Shooting the messenger

It is a common tactic to respond to politically turbulent press stories by simply attacking or undermining the medium that printed them

13 October 2016, 7:12am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
It is a common tactic – but no less worrying for that – to respond to politically turbulent press stories by simply attacking or undermining the medium that printed them. Neither side has any monopoly on this strategy: both Labour and PN routinely respond to such articles by claiming the reports themselves to be ‘fabrications’, intended to ’deviate attention’ from whatever controversy the parties themselves are pushing at the time.

This is not an acceptable response under any circumstance. Party leaders are free to think what they like, but as politicians accountable to the public, they are not free to simply brush off the implications of any story at will. Just as Opposition leader Simon Busuttil (rightly) tries to hold the government to account on its unpublished contracts, he must himself be accountable to the media, when serious questions are raised concerning the PN’s track record on governance.

On Sunday, this newspaper revealed how a Dutch criminal investigation into money-laundering had homed in on CapitalOne: a company owned by Baltimore Fiduciary, in which PN deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami was one of the directors. But when the Maltese authorities were alerted to this investigation – a few months before the March 2013 election, at a time when Fenech Adami was acting as home affairs minister - the investigation seems to have died a natural, premature death.

The story itself was a collaboration between MaltaToday and freelance journalist Mark Hollingsworth, and was based on an investigation by Europol. It is surprising that Busuttil would argue that international journalists (and even Europol) are involved in a conspiracy to ‘throw mud’ at his party, or deflect attention from an issue none of them would have even heard of. Clearly, Busuttil’s response is in part aimed at avoiding answering the many questions raised in that article.

Apart from the facts of the case itself, which suggest that CapitalOne may have been used to launder money connected to the illegal drug trade, there are serious political implications. Once again, Busuttil has (rightly) held the prime minister to account, when there was reason to believe that the authorities had covered up an investigation to spare the government’s blushes. The Santa Venera shooting incident, which cost a senior Cabinet minister his job, was a classic case in point.

The question arises naturally. If Busuttil insisted on Manuel Mallia’s resignation after he was revealed to have distorted an internal police investigation... why should the same yardstick not also apply to a case where a criminal investigation involving (however remotely) a Nationalist parliamentary assistant was similarly ignored?

Moreover, in these and all analogous cases, it is often the politician’s own former words that return to haunt them. In 2013, Beppe Fenech Adami himself argued – quite convincingly – that the directors of the fiduciary that handled pardoned oil trader George Farrugia’s affairs, were also responsible for what was happening in Aikon Ltd. 

Busuttil must therefore explain why Fenech Adami, as the director of the fiduciary company handling CapitalOne, was not responsible for the company’s activities.

Likewise, it is incumbent on Busuttil to explain his allegation that the story – all based on well-established documented facts – was ‘ a complete and utter fabrication’ concocted by a ‘desperate Labour government’. Is he suggesting this Europol investigation never took place? This newspaper can assure him it did. Or that the Dutch police were lying when they claimed that “a whole body of evidence – chiefly banking transactions that showed suspicious movements of large amounts – were never passed on to Dutch investigators?”

These large amounts, sometimes hundreds of thousands of euros passing daily into a Bank of Valletta and Valletta Fund Management account, were carried out by Baltimore Fiduciary’s owner and director Richard Abdilla Castillo, Fenech Adami’s associate. Is Busuttil arguing that this is also a fabrication? 

If so, he owes the public a detailed explanation to substantiate his claims. Certainly one cannot make such astounding allegations – all of which fly in the face of the available evidence – and then refuse to expand or even comment further. 

As for his repeated insinuation that this newspaper was ‘used’ by the government to propagate the story: the Opposition leader may need reminding that MaltaToday has been accused in the past of being in cahoots with the Nationalists, over stories that were unfavourable towards Labour. Busuttil himself made much political capital out of the Café Premier scandal, or the Sheehan shooting, in which MaltaToday played a direct role in testifying in the inquiry on the distorted information given by a minister's aide, which also ultimately resulted in a high-level resignation from Muscat’s Cabinet.

Who was ‘using’ this newspaper then?

This may come as a surprise to political party leaders and their propagandists, but newspapers such as MaltaToday – and genuine journalists everywhere – are interested in stories for their own sake, whoever prints them. When the Panama Papers scandal emerged, its source was Daphne Caruana Galizia’s blog. That this blog is politically motivated, and deeply connected with the PN,  is a fact that can no longer be disguised. Yet this didn’t change the fact that the message itself was of vital importance, regardless of the identity of the messenger. 

Shooting the messenger doesn’t address the message. And in this case, there are questions to be answered.