An Economy Minister walks into a bar…

As the Stable Pub owner found out to his cost this week, ‘parliamentary privilege’ means that all 73 of our MPs can simply libel anyone at any time they like… and there is no legal remedy of any kind you can resort to.

It sounds like the perfect beginning to a joke, doesn’t it? Shame there isn’t any punchline…

But in any case: it was reported on a gossip blog, and repeated in Parliament by no less than the Shadow Home Affairs Minister and deputy Opposition leader… so I guess it must be true. An Economy Minister really did walk into a bar: the minister was Chris Cardona, and the bar a place called The Stable Pub in Sappers Street, Valletta. 

So far, so good. But that’s the thing about starting jokes. People sort of expect them to continue, once started. So what happened next? Why was this entirely unremarkable occurrence – someone walking into a bar… as all people have a right to do, at least in any country that isn’t actually an Islamic fundamentalist state – deemed important enough to be raised in parliament… and just left hanging there, for all the world as if it actually signified something?

Well, let’s have a look at the reasons Beppe Fenech Adami supplied for raising it in Parliament. This is how his intervention was reported in the press: “Quoting blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, he said that the minister and members of his staff, including his chief of staff Mario Azzopardi, had been spotted at ‘The Stable Pub’, a bar in Valletta. Shady people of a dubious and perhaps criminal nature visit this bar, and drugs are allegedly used there too,’ he said.”

Hmm. There’s an awful lot of ‘perhapses’ and ‘allegedlies’ in there, don’t you think? And bear in mind that Fenech Adami was quoting that blog in Parliament, where roughly the same rules apply as in a court of law. MPs are automatically under oath when speaking in Parliament... and what they say carries such weight that (just as with court testimony) any newspaper or other medium can safely quote verbatim without fear of civil or criminal libel. 

This is called ‘privilegg’ in local legal parlance… and it’s same use of the word that also gives us the notion of ‘Parliamentary privilege’: in other words, immunity from legal consequences when besmirching other people with unsubstantiated allegations.

As the Stable Pub owner found out to his cost this week, ‘parliamentary privilege’ means that all 73 of our MPs can simply libel anyone at any time they like… and there is no legal remedy of any kind you can resort to.

OK, so now the joke starts taking shape. Beppe Fenech Adami thought good to raise Cardona’s movements – and those of his entire team – in parliament, because the bar he was ‘spotted in’ (i.e., spied upon) has a reputation for ‘drugs’ and ‘criminality’ (according to Daphne Caruana Galizia, who obviously didn’t substantiate the allegations either). 

And we all know how the game works in this country: if you can somehow connect the name of political opponent with things like ‘drugs’ and ‘crime’ in a single sentence, it translates into automatic ‘points’ for your party in a never-ending, tit-for-tat exchange of ‘scandals’.

There is, however, a small snag with Fenech Adami’s strategy in this game. Let’s stick to the drugs part of the story for now. As Fenech Adami should know (being a lawyer, and all) ‘guilt by association’ doesn’t work in court… and shouldn’t work in parliament, either. Even if we accept the claim that ‘drugs are allegedly used there’ – just like that, with no details whatsoever – it does not follow that Chris Cardona, or indeed any other person who walks into that bar, would even be aware of this detail, still less partake in the alleged drug-taking himself. 

A simple analogy should illustrate this fairly obvious point. Each summer you read about drug busts occurring in private parties or at nightclubs. There will occasionally be arrests associated with these busts. Whom do the police arrest? The people caught with drugs on their person? Or everyone who just happened to be at the same party?

Apply Fenech Adami’s logic to that sort of scenario, and your mere presence alone, in a venue where other people are breaking the law, would suffice to automatically convict you of law-breaking in a court of public opinion. You were ‘spotted’ in a place where drugs are taken… therefore, there must be some sort of connection between ‘you’ and the ‘drugs’ in question.

That’s some vision of ‘justice’ our Shadow Home Affairs Minister has just evoked for us all to marvel at. Thankfully, however, the police and law courts do not use exactly the same logic when applying the Dangerous Drugs Ordnance in this country (even if both those entities have their own rather illogical way of going about things, too). 

To secure a connection beyond doubt, you would need at least two additional details: one, evidence to substantiate that ‘drugs-taking claim’ is in fact true, and two; proof that the suspect was at least aware of it at the time.

Both these factors are entirely missing from Beppe Fenech Adami’s assertions, and again this need hardly surprise us, seeing as the only source he ever alluded to was a blog that never makes even the remotest effort to verify any of the countless allegations it reports each day (provided, of course, that the allegations can be used to conveniently target a stinking ‘Laburist’).

This is, after all, the same blog that lovingly repeated another (admittedly amusing) allegation… this time concerning Malta’s prime minister apparently getting Italy’s Matteo Renzi name wrong… without bothering to actually listen to the audio clip in the post. 

Even after it transpired that the original claim was a mistake, for which the Italian news agency concerned apologised… the blog-post remained uploaded, and unaltered to rectify the error. And my, what a surprise: the army of twits and cretins who routinely comment on that blog to this day still hold up this same, debunked allegation as evidence of Joseph Muscat’s ‘unfitness for purpose’, etc. 

Tells you everything you need to know about that particular blog, and the flies that buzz around it. All the same, however: while no one in his right mind would expect Daphne Caruana Galizia to ever verify an allegation… the same cannot be said for the Shadow Home Affairs Minister when speaking in Parliament. 

Privilege or no privilege, one expects serious allegations to be substantiated in that particular institution. Otherwise, we shall have to conclude that Malta just spent over €100 million on a new parliament building, designed by the greatest architect in the known universe, just so that our MPs can have a lavish new palace in which to simply spread malicious rumours about other people.

So let’s go back to the original statement. “Drugs are allegedly used there.” Does Beppe Fenech Adami have any proof to back this up? How many police raids were carried out at the Stable Pub, and how many people were ever arrested there for drug-taking? 

I don’t have access to this information (though Fenech Adami does – he can always ask for it in a Parliamentary Question) but seeing as the allegations have now being given credence by Malta’s highest institution, it has become rather important that they are at least investigated. 

There is, after all, a difference between a real scandal and a hypothetical one. If it turns out that: a) the allegations are true, and; b) Economy Minister Chris Cardona frequents a bar he knows to be a den of iniquity and vice… then yes, it would certainly qualify as the kind of political minefield Beppe Fenech Adami evidently thinks he has unearthed.

If, on the other hand, no substantiation of any kind is ever forthcoming, it will have to go down as a rather low and shabby device to pull out of an evidently depleted political bag of dirty tricks.

Either way, it is in Fenech Adami’s own interest to shed more light on the affair. So what does he himself know about the alleged drug-use, other than what he read in a hopelessly unreliable blog? Can he supply any names of the people he suspects took drugs at the Stable Pub? Will he be providing whatever information he has on the subject to the police?

And what about the ‘shady, dubious and perhaps criminal’ people who supposedly frequent this pub? What does he mean, exactly, by ‘perhaps’? Are they criminals, or aren’t they? 

The word has a meaning, you know. It generally means ‘someone who has committed a crime’. As a lawyer, I would expect Beppe Fenech Adami to have a rather clear idea of what constitutes a crime in this country. Murder. Rape. Extortion. Not paying VAT for 10 years… you know, stuff like that.

Reason I ask, by the way, is that there is also a difference between ‘possibly a criminal’ and ‘definitely a criminal’, and it’s kind of an important distinction to make in this context. Known criminals are one thing (usually identifiable by past criminal convictions). ‘Possible criminals’ are something else entirely… something called ‘a stereotype’, which is universally associated with something else called ‘prejudice’.

So again: what crimes is Beppe Fenech Adami aware of, that have been perpetrated by regular clients at the Stable Pub? Can he identify the criminals concerned, and report them to the police?

If not, all we’re left with is the highly subjective ‘shady’ and ‘dubious’ part. And that’s the sort of epithet Dylan Thomas had in mind, when he defined an ‘alcoholic’ as “someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do”.

So what makes the clientele of this pub so ‘shady’ and ‘dubious’, anyway? Why is the Stable Pub suddenly made out to be the most wretched hive of scum and villainy since Mos Eisley space station in Star Wars? Apart, of course, from the obvious answer… i.e., that it serves a useful political purpose for the Opposition to besmirch an entire category of person, on the basis of completely unfounded allegations, just to score points against a rival politician?

The answer, yet again, is provided by Fenech Adami himself. He is performing to a script penned for him by Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose views on social stereotypes would be considered archaic even by Jane Austen standards. 

‘Shady, dubious and perhaps criminal’, my eye. What Beppe Fenech meant to say – and what Daphne did say, repeatedly, with reference to anyone and everyone she happens to dislike – is that these people are ‘hamalli’. Nothing more, nothing less.

This, then, is the extent of the Shadow Home Affairs Minister’s joke. An Economy Minister walked into a bar full of ‘hamalli’... and the rest of the nation is supposed to be reeling from shock and horror at this outrageous, pernicious scandal.

Ah yes, very funny. I suppose we should be thankful that this year’s Stand-Up Comedy session has now arisen for its summer recess…

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