The goose and the gander

To read Allied’s statement that 'the State' has now landed everyone in court, could be insinuated as some orchestrated campaign against the company or newspaper, is certainly hard to digest

Some five days before the 2017 election, then-Opposition leader Simon Busuttil testified for a good 90 minutes before Magistrate Josette Demicoli. Busuttil’s target was justifiably Keith Schembri, the former OPM chief of staff. He had said that he had presented the magistrate with irrefutable evidence of a clear case of graft involving the former top executive of the Allied Group, Adrian Hillman.

No one imagined that it would include other directors. In September of last year, the press started to report that the magisterial inquiry had been concluded. We could only speculate what would happen next.

In March of this year, it was Keith Schembri who jumped the gun and revealed in a social media post that he would probably be charged. And so it was, but apart from Schembri and other directors of his printing machinery company, the police also arraigned Nexia BT auditors and another prominent, former director at The Times. It was a grand affair with all the accused denied bail in a day-long arraignment parade that was surely meant to send a message beyond the corridors of the courts.

What was even more startling was that Allied’s printing company Progress, and its director, who runs the whole company, would be facing money laundering and fraud charges.

Understandably, everyone who works in the press and printing industry watched as the events unfolded. I happen to know all the individuals who have been arraigned.

I started printing at Progress and Allied, the owners of The Times, in 1987. Before that, I would use the Church’s printing presses. I have fond memories of the people at Progress.

From its St Paul’s Street headquarters to the ill-thought mega-printing press in Mrieħel, as all other presses disappeared over the last 30 years, The Times’s printers continued to fly the flag high. I had worked with all the newspaper printing presses: the Church, the Nationalists’, the Union press… when Progress upgraded its own press, the others started to close down to call it a day, which is now a feature of the changing world of printing.

I would not have written of this subject today, had I not seen the statement issued by Allied Newspapers on Friday which stated that the group was expressing its “immeasurable surprise that the State yesterday” was charging Progress Press and director Michel Rizzo with fraud and money laundering offences as a result of the investigation into graft between the Schembri, Hillman and Vince Buhagiar.

The Demicoli inquiry made it abundantly clear what the police must investigate and whom.  Police Commissioner Angelo Gafà took to the investigation without fear or favour, even interrogating the Commissioner of Inland Revenue Marvin Gaerty, a top civil servant, who was stripped naked before being questioned. Gaerty was not arraigned and is still Commissioner of Inland Revenue.

I for one, know Michel Rizzo cannot believe that he could be responsible for having defrauded anyone or having laundered money. That is my belief, not my perception. I can understand there is a state of shock inside The Times. Unlike Michel, I am willing to stand up for him and say as much, even if it hurts.

But to read Allied’s statement that “the State” has now landed everyone in court, could be insinuated as some orchestrated campaign against the company or newspaper, is certainly hard to digest. For a newspaper publisher, I would imagine that some humility or caution would follow the arraignment of its directors; and such a statement seems to invite those following the case to think that either Allied is beyond reproach, or that observers should simply look the other way, because it’s Allied.

One needs no university degree to understand how history in Malta has been built around the conflicts between one side and the other, between classes and party blocs. To me there is no doubt that had the police arraigned Saviour Balzan - as the owner of Mediatoday Co. Ltd - my newspaper MaltaToday would have been given no quarter. I would have been taken to the cleaners and declared an outcast before being pronounced guilty or acquitted… and this is simply because Malta is a land in which some animals, are more equal than others.

Before 2013, Allied obtained some €13 million in tax credit from Malta Enterprise, then run a bit like a fiefdom by Lawrence Gonzi’s former communications chief, Alan Camilleri (brother to disgraced, former Times journalist Ivan Camilleri). I don’t remember other media organisations being afforded the consideration or opportunity to enter into a discussion with Malta Enterprise over grants, support or factory space at the time.

Now, a €13 million tax credit, a phenomenal amount, would have certainly made commercial sense for a company that was in pole position. But I don’t think Allied even smelt the advent of digital publishing, allowing the Miller Group to creep in and take over the whole market. Still, it was then a time in which lavish government advertising campaigns would be pumped into Allied Newspapers without any question being raised, when of course, other nuisance newspapers were being fed the crumbs (or simply ignored by the apartheid in place against newspapers that were critical of the Nationalist administration). Nobody raised a finger in solidarity; nobody raised any protest for newspapers that were sued for libel multiple times by ‘the State’ or debilitating garnishees by business moguls.

Progress built a massive printing complex, unsuitable for such a small market. Yet those tax credits were never used, because the company surprisingly made no profits. Whether the company directors went slow on the bonuses, entertainment allowances, or salary raises, is another thing altogether… Allied was never deprived of revenues.

Maybe it was deprived of something else, like common sense. For the changes brought about by time and greed itself, caught up with some people.

In 2013, it appears an attempt was made to convert some of those tax credits into grants, so a more considerate Malta Enterprise offered a life-saver to Allied by converting those tax credits into a smaller, but quite significant grant of around €1.7 million. This is where the arraignments of Allied and Progress directors seem to have their root.

And at this point, I cannot say what happened. Just days before this whole fracas, I was discussing with the other newspapers the set-up for an association of newspaper publishers to address the concerns of our industry, and finding ways of sustaining it with help from the State without losing any of our independence.

I sat down with Michel Rizzo even though I knew that time and time again, there was no love lost between the two sides (I could recall the way The Times and its directors immediately accused me of lying and of ‘malicious intent’ when writing about Ivan Camilleri, only to later discover I was right after all, and then proceeded to sack Camilleri). The Times has always made sure to air Mediatoday’s business concerns (we do not just publish newspapers), as if these directly impinged on the editorial independence of MaltaToday itself. All newspaper directors are tasked with the job of raising money for the core operation itself, the newspaper… yet nobody is accusing The Times of being manned by ‘tax dodgers’ simply because Allied’s directors are facing accusations in court. That Chinese wall is equal for all.

However, I imagine that if Allied is blaming “the State” for the explosive device that has been landed on its doorstep, it should respect the fact that Magistrate Josette Demicoli’s integrity, credentials or intentions have never been questioned by anyone, not even its own newspaper.

Some humility I guess, would be welcome, until the worst is over.