Terinu, part II

If the inquiry completely absolves the Muscat couple, there is little doubt in my mind that Muscat’s ascendancy will be stratospheric

Egrant took Malta by storm in 2017. Pictured: Murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia
Egrant took Malta by storm in 2017. Pictured: Murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia

As I put pen to paper on Saturday afternoon, I have no idea of the final conclusions of the Egrant magisterial investigation. But it did take me back to the first of the century, well before WWII, when Gerald Strickland was leader of the Constitutional Party and in heated rivalry with the PN. On the eve of a general election which Strickland was expected to win, the PN produced a witness by the name of Ettore Bono, nicknamed ‘Terinu’, who swore an oath to having witnessed Lord Strickland in full masonic regalia at a freemason’s lodge in Valletta where Bono was working as a waiter.

The electoral effect of this pre-electoral gimmick was devastating. Strickland lost the election. It later emerged that Bono was a known drunkard and a liar who had been allegedly paid by PN to fabricate the story. That was 75 years ago, and unfortunately this story had little resonance on the newspaper founded by Strickland’s daughter.

The very limited sentiment of those privy to the Aaron Bugeja report is that the conclusions dispel the Efimova/CaruanaGalizia/Busuttil/Portelli allegations that were bandied about over a year ago. Those allegations led to a political atmosphere which reopened old wounds and sent everyone to their respective trenches. It was a horrible time. Those who attempted to remain in no man’s land were torn to shreds and accused of selling their soul.

I was then alone in stating that I would give the prime minister and his wife the benefit of the doubt. I do not regret one word.

I did this because over the years I had followed Daphne Caruana Galizia and never considered her to be a truthful journalist. I had always pointed out her reckless and cruel reporting based on supposition and prejudice.

For this I was described as a Labour stooge and a scoundrel.

She would not check the facts, simply repeat what landed on her doorstep and publish. Sometimes she got things right. But her carpet-bombing was indiscriminate. Most of the time she was desperate in coming to some very hasty conclusions that suited her perception that Labour and Muscat were endemically corrupt and simply rotten.

When she was heinously murdered the sloppy reporting and gossip-mongering were simply put aside, and even those of us who made critical appraisals of her work, chose to look at what she was best at doing.

Her death remains too serious an affair to be overshadowed by her history of malicious and incorrect reporting. The foreign press – conveniently finding in Malta a bête noire that could easily be turned into punching bag – took advantage of this; to a certain extent it was understandable, but it was very difficult for those us in journalism to see the foreign press latch on Caruana Galizia’s often shaky reporting.

But from the very start it was clear that the shady character of Maria Efimova, who had already been sacked from Pilatus Bankd and then accused of misappropriating money from the bank, was never a credible source.

Maria Efimova (pictured) was the whistleblower who fed the allegation to Daphne Caruana Galizia
Maria Efimova (pictured) was the whistleblower who fed the allegation to Daphne Caruana Galizia

And yet there were three personalities who jumped on the bandwagon and made it their crusade to fight tooth and nail to have the story stand its ground no matter what: Simon Busuttil, Pierre Portelli – who is PN leader Adrian Delia’s advisor – and one particular newspaper.

The story led to an early election which saw the PN flounder even further and Muscat rising to the heavens. With one single stroke Caruana Galizia rocketed Labour to its second landslide victory, demolished the credibility of the Maltese media even further and more significantly handicapped the Opposition for years to come.

A year and three months later, Aaron Bugeja concluded his inquiry. There will be recriminations after this report.

Who will take responsibility for these actions?

Will Simon Busuttil and his posse of dissidents retreat?

Will Pierre Portelli seek new pastures?

Will journalism pick up and win back audiences and readers?

I am afraid of answering these questions, because it seems nobody will take any form of responsibility.

Simon Busuttil, now the PN’s spokesman for good governance, will continue doing what he knows best. Pierre Portelli will give the impression of having done nothing wrong and get on with playing in his advisory role to the embattled Adrian Delia (ironically in a war of attrition with those MPs like Busuttil who opposed his candidature for leadership).

And Maltese journalism will have to win the hearts and minds of those readers who feel the press was used, especially in the Egrant saga, to manipulate people’s emotions. For it was a band of sycophants and a circus of conflicts of interest, that attempted to turn Egrant into some eschatological moment of truth.

If the inquiry completely absolves the Muscat couple, there is little doubt in my mind that Muscat’s ascendancy will be stratospheric

More than that, the same police inspector who charged Efimova on fraud allegations, had by then left the police to work inside the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit. Jonathan Ferris was subsequently sacked the FIAU, ostensibly later he was suspected as the leak of confidential FIAU investigations that had not yet been finished or cleared – which ultimately allowed the press to learn about the FIAU’s compliance monitoring of the private Pilatus Bank.

When it turned out that Pilatus was serving as a some clearing-house for Azerbaijani PEPs, with the PM’s chief of staff Keith Schembri and Nexia BT’s partner Brian Tonna holding accounts there, the conspiracy theory developed legs. It was possible to theorise without any proof that the accounts at Pilatus were created for kickbacks to be siphoned off to the offshore Panama accounts.

Egrant was a missing jigsaw piece. And only the gifted Daphna Caruana Galizia could be counted on to script the story. Her narrative, delivered in variable missives of robust journalistic prose or distempered ‘running commentary’ nuggets, added colour and substance. It fortified the odium of her loyal followers who relished in their partisan dislike of Labour.

But there was a major flaw. No substantial evidence was ever presented to show Michelle Muscat was the owner of the offshore company; when everyone had thought that Maria Efimova was in possession of a declaration of trust “uploaded to the cloud”, that golden opportunity failed to materialise.

So what is next? If the inquiry completely absolves the Muscat couple, there is little doubt in my mind that Muscat’s ascendancy will be stratospheric.

Adrian Delia will have the added problem of finding a way to fight this and finding ways of dismantling the dissident posse led by the obdurate Simon Busuttil. He will have a bigger problem with Pierre Portelli who will surely claim that he had nothing to do with this incident.

But frankly I do not have much hope at this point in time for the Nationalist party.

It is a pity that we have no or little opposition.

And my concern is even greater for the Maltese press. It is one thing having egg on your face and not facing the music, as has been the case with so many journalists and newspapers. But what we need to do now is to get serious and regain the confidence to win back that credibility. Not only for our sakes, but for the sake of democracy.

This government needs to have watchdogs to counter its unstoppable policies and managerial style, its disregard for good politics and its obsession with numbers. It needs to have checks on its many decisions and yes on many of the recorded instances of irregular and unethical behaviour.

We need to take stock but we have to act fast. There is a time, and this is it.


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