keep on debating for an other 20 years; I am sure they will persuade the majority of other apostles like them!

  7. Dorothy Camilleri said, on March 9, 2009 at 8:58 am

    So, there are still “pure” intelligent and cultured PEOPLE out there…….please insert people after cultured. Sorry for being cynical, but at this point in time I cannot help it!

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