The Devil’s Advocate

 Photography by Fotoclassic.


Come talk of elections, current affairs/discussion shows come to the forefront again. Reno Bugeja, PBS journalist and host of the weekly Dissett, is very familiar with the frenzy that is created when a strong political wave hits our island. After all, he has been presenting Dissett for over three years: his first show was aired in the run-up to the 2008 election. Perfect timing, I ask as soon as I meet up with him for this interview? Reno laughs:

“I was definitely lucky with the timings there. The Maltese love politics and anything to do with elections. However, Dissett is not my first current affairs show. There were two other such productions I ran – Topic and Focus. Topic was not very long-lived, although it did leave its mark. Focus was actually a Sunday night radio show with a very loyal following; it certainly provided good training ground for Dissett,” Reno tells me.

The Dissett formula is a simple, yet successful one. Taking the format of a one-on-one interview, the show’s strengths lie not only in the choice of topic and the choice of guest, but also in the fact that there is a real lot of research that is carried out behind the scenes.

“A show that is based on a one-on-one interview is very intense. The downside is that if the host isn’t well enough prepared, there is the risk that he or she becomes the guest’s yes-man. My purpose is not to simply be the mouth-piece for my guest. The idea is to offer a challenge, to unearth things that the viewers would not have necessarily heard about,” Reno tells me.

This is particularly true, he continues, is his guest can be considered as “part of the establishment” – whether such establishment refers to government, the opposing political party or even the church. Indeed, Reno has earnt a reputation for putting his guests through the proverbial grill, always in a polite and civilised manner. This style has attracted good feedback from the punters. This led to Dissett being “promoted” from its previous 10:30 slot to prime-time.

“Mind you, this isn’t necessarily a hundred percent positive move with a show of this genre. When the show used to air later on in the evening, I attracted a particular segment of what I call professionals who would be tuning in late at night, after their working day is over. However being on prime-time you do catch a different segment that might not follow the show if it’s on too late. It’s a different audience I guess.”

The show is also aired on 96.6FM. Visuals do not really play a big part in Dissett and the move seems to have been welcomed by those who, for various reasons, find it more feasible to follow radio than television. The talk drifts back to the kind of topics that are usually the protagonists on Dissett. Controversy always tends to follow, even when politics are not the issue. Malta is a small island and people tend to get touchy about things: has this affected Reno in any way?

“Well yes sometimes people do take the questions that arise during the show personally. But I can’t say there have been any lasting effects. Quite recently I received a whole tirade from someone on Facebook, but then it turned out that this was a relative of someone I had previously interviewed and to whom I had posed some uncomfortable questions so…obviously you take that with a pinch of salt. However in most cases people do appreciate that I’m not scared of posing questions that the interviewee might not have expected.”

This is also reflected in the fact that whenever a topic gets covered in Dissett a discussion seems to be created around it, placing the topic in the news and sometimes also leading to action being taken on those points that would have been raised during the programme. Viewers also use the programme as a springboard to air their own related concerns.

“A case in point was when I covered local councils. An amazing number of people called in requesting that I dedicate a programme to a particular issue related to a specific local council. I always take note of this sort of feedback and even if I don’t act upon them immediately it doesn’t mean I am ignoring them.”

Deciding on the weekly topic is obviously the biggest challenge faced by Reno. Politics always go down well, of course, but obviously a weekly diet of political guests would get boring too. Amongst his most memorable and challenging shows he remembers the interview he conducted with the freshly elected prime minister Lawrence Gonzi after the last elections.

“Understandably, he was in ‘triumphant, post-election mode’ but the show posed quite a number of challenges for him. This was the first time that the prime minister actually spelt out publicly that Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando would not be given a ministerial portfolio, for instance. Gonzi’s definite no came as a surprise to many.”

The edition that featured Gonzi’s then counterpart Alfred Sant also sticks out in Reno’s memory. During that interview a particular question came up: would Sant be re-opening EU negotiations if he was elected prime minister? Sant’s positive reply came a bit of a “bomb” for a good section of the electorate, Reno recalls. But it’s not only politicians who get stick from the TV host: the church isn’t spared either.

“One of my first guests soon after launching Dissett was the bishop of Gozo Mario Grech. That edition also included interview clips with one of the priests who had clashed heavily with him on various issues. The bishop was not yet familiar with the structure of Dissett and was under the impression that this would be a straightforward interview. I remember his look of surprise when I tackled him on issues that he did not even realise were being raised by the public.”

I ask Reno how he feels about the fact that politics ended up playing such a big part in his life through Dissett. Does he get fire from both quarters?

“It’s quite the opposite, actually. It can get quite funny, particularly when we have a party leader as guest. The relevant political party will always be happy with the performance of its leader while the opposing party has a field day picking on everything the guest says. Everyone is happy,” Reno says with a chuckle.

Turning serious, he adds that staying objective is obviously of the utmost importance. The other challenge is making sure that the show maintains its standard every week.

“I do Dissett over and above my full-time work as journalist, so it does take its toll. You have to stay on top of things every single week…and that is not easy to achieve when you have other daily commitments that have nothing to do with the show. Moreover the Dissett team is incredibly small. I do most of the work, in fact. I really do it for the love of it.”

The biggest problems arise precisely because the world of current affairs is an ever-evolving one where things happen fast and where today’s news can easily be rendered obsolete by the next day’s happenings.

“There have been occasions when I’ve had to change topics at the eleventh hour. For instance, when the whole Franco Debono started I pretty much changed the whole show overnight, pulling an all-nighter until three in the morning so I could dedicate the next day’s show to the topic that was on everyone’s lips.”

Luck also plays a part in hosting this type of show. Reno remembers one particular occasion when the topic of discussion was the UK elections, which were happening that particular week. While the programme was actually live on air, David Cameron was confirmed prime minister, giving Reno the opportunity to present a live commentary right while events were still unfolding in the UK.

“That was a spot of lucky timing. I do like moving away from local topics now and again. Sometimes in Malta we are guilty of closing ourselves in our little universe. It’s good to move away from that, even though I have to say that the programmes with a foreign tinge don’t tend to be as popular as the ones about Malta. Well, that’s quite understandable I suppose,” he adds ruefully. “This doesn’t apply to international disasters though, I have to say. Everyone gets extremely interested when there’s been some international catastrophe. Take the tragedy that hit the Costa Concordia, for instance. Everyone followed that one eagerly.”

Although as journalist for the national television station Reno has always been in the public eye, Dissett has to a certain extent propelled him into the brighter limelight. How does he deal with this? Quite well, apparently – except when he needs to get somewhere fast and gets caught up in a discussion about the show.

“I like the interaction with the public. At the end of the day, the aim of the show is to inform the public so obviously feedback is essential. I have to confess that sometimes things crop up at the worst possible timing. You bump into someone and they just have to tell you something there and then. The something usually leads to a long discussion – which  don’t mind, except when I’m late for something!”

I ask him if he follows local and foreign television regularly. Ironically, he confesses that he does not really have much time to do this and is more of a radio man really.

“The problem with television is that you have to drop whatever you’re doing, stay in one room and dedicate your attention to whatever is going on. With radio is different. You can continue going about your business while still following the show you’re interested in. I have a radio in every room of the house. I like to leave it on in the background to catch up with whatever is going on. I follow the BBC in particular.”

The prompts me to the next obvious question: is television a waste of time? Reno stops to think for a while before replying that there is no one answer to my question.

“It depends on the way you use it. On what you watch. You have to consider that even today – despite the popularity of internet – for a huge segment of society television remains the only source of information and of entertainment. For these people it’s obviously not a waste of time. Not everyone has access to a newspaper and not everyone can read a newspaper,” he points out.

“The other side of the coin is that as soon as you’re bored with whatever you’re watching you can zap away. Television does have its uses. I’m not one to spend two hours watching a movie however.”

The little free time that’s left after Reno finishes work on Dissett, he spends with his family. He tells me that he likes to keep his weekends free so he can spend time with his wife. He then adds that he’s lucky to have such an understanding wife as, sometimes, even the best-laid plans have to make way for a last-minute work requirement.

“I manage my time very carefully. With certain programmes, depending on the topic, I plan quite ahead. Naturally, the fact that I’ve been in journalism for so long does help – both with access to information and with time scheduling.”

Reno started working with what was then Xandir Malta back in 1976. He’s seen the technology change drastically, the station evolve and innumerable changes. In his day, he tells me, there was on school for journalists and most were self-taught. Even before starting his career with Xandir Malta, as a teenager Reno was always into news and current affairs, a religious follower of BBC and subscriber to time magazine.

“I have all the issues of Time magazine since the Vietnam war in my collection. Professionally I’ve covered so many major events. Some you never forget: the explosion of the patrol boat in Gozo some twenty years ago, for instance. I remember that we had no clue what to do, where to go… the cameraman and myself rented a speedboat from Għadira and set off for Comino. It was an adventure for us. Unfortunately, an adventure that is tied to a tragedy.”

He also remembers with sadness the 1990 Esmeralda tragedy, when four Maltese lost their lives when their boat was caught in a storm on their way to watch England play Italy in the Italia ’90 World Cup.

“Getting there to cover the incident was a nightmare. We arrived in Trapani after an incredibly long bus trip, we had no permits to film on location, we were trying to get hold of the survivors… But somehow, we managed. As journalists, we don’t give up.”

And with that, which seems to be a good way to wrap up the Dissett ethos, I leave Reno so he can start preparing for his next edition.

Dissett airs every Saturday on TVM at 20:40. This interview was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).