One million in my pocket and other fantastic stories

We uphold one fundamental rule: our business model does not impinge on the editorial policy of those of our products – read, newspapers – whose first loyalty is to the readers

Some sort of imaginary score must have been settled down at the offices of The Shift last week, because a slice of media business was given a revelatory airing. Yours truly was the target, owner of companies Mediatoday and B2B, private firms whose business is that of selling advertising, surveys and multimedia productions though various media of print, online and TV. For Caroline Muscat, this apparently is news. The other media companies – beneficiaries of four decades of uninterrupted largesse from the State, the Church’s assets, or big-industry families – are of no concern. 

Caroline Muscat is the sole owner, and apparently the only paid employee, of The Shift. Last week, she claimed I “pocketed” €1 million from government for the service of fanning perceptions in favour of government. Creatively, since I am my companies’ legal representative and sign off on advertising contracts, surveys and newspaper sales contracts, then it must mean all that cash came right into my personal accounts. Q.E.D. indeed! 

It’s one thing spending the entire year filing Freedom Of Information requests with the intention of targeting my persona (as if I am twiddling on the buttons of all my companies, Kane-like), but Muscat could have easily asked me a few questions before her hatchet-job attempted to consign me to her evildoers’ row. After all, all media organisations have received government contracts and more over the last years. 

What I cannot understand is the fixation of The Shift with my actions as one of the owners of two media companies. And I underline media, because well before 2013 (the annus orribilis for some people), Mediatoday had been not just a “newspaper” company, but an audiovisiual company, a polling company, and a general print-jobbing company. I wouldn’t want readers to think we are simply one newspaper over here. It is a multimedia company, and like many other media companies that do not have their newspapers, we sell advertising to, mainly the private, and public sector. 

Muscat’s company is a small outfit that has had a €61,000 turnover in 2019. I have two media companies that employ over 30 full-timers, another 15 part-timers, which over the last five years generated a turnover of over €9 million. We publish five newspapers, five online platforms, run reputable commercial and in-house surveys, produce television programmes, publish magazines, organise advertising campaigns, carry out design and publishing and work for various private companies and public institutions, not just national. We tender for contracts; we win some and lose many. 

We uphold one fundamental rule: our business model does not impinge on the editorial policy of those of our products – read, newspapers – whose first loyalty is to the readers. I do not gag my editors, expecting some sort of shareholder’s privilege. And any single contract awarded to us since 1999 has come through correct procurement procedures and established rules and at competitive rates, with all monies accounted for and all VAT and taxes paid in total.  

But I can say – and I will take this to my credit – that I was never, unlike Caroline Muscat, the PN’s campaign manager. I never passed through some revolving door without the least coyness, to swear fealty to a political party. 

Yes, our newspapers did have editorial lines that would favour some party line over the other. In 2003, MaltaToday called on voters to give their first-preference vote to the PN because European Union accession to us was crucial. It was actually the closest we ever got to blatantly ask anyone to vote for a party. 

But then something happened. In 2004, for better or worse, I expressed my preference that the next leader of the PN should have been John Dalli rather than Lawrence Gonzi. Whatever anyone might think about my misguided perception here, what happened to my companies next was this: Mediatoday was targeted by the Tax Compliance Unit, the Planning Authority, the ETC, and the one television programme we produced on TVM was stopped. The government advertising budget was stopped (it’s all there in the parliamentary questions website if anyone wishes to compare); and our revealing news stories were never covered by TVM becauses its editors were then also controlled by Castille. 

So our one TVM programme then was financed at the rate of €464 (Lm200) daily. It-Torċa, the GWU weekly, ran a story claiming I was earning €150,000 a year. But the truth was that a private production house, Dee Media, was paid Lm160 a day to produce the programme, while our company took Lm40. My right of reply was never published then. 

And what do I have to be ashamed of if the company I own and work for is selling advertising in the same way that the companies that own The Times, The Malta Independent or Lovin Malta produce campaigns or sponsored articles for the public sector? For years, the Times and the Independent were the only newspapers in which government notices, PA decisions or tribunals decisions were published. Nobody was perturbed by this state of affairs, least of all complained that these two newspapers were being ‘paid to manage government perceptions’... 

MaltaToday was literally boycotted on any government campaign that dealt with the Euro changeover or the CHOGM under PN administrations. So, when so many government ministries shut their doors on us, and the PN mouthpieces inside the national broadcaster (and beyond) started hammering us day in, day out, we had to make 14 employees redundant. 

Forget media solidarity – it’s always been a dog-eat-dog industry. We were not even considered for Malta Enterprise funds when Lawrence Gonzi’s former spokesperson Alan Camilleri was placed at its helm. 

Carolie Muscat even claims to “reveal” that we received €100,000 during the COVID pandemic from Malta Enterprise. 

Everyone did! 

Muscat may think that her roundabout reporting does wonders for her readers, but.. newsflash: every media organisation, including Church-owned Newsbook, the PN’s Net, Labour’s One, even State-owned PBS, were paid €10,000 a month. And most of them, having both newspapers and a TV station, would have received €200,000 in total! 

And please, let’s walk the walk. If we truly believed that the fourth estate is crucial, than supporting the industry with a small, monthly contribution to keep a monthly salary bill of €65,000... or even €1.3 million a year, during a pandemic, then that does not mean anyone is “pocketing” cash. It means jobs are being saved. And that’s not a Maltese phenomenon. It was the International Federation of Journalists that also called for State support for newspapers. 

But also know that this figure is actually capped, because EU law stipulates that every organisation cannot receive more than €200,000 in direct State funds over a three-year period. So Net, One, and even State-funded PBS, received €45,000 every month until that threshold was reached. Not us, though. 

Muscat also presents a terribly shallow view of our relationship with PBS. 

Just like any other company, Mediatoday applies to an annual call to produce programmes for the public broadcaster. Even Lovin Malta was selected to have a Saturday primetime discussion programme for 2021/22. 

But if Muscat wants a breakdown of programme costings, she can ask us to find out what a risky business model television production is and how much money can be lost in the process. For it is not simply cold hard cash – the money actually funds a programme that PBS is outsourcing to third parties to create, and its revenues, if any, are in turn not ours alone but also PBS’s. 

Caroline Muscat is only correct about one contract where the cash came to me personally: in 2018, ten years after the death of my wife Ebba von Fersen Balzan, an artist by profession, I personally applied to the Arts Council to exhibit a collection of works. I received €15,000 in return for an excellent deal to donate 50 original, quality-framed, large-sized paintings to the government of Malta. I agreed. The Council’s market value of the paintings was actually way below the estimated value. But to me it was an honour because Ebba was being recognised. At the end of the day, the entire cost of the professional framing and the value of the donated artworks were way above €15,000. (A quick note: nine years earlier, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi chose one of Ebba’s paintings as a present to bestow to Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel. I asked the OPM not to pay me, but instead donate the money to Din L-Art Ħelwa.) 

So how did Caroline Muscat justify her big reveal about my public, business affairs? 

My crime has been to call Daphne Caruana Galizia “the queen of bile”. 

Now, I do understand how such past slights today represent some sort of culture war for Muscat and the followers of her website. After all, today I pay tribute to Caruana Galizia’s brave work on the Panama Papers and the corruption links that shattered the Potemkin village of the Labour administration. So does this newspaper.  

Yet back in the day, both Daphne and I were part of the same slanging match, sat on opposite sides of this stupid political divide. I’ll surmise that a good deal of people will find that I was less impolite than Caruana Galizia in how people were treated by our pen. I steered away from personal gossip that was intended at punching down on people associated with partisan targets who fell foul of the PN leadership. 

Then again, it was only a group of PN-appointed experts – some of them going on to become PN party appointees – who listed Caruana Galizia’s blog as one of the reasons that the PN had lost support in the 2008 and 2013 election.   

When Caroline Muscat became the PN’s campaign manager in 2016, she was comfortable with hitching the party’s agenda to the Caruana Galizia blog. So I guess whatever I said in the past will never find any form of justification with her. Hard lines, I guess. 

But by having been a harsh critic of Caruana Galizia’s work before her brutal assassination only makes me my own man in this free marketplace of ideas where we ply our trade. I knew Daphne since my youth, and I disliked her attacks on private families’ lives, mine included. It surely does not mean that those who feebly objected to her writing, are guilty by association of what unjustly befell her. How would such logic fit those who relentlessly hit out at me, personally, ostensibly for my strong opinions...? 

I’m not one for regret about actions in which we commit ourselves judiciously. In 2013, I believed in Joseph Muscat’s bid for a changed political landscape. That does not make anyone an unprincipled bastard who wanted Caruana Galizia murdered. 

Caroline Muscat is free to write what she fancies, but journalism is better when it is freed of anger, envy and partisan bias. Her piece on me came a week after her previous hatchet-piece on Manuel Delia (another PN apparatchik who transformed himself into a valiant journalist), whose limelight-hogging stunt rubbed off badly on Muscat. I wonder how come she never took a shot at Ivan Camilleri, the journalist sacked by The Times and accused of having been referred to in the Yorgen Fenech chats with his uncle Ray on the eve of his attempted escape from Malta. No, that kind of rascal is not on Muscat’s agenda. She must be a fan of his writing style.