11 - 17 April 2001

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Informing the people

Simon Busuttil is the man behind the Malta-EU Information Centre, which has been both heavily criticised and applauded. Dr Busuttil speaks to Nadine Brincat on bringing correct and objective information to the people, on coping with political attacks and on some of the EU-related fringe movements that have cropped up

Simon Busuttil's working career took its present direction when, six months following Malta's private radio boom in the early 90s, he took up a post at Radio 101 on a part time basis while he was a University student.

"That experience turned out to be extremely useful to me. It introduced me to the infamous microphone and to public speaking," he reminisced.

While on campus at Tal-Qroqq, Dr Busuttil was involved in SDM as well as in other youth organisations, including KSU and the National Youth Council. "As a student group, I think that the NYC had the greatest influence on me. I was involved with the NYC for two years, when the Council was still in its infancy," he adds.

Dr Busuttil explains that he had always held back from political party organisations. "I was not interested in party politics but, unfortunately, there is very little distinction between partisan politics and the EU issue in Malta," he explained.

When asked by The Business Times about his relationship with Campagna Nazzjonali ghall-Indipendenza, Dr Busuttil admitted, "We have a good working relationship and they regularly make use of the services offered by MIC."
According to Dr Busuttil, the fact that MIC was set up by the government already gives it a tinge in the eyes of many. "However, there are clear terms of government stating that MIC is meant to provide information about the EU, and not influence peoples' voting decisions. Unfortunately, people do not make the distinction between information and opinion," he stressed.

“As an organisation, MIC is publicly funded, but since the EU issue is so politically loaded, the organisation walks a fine line.

"When we answer people's questions and queries, the information we give is always based on sources, and we state what these sources are. Regardless of whether the information we give out is positive or negative, our statements are always backed by documentation, even if the issue is politically hot.

"We keep at arm's length from the government, and are supervised by MEUSAC (Malta-EU Steering and Action Committee). Officials from both the government and non governmental organisations are present on this committee," he explained, stressing that the Centre does not merely operate within governmental confines, but also has room to manoeuvre.

When asked about the Malta Labour Party's stance on the EU, Dr Busuttil said, "Unfortunately the MLP did not accept to form part of MEUSAC, and refused to have any part in the supervision," he said.

"I took the MLP's accusation of our school exhibitions as "indoctrination" very seriously, but they were totally unjustified. There are instances, such as this one, in which we are labelled, but we have to live with this. We can only discredit these incidents by gaining the credibility of the people," he commented.

Dr Busuttil highlighted the fact that both parties are in favour of the EU's stance on the environment and education programmes. "The parties fight over the EU, however, as the MIC, our job is solely to provide information on the EU and explain what it entails. Both parties have interests to stop the debate at the door, and it is presumptuous to be selective about the debate," he continued.

The head of MIC also points out that the organisation can only state facts - the pros and cons of particular situations, "But we cannot make any qualitative judgements. Unfortunately, people are unaware of this. Ideally, we would be starting off with a blank sheet, but in Malta we have a very divided scenario," he explained.

According to Dr Busuttil, more frequent and direct meetings with people would be more productive and beneficial, from a qualitative point of view. However, he also admitted that television is powerful as it captures a large mass of people.

"Since the two major local stations are political, if we were not invited to an EU programme by Super One, you only have one other station," he said. Last year MIC produced a programme on Super One entitled Made in Brussels.

"Last year I was a resident guest there at the station. I expected the environment I found, however, I must say that we managed to have rational discussions," he said.

Dr Busuttil admitted that the polarisation of the political parties affects the MIC, but it is part of democracy and should lead to a healthy debate on the issue. "It must be said that no other country has debated the issue so extensively," he said, adding that the government is taking a risk by holding an EU referendum, particularly in view of the fact that the Local Council election results failed to augur well for the government.

"MIC is government funded, using the tax payers' money, and we are trying to engage partners, both financial and otherwise, to support us so we can do more with less," Dr Busuttil explained.

A budgetary total of Lm310,000 per annum is allocated to the MIC and that has to cover salaries, overheads and campaigns, media productions and publications, including the production of the programme Viva Malta on PBS.

"In addition we get a good deal of coverage from the attacks people make on us. Thankfully, this is free of charge," the MIC director added, slightly tongue-in-cheek.

When asked whether the information about the EU is reaching the people, Dr Busuttil said, "There is a lot of information available, but there is a gap between making information available and making sure the recipients understand it.

"The level of information we have at the moment is still far from ideal. There is a lot of distortion, also due to political issues and attacks, between the information sent and that which is received."
According to Dr Busuttil, people are not naturally interested in EU issues, "But this is normal, people should have the right to access the information, but they should not be forced to hear that information. We have to try and analyse all factors before communicating."
When asked about the CNI-IVA-MIC triangle, Dr Busuttil said he finds the CNI to be very effective and active. "They have a clear advantage, because it is easier to scare people away than to explain issues that may be complex.

"I do not think that the IVA campaign is as effective as that of the CNI, because IVA is still in its infancy. As it was instituted a few months ago, it may still need some more time before reaping its crop," he added.

When asked about MIC's effect, he replied, "I do not think that I am the best person to judge the effectiveness of the MIC. However, I can say that we are working very hard and we are very aware that we have a difficult task at hand, but we must also make an effort to improve.

"Finally, I think that it is actually the people who judge our work, not the politicians, although we are easily labelled in Malta. However, I find that winning people's respect in Malta is a very important aspect."
Simon Busuttil is 32 years old. He studied law in Malta, and has always showed a great interest in European Union affairs, which he studied in Sussex on a scholarship, and which he has continued to follow ever since.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt