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Someone’s head will roll

When I broke the oil kickbacks scandal in January 2013, I had hard facts and documents. I presented them to the police assistant commissioner Michael Cassar on the same day I broke the story

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan
24 April 2017, 7:58am
As journalists, our business is that of verification
As journalists, our business is that of verification
Writing when on vacation is not the ideal thing to do. I thought that the week after Easter would be a calm period for me to miss out on my column, as I usually do.

But it has been a tumultuous week and more is to come. Here in France with presidential elections there is not even a fraction of the tension we have in Malta.

The allegations are what they are, in brief, that the Prime Minister’s wife Michelle Muscat is the ultimate beneficial owner of the Panama offshore company Egrant, and with it the allegations that this was a vehicle through which over a million dollars would have flowed from the Azerbaijani first family.

Now the allegations are being vehemently denied by the Prime Minister, who has made it clear that he is placing his head on the block with a magisterial inquiry launched to investigate the allegations.

At the same time, the Pilatus Bank chairman, whose institution purportedly processed the transactions, has denied the claims or that the Muscat family are clients of his bank.

Nexia BT managing partner Brian Tonna has also denied the allegations, or that he himself bought a £17 million property in London using his BVI company. A search on the UK’s Land Registry for 4, Old Park Lane does not find the name of Willerby, but other BVI companies.

Needless to say, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil has challenged the Prime Minister, asking him to resign, saying that he believes the stories by Caruana Galizia. His battle-cry is totally based on the blog posts of Daphne Caruana Galizia.  But no evidence to show. Xarabank would have been an ideal chance to show this evidence.

Now there is no beating round the bush here, that most hard-core Nationalists believe what Caruana Galizia has written on her blog, even without the physical evidence being provided. They believe everything she writes and do not question her. And perhaps many also share her penchant for derision and hatred.

Other non-traditional supporters have also made it a point to stick their neck out, believing Caruana Galizia and calling for the PM’s resignation. They have every right to do so, but they should be cautious.

As journalists, our business is that of verification. When we believe mere speculation and do not base our assertions on proof, we can no longer act as journalists, independently of partisan allegiances. When we publish stories without proof or provable evidence, we are asking readers to take a leap of faith, one which does not necessarily lead to the incontrovertible truth. 

A lot of people don’t give a hoot about truth; they enjoy ‘truthiness’ if there are enough plausible reference points to tie up a narrative. And some people just want to believe, even if Caruana Galizia gets her facts wrong on one, two, three occasions… they will believe her anyway.

I am probably consistent here with my view of Caruana Galizia, for she has been unswerving in three respects over the last years.

Firstly, for being anti-Labour, in that her dislike for Labour extends not just to politics but to everything representative of Labour voters; secondly, for specialising in publishing gossip; and finally, in humiliating her targets and hitting out at their family members to wage psychological violence on them.

In all this she has allowed the Nationalist Party to set the agenda, who were aided by those stories in which she had a role in bringing to light – when facts are facts, there is no arguing against the messenger, whatever their motives are. The Panama Papers, on the other hand, were backed by documents that made her assertions as solid as gold. Even before Panamagate, Simon Busuttil had embraced her and made it abundantly clear that his agenda is motivated by her reports.

I meet people who do not share my view that she is untrustworthy, who think she is just great. But you do not size up a bad apple. She has set an ugly precedent that makes our style of researched and proven news as journalists, more difficult to transmit.  

When I broke the oil kickbacks scandal in January 2013, I had hard facts and documents. I presented them to the police assistant commissioner Michael Cassar on the same day I broke the story.

There were no questions about the veracity of the story. Of course, Austin Gatt questioned the story and at one point said an email published in The Times had been tampered (the email had been reconstructed in the newspaper, for some silly reason); but he was alone in saying this.

Readers must demand that the news they read be reliable and backed up with evidence. Caruana Galizia fires salvoes without providing evidence, creates havoc, and then takes issue with anyone who calls into question what she writes.

In this story, irrefutable evidence of the Muscats’ ownership of Egrant, of whatever kind, leaves no doubt in my mind that Muscat will have to go. No ifs and buts. 

But if the opposite is true and I guess the magisterial inquiry, one of the first in its kind in this sordid story, proves this, then it is end of the road for someone else.

It will not be the end for Daphne Caruana Galizia, but for Simon Busuttil. Caruana Galizia will continue to write and hit out at people as she has done since the 1990s. If I personally had not suffered her verbal abuse and gossip, I would be the first one to believe her. But I cannot erase what she has said.

If there is evidence that what she has said is true, then it will the end of this government that could have won the next election with a clear and unquestionable majority. Caruana Galizia will be elevated to the status of a PN demigod, and the prime minister would be disgraced. Maybe then I’d stay in France, safer under the threat of terrorists then in a country suffocated by tribal politics and corruption.

If not, Muscat’s triumph will see the Opposition painted as a party dependant on wild conjecture. If this story was concocted to create chaos at election time, we would really have to question the state of our political culture.

Those who called me on the phone this week have asked how such a thing could be said without any proof. “As a journalist, I will wait for the proof. Just imagine if I said that Simon Busuttil was on the take and had a bank account and did not present my facts. But I will wait for the proof. In the meantime we must report all the news.”

There is one thing I know for sure. Truth is not something you can hide from everyone else forever. When it does surface, there will always be two sides to the coin, one speaking the truth, the other lying through their teeth.

saviour_balzan
Saviour Balzan is the founder and co-owner of MaltaToday. He has reported on Maltese poli...
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