A matter of public interest

The independence of the press, so cherished by my aunt, has been severely compromised by this 'takeover' of the Strickland Foundation

26 May 2017, 7:30am
For any party to enrich a small clique, at the expense of the majority of honest constituents is never clever but, let us not forget, that both major political parties in Malta have been tainted by negative allegations of graft and corruption over the years – not just the PL, who are now in the firing line.

Allied Newspapers (publishers of the Times of Malta and the Sunday Times of Malta) built their reputation on the independence of their coverage of events. Mabel Strickland (the company’s former proprietor) tried hard to ensure this independence was maintained, not only on her watch but into the future, by providing for a trust to be set up, on her death, to protect her legacy for her heir and also to provide funds for the training of journalists for the maintenance of a free press.

At the same time she was setting up an endowment to provide welfare for her staff and families who might ever be in need. This contingent trust was, however, changed into the Strickland Foundation in 1979 with most of the same objectives but, importantly, including the statement that it was set up for “herself and her heirs in perpetuity”.

Yet Mabel Strickland’s legacy (amounting to over €30 million in today’s money) appears to have been hijacked by the very people she had placed in positions of trust to ensure her family legacy survived, by persistently refusing to allow her heir to be involved in her plans for family succession. Instead, these executors appointed their own two sons to assist them in controlling the Strickland Foundation.

Max Ganado (son of one of the original executors) has since resigned from the Foundation but Mario de Marco (son of the other executor and now the deputy leader of the PN) is still the dominant Council Member on the Strickland Foundation. Apart from one exception, these executors, and their sons, have been responsible for the appointment of every other Council member, whilst, at the same time, ensuring that Mabel Strickland’s sole heir has been blocked from any involvement for the last 28 years.

We have been informed by the board that all of Allied’s detailed financial records pre-2000 (relating to several million euros of irregular dividends paid to the Strickland Foundation before they were even registered as a shareholder), have allegedly been destroyed.

The independence of the press, so cherished by my aunt, has been severely compromised by this “takeover” of the Strickland Foundation. This, together with an alleged dividend distribution in excess of €3 million from Allied Newspapers to the Strickland Foundation (when not even a registered shareholder), is surely a story of public interest, yet the Times is not interested.

I understand the terms of reference of the internal report into the allegations against former managing director Adrian Hillman specifically excluded any questions of Mario de Marco, the legal advisor to Allied, about his previously close friendship with Hillman. The report looked into allegations of corruption involving offshore bank accounts but the board has refused to publish its findings or show the report to the minority shareholders. Instead, the erstwhile leader of this inquiry appears to have been ‘rewarded’ with the chairmanship of the Strickland Foundation.

With this sort of unaccountability, hypocrisy and complete lack of transparency, where professional people who form part of the establishment appear to go unchecked, it is hardly surprising that in recent years, behaviour such as this has become endemic, on the adage of “if they can get away with it, why shouldn’t we?”

If the PN really wishes to be taken seriously as an anti-corruption party, how can it allow its own senior representatives to behave in the same way? There is the old maxim that people in glasshouses should not throw stones, and one would think that if you are going to beat corruption then you need to lead by example, whatever political colouring your coat may be. 

To check these injustices, I have been forced, after years of attempted negotiations for an amicable settlement, to file two court actions, which are now being hampered by the refusal of the de Marco family and Max Ganado to pass over my aunt’s legal files and all of her executors’ files, which belong to me, but are in their possession. Ganado is even ignoring a court order telling him to do so. Whatever are these people trying to hide with such diversionary tactics?

This situation needs to be investigated every bit as much as other alleged wrongdoings by other parties because the losers, in this situation, apart from the heir and other minority shareholders, are the employees of Allied and the loyal readers of the Times and Sunday Times, because they are not being given all of the stories of public interest or even the benefit of full and accurate journalistic reporting.

Robert Hornyold-Strickland, Lija

It’s all about facts

Martin Scicluna is well known for his pungent articles. In a recent article, he reminded one and all that a person is innocent until he is proven guilty. In the present political climate we have the situation of an early election because the Prime Minister felt too offended personally by an allegation, so far unproven, that Panama company Egrant is owned by his wife.

The article immediately drew the ire of conservative quarters, the most notable from Dr Roger Vella Bonavita, a seasoned historian.

Dr Vella Bonavita’s argument was that circumstantial evidence was enough to light the flame of political controversy. The rest will lie in the lap of public judgement. What I take this to mean is that, in politics, allegations do not pass by unnoticed without any reaction being made.

However, allegations can never take the place of facts where the administration of political honesty and true justice are concerned.

I write as a commoner. I simply have an opinion of my own. I am not powerful or influential academically. Surely one cannot ignore circumstantial evidence but certainly not in replacement of crude facts which must be proven before judgement is passed.

Where Dr Vella Bonavita amazes me is how a person of his stature, a grand believer of the rule of facts being first and foremost a historian, can ever side with the Leader of the Opposition who incessantly pushes yet unproven allegations. We know that politicians lie all the times. Here we have a young Prime Minister who has done, on the whole, wonderfully well for the country in the last four years and has everything to lose if he is caught lying.

The Prime Minister made unequivocal public statements denying the accusations levelled against him. He repeated his claim of innocence and declared that he would commit political hara-kiri if any slight evidence against him or his wife is found. On the other hand, we have the Leader of the Opposition who sticks to an argument based on accusations which are yet to be proven. And yet he would not commit himself politically if the accusations are proven to be false. Such is honest politics.

Dr Vella Bonavita prefers to side with Madame Defarge. In my view, Dr Vella Bonavita, the historian, has lost the plot as far as objective political comments are concerned. In my view, it is Martin Scicluna who is in the right.

George Camilleri, Sliema