Casting the first stone

Whether this week’s events will rock the independent media or not, this should not cow the fourth estate; on the contrary, they need to recognise one’s responsibility and obligations to serve as a platform to bring the news and being part of the democratic process

File photo
File photo

Everyone would have noticed the events yesterday that saw the former directors of The Times facing economic crimes probes and prosecutions over alleged fraud and graft. 

I wonder what we would have been saying had it not been principals from the hallowed publishers of The Times. Because this is quite a turn-up for the books. 

Some of those who upheld the newspaper-of-record’s values of tradition, are facing quite a difficult moment.

Certainly enough, matters have turned dark through the involvement of Keith Schembri, the one-time paper merchant who became chief of staff to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. 

The allegations are that in this thickest of plots, Schembri together with some usual suspects and financial brokers, took part in an illicit transfer of funds to offshore companies. This would have supposedly taken place over the multi-million printing press at Allied’s Progress Press.

Now, I write here as the owner of a media house and as a journalist by trade. I would like to believe that the latter has always been my natural state, and that the former status was forced upon me once I became an owner out of circumstance.  

If there is an injured party in this unprecedented development, it is The Times. To many (maybe not to me), the Times is considered to be a bastion of the free press. 

Of course, it was the only newspaper around until some others dared cross into its territory, namely MaltaToday and the Malta Independent. To me, The Times was the newspaper I never wanted to be part of, and perhaps the reason that pushed me into starting other newspapers not linked to the old guard.

Now here is Malta’s oldest media company, facing a very serious reality check that hits at the core of its fundamental values. Mabel Strickland must be rolling in her grave. And its journalists must be more than simply saddened by what they see, more so when their own editorial line placed them on a high moral ground which, no matter how hard one evangelises, has some severe cracks right now.

I have no doubts as to the kind of barrage a company like Mediatoday would have to endure by the right-leaning press and bloggers had the story been the other way round.

For consider the fact that, apart from the reports of graft and fraud linked to a €1.7 million cash injection from Malta Enterprise in 2014 to the Allied Group, there is the never-published internal inquiry report carried out by Giovanni Bonello, who chairs the Strickland Foundation (which holds the largest shareholding, 78%, in the Allied Group). 

That inquiry was concluded and yet its report has been withheld from public scrutiny since 2016. That inquiry was launched by the Times’ publishers over the allegations of graft against its former managing director Adrian Hillman, who probably knew far too much. That report was presented by Bonello himself to Allied’s board of directors, with details as to whether bribes from Schembri did come into the agreement that saw Allied contract his Kasco company to supply Progress Press with state-of-the-art printing machinery.

Rich, when you consider on how many occasions The Times called for more transparency and public scrutiny. Giovanni Bonello, as the renowned human rights expert that he is, surely must have had an inkling of what was happening inside Allied, and whether the allegations about Adrian Hillman had consequences for other directors and the whole operation; that the issue was not only about commercial graft but also about Malta Enterprise cash transactions linked to investment aid worth €1.7 million for the printing press supplied by Schembri’s company Kasco (ironically a printing press that today is defunct and no longer in use, probably a monumental example in how to run a media company to the ground).

Interestingly, a leading figure linked to The Times as well as a council member of the Strickland Foundation, is the Nationalist MP Mario De Marco, who was back in the day on a retainer with Malta Enterprise for some €70,000 a year while at the same time involved with the Strickland foundation. Just in case anyone is querying this, they should know that the Muscat administration did not remove his retainer at the time.

Of course, there is no smoking gun that De Marco had anything to do with this fuck-up that saw ME being defrauded of some €750,000. But accusing De Marco of suffering from a severe case of conflict of interest would not be taking it too far. Asking him to resign from the Strickland foundation and the PN – by applying the same standards of The Times – would also not be asking for too much.

Because, unlike some other institutions like, for example, the Maltese Church, which ultimately did take the bold step of reporting clerical sex abuse to the police, the people at Allied and perhaps Giovanni Bonello decided to keep all their cards to themselves. 

Which is good to keep in mind when some dinosaur comes preaching to the great unwashed about the high standards of good governance.

Whether this episode will rock the independent media or not, this should not cow the fourth estate; on the contrary, the need to recognise one’s responsibility and obligations to serve as a platform to bring the news and being part of the democratic process, is greater than ever. 

The State must acknowledge this and take the first step to redesigning a long-standing pact with the media which must include fiscal support at arm’s length, with a media that must recognise its inadequacies and faults as it rises to the occasion to improve itself.