Sunday, 22 April 2012

Times: Blotting paper, oasis seekers and wily contestants

A series of surveys shows that Joseph Muscat’s vote of no confidence in PBS stations is countered by a massive vote of confidence by the audiences
- Fr Joe Borg
Muscat’s statement puts him on the right side of the complex debate about media and their audiences. Research in the first half of the 20th century considered the audiences to be like blotting paper – absorbing everything that media producers were pleased to dish out.
Research showed that things were not so simple. Audiences were made of sterner stuff than blotting paper. They tended to choose what they want to read, listen or watch. Like oasis seekers in the desert, audiences turned to the media products they thirsted for.

People are not stupid. They know what they like and what they dislike. They choose the former while dumping the latter. This, though, is just part of the story.
Like wily contestants, audiences tend to read or understand a media product in the way they want to see it or understand it. This way of reading can even be diametrically opposed to what the producer wants to communicate. Different interpretations of the same football match is just one example of different reading strategies adopted by audiences.
Now that Muscat is singing the supremacy of the audience it is only fair to expect him to follow the logical conclusions of his position.
How come that the more Muscat condemns PBS as the nursing ground of Nationalist iniquity, larger and still larger audiences flock to pasture there?
The Media Warehouse audience survey published just last week is one in a series of surveys which shows that Muscat’s vote of no confidence in PBS stations is countered by a massive vote of confidence by the audiences.
More people watch TVM than all the other Maltese TV stations put together. The viewership of all the foreign TV stations received in Malta is smaller than that of TVM. This does not only apply to TVM’s entertainment programmes but also to its news bulletins and current affairs programmes.
Within the parameters of Muscat’s belief that audiences are intelligent, this popular vote of confidence, which is larger today than two years ago, cannot be ignored.
PBS must be doing something right otherwise audiences would not flock to watch its stations. Cynics who say that I write what I write because of my contacts with PBS should note that I did not conduct the surveys.
It would be wiser for Muscat to try and increase the audiences of his station by increasing its credibility. On becoming leader of the Labour Party, he had promised to reform his media outlets. Some progress was registered following the adoption of a code of ethics. However, it was just a short spring. Muscat did not deliver on his promise probably because he is not able to control party functionaries.
One hopes that Muscat would prove more able to fulfil other promises he is making although the culprits he has to control are not just party functionaries but the mighty international markets.
• What’s in a word? In an article published in Newsweek Magazine in 2009, the author, Simon Begley, noted that on the 2004 inauguration of the Viaduct de Millau – the tallest bridge in the world situated in the south of France – German newspapers described how the bridge “floated above the clouds” with “breathtaking” beauty while French newspapers praised the “immense …concrete giant”.
The Germans saw beauty where the French saw heft and power. Is it a coincidence that ‘Brücke’ is feminine in German, while in French, ‘pont’ is masculine?
Maltese presents a similar situation. If we say that someone lives in a ‘razzett’ we assume that this person is a farmer but if we say someone lives in a ‘farmhouse’ we understand that someone is well off. It is also much nicer to have a basement in your house than a ‘kantina’.
Language is not just a way of expressing things but a way of shaping them and the way we think and see things. There really is a lot in a word! It can show political bias, social upbringing and philosophical leanings. Words can clarify or confuse issues. They can calm or inflame people.
The more inflammatory a subject the ‘calmer’ the words one should use, as Cardinal Carlo Mario Pom­pedda, an ex-prefect of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, who died in 2006, once said about the abortion debate.
Condemning all forms of abortion is dutiful, said the Cardinal, but calling abortion ‘murder’ shows lack of respect for language. “Murder refers to man, while here the reference is to the embryo. Law and morality have always distinguished between murder, infanticide and abortion. Should we suddenly erase this distinction?” he said.
On the eve of a probable national debate on IVF, Cardinal Pom­pedda’s advice that the Church defends the human embryo’s right to life without dramatising the differences with those who think differently should not be ignored.
• “The Catholic Church does not oppose gay marriage. It considers it to be impossible... This is not to denigrate committed love of people of the same sex. This too should be cherished and supported, which is why Church leaders are slowly coming to support same-sex civil unions.
“The God of love can be present in every true love. But ‘gay marriage’ is impossible because it attempts to cut loose marriage from its grounding in our biological life. If we do that, we deny our humanity.
“It would be like trying to make a cheese soufflé without the cheese, or wine without grapes.”Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, a former master general of the Dominicans, The Tablet March 10.

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