The birth of MaltaToday

A newspaper of impact that will continue to play its important part in Maltese life

This is part of a series of articles celebrating 20 years of MaltaToday

It was the summer of 1999.

I was leaving The Malta Independent, impatient and angry at the directors’ decision to sack editor Ray Bugeja, and standing by freelance writer Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had revealed the minutiae of Prime Minister Alfred Sant’s separation case held behind closed doors years before. One of the directors of TMID was the business magnate Albert Mizzi, who was close to closing a deal on the future of Manoel Island with the Labour government.

I was then hungry to start on a fresh newspaper project which I could run and design from scratch.

I met up with John Formosa, a publisher I knew socially and from my short stint when launching the short-lived, tabloid daily The People. I put it to him to back a brand newspaper. I offered to run the newspaper – he knew that I could do it from my experience with previous start-ups.

I insisted on having a free hand on editorial and in the choice of the journalists, but it was he who suggested the name MaltaToday. It was not original – it had been used as the name for a Department of Information magazine published in the late sixties.

MaltaToday hit the ground running on the 19 November, 1999. Before that, I had immersed myself in reshaping a newspaper Formosa had already launched, the Malta Financial & Business Times.  I wanted MaltaToday to be a left-of-centre, liberal newspaper with faithful, independent reporting and a flair for analysis.

The journalists I approached for the project were all old acquaintances and friends who had worked with me either on newspapers or in pressure groups and from the political milieu I had gravitated towards.

Kurt Sansone, whom I knew from Alternattiva Demokratika, joined; Miriam Dunn too, who had worked with me at The People; Julian Manduca soon followed – he would die six years later, aged just 47; Matthew Vella joined in late 2002; then came James Debono, and from the Independent, Raphael Vassallo and Karl Schembri, and later Julia Farrugia and Harry Vassallo.

I was a self-taught journalist. Well-read and naturally curious, but my ineptness at expressing myself… shall we say, diplomatically, mean that my forte was simply saying it as it is. And that meant it was far from eloquent or prosaic, and just daring and irreverent.

I also had the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of a newspaper, from design, to distribution and running costs. I had learnt the trade from creating, launching and working in newspapers il-Fehma (1987), Alternattiva (1989), The People (1996) and The Independent (1998).

The first years of MaltaToday were surreal. With little or no impact in those formative years, I stumbled on a formula that would revive readers’ interest in our newspaper. I decided to revisit the harrowing stories of the Mintoff years, with the Lino Cauchi murder and the Mid-Med scandal.

and soon after the BICAL and National Bank scandals of the 1970s. I searched for the protagonists and gave their side of the story, reproducing everything they said and leading me to confrontation in the courtroom. Former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff was one of those who sued us for defamation, which brought more media attention but more importantly, a sentiment that I was being victimised.

Most of these stories found their origins in original stories scripted in the defunct but very popular newspaper Alternattiva, which had been published between 1989 and 1996.

Slowly but surely MaltaToday started to come up with off-diary scoops. The style was fresh and at the time there was no one in the media scene who matched our boldness. And apart from the political stories we investigated, there were three recurrent themes that were part of our editorial standpoint: the serious threat to the environment, civil liberties, and the entrenched culture of nepotism and conflicts of interest.

In the winter of 2002, MaltaToday started to encounter financial problems. It should not have been the case – we were still then still a print-based culture where the Sunday newspaper mattered. I seized the moment and informed John Formosa that I wished to buy the titles from him. He accepted. I approached the bank, produced a simple business plan showing how I would control expenses and raise funds. I will not deny it: I was ruthless about getting there, and it required that I hire only the best for this cutthroat environment. Shortly after, I would sell half my shareholding to Roger De Giorgio, a former PN information boss for 22 years, an entrepreneur in the entertainment business, but at the time a former director at The Independent.

I had hoped that Roger’s presence in MaltaToday would balance out my brashness.

Instead it led to a backlash from the Nationalist Party’s inner circle.

That was not entirely because of Roger. It was linked to my friendship to then PN minister John Dalli, who in 2004 had lost the PN leadership battle. That familiarity would later turn sour; but not before it admittedly created innumerable problems for the newspaper and myself.

In my eyes back then, John Dalli was a leader-in-waiting who could transform the Nationalist Party from the conformist policies of the Fenech Adami years to something more liberal and forward-looking. I was wrong on all counts.

Little did I expect how vicious the backlash from the PN, namely the Gonzi camp, would turn out to be.

MaltaToday was unashamedly a pro-EU newspaper which in 2003 called on all voters to give their first-count vote to the Nationalist Party and – the editorial stated, only the PN – for it was the only guarantee of taking Malta into the European Union. No other newspaper was willing to take such a blatant stand.

Dalli’s failure to win the PN leadership led to a hostile response from the PN. Our discussion programme on TVM was axed, even though it had been shortlisted to replace Lou Bondì’s, and what followed was an advertising boycott of the newspaper. In the years to come, Lou Bondì and Daphne Caruana Galizia repeatedly hit out at MaltaToday and me in particular, first for being a “Dalli stooge”, and then for being a “Labour mouthpiece”.

It became clear then that the stories we published which would lead to a disproportionate reaction, usually from Bondì and Caruana Galizia as well as from The Times at the time, were alo the ones making the most impact.

One of the first of this kind was the George Grech sex scandal and the revelations in his role as Commissioner of Police and head of the security service, or the ones about Fenech Adami’s personal assistant Richard Cachia Caruana and his reputation as a backroom dealer. The political landscape provided us with stories that kept us busy. On one side there was a Labour party unwilling to change its position on Europe and in the Nationalist camp a feeling that power would never slip out of their hands.

In 2003, we started our polling unit – a first for Malta – establishing a reputation for reading the electoral trends and trust ratings of political leaders. Today it is a reputable arm of our newspaper company that also provides useful commercial insight into Maltese trends. Until this day MaltaToday surveys stand out for their reliability and precision, especially before national elections.

In spite of the difficulties of running the newspaper, in 2006 it was decided to launch a Maltese Sunday newspaper by the name of Illum, and later the Wednesday ‘midweek’ edition of MaltaToday. MaltaToday already had an online presence, although only later would the push towards online become a necessary reality of media. I knew that the only way we could survive was to spread our net wider but also do more with less.

The supremacy of the Nationalist government versus the lacklustre Labour opposition presented us with various analytical opportunities, namely thanks to Eddie Fenech Adami’s transition from Prime Minister to President and the insularity of the Gonzi years. 2006 raised the ire of environmentalists with the redrawing of local plans, but few knew how the true impact of these plans would be perfected only by the Muscat administration, which opened the floodgates for planning permits.

In that same year, a series of investigative stories on the abuse of tuna ranchers in Malta was met with a series of defamation cases and garnishee orders against MaltaToday. The lawsuits threatened to cripple the company so we decided to withdraw the stories. What we did not realise then was how the online version of our newspaper was the thing of the future, with our online stories then leading to Japanese banks blocking financing for the Maltese tuna companies… threatening to hold up their $100 million annual export of Mediterranean bluefin tuna to Japan.

Defamation cases hit MaltaToday in a big way. Business magnate Albert Mizzi, an untouchable, could not take the heat when he was outed out for his cosy relationship with Dom Mintoff and his role at Air Malta as chairman and simultaneously a representative of Boeing. Dom Mintoff won a staggering Lm7,000 fine in the appeals court in a case decided by his former lawyer, Judge Philip Sciberras. Former Labour MP and junior minister Louis Buhagiar won another Lm7,000 over complaints filed by insurance companies over his exorbitant fees to foreigners seeking urgent medical treatment in Malta. That decision was taken by magistrate Dennis Montebello, whom we had once probed over his ‘illegal’ dwelling in Gozo. Others followed, including a staggering €23,000 fine after Peter Fenech, a PN political appointee, was investigated for his role as a tenant in a scandalous Lands Department decision blessed by home affairs minister Tonio Borg.

The list goes on: a defamation case by PL deputy leader Michael Falzon over his public declaration “ordering” Police Commissioner John Rizzo to proceed against MaltaToday; Tonio Fenech, the entire PN executive committee, Austin Gatt, Richard Cachia Caruana, Paul Borg Olivier, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Alan Camilleri, Edgar Galea Curmi, former PBS editor Natalino Fenech and former journalist Jesmond Bonello, all part of a retinue of PN politicians and minions who sued MaltaToday. Added to that were a host of foreign law firms threatening us with million-euro defamation suits, always brought by some millionaire client or multinational, as was recently the case with some passport buyer or Azerbaijan ‘handler’.

Our stand on human rights and migration, led to hatred of and distaste for towards our journalism from the same posse of right-wingers and fascists who in 2006 set fire to my front door in the dead of the night in the centre of Naxxar, and to the door of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s house.

As we progressed, the financial viability of the company was at stake: profits were non-existent or low, court fines for defamation cases were eating away at our company’s bottom line. But we survived, by raising the profile of MaltaToday when we singularly supported the divorce campaign and referendum – openly calling on people to vote for change. We did the same this time to end spring hunting in 2015, but that referendum was lost by a mere 1,500 votes.

They were years which characterised MaltaToday’s knack to publish stories that would rock the political establishment: namely the unpublicised €500 weekly increase in parliamentary salaries (published in November 2008, years before it became a political issue); the travels of Tonio Fenech on a private jet with Joe Gasan and George Fenech who were seeking a change in the planning status of Jerma Palace Hotel; the Smart City project; the kickbacks in Gozo tendering; and the most momentous journalistic event of all, the oil scandal which had revealed without any doubt, the existence of kickbacks from foreign multinationals with dirty brokers and government appointees.

In the last years, MaltaToday’s editorial content and direction has been captained uniquely by Matthew Vella. I continue to give input and story ideas, but it is Matthew’s style that prevailed, representing a change that was more grounded and of higher journalistic quality, and which is the mark of his editorial independence and discretion.

Under a Labour administration, the first years were dominated by our exposés of the Premier Café €4 million bailout, our stories on the Maltese passport sale, and the widespread tax avoidance financial structures for which we have received nothing but opprobrium, especially when we finally crowned it with the MaltaFiles exposé with European Investigative Collaborations (EIC).

Sadly, we missed out on the Panama Papers revelations implicating two senior figures of the Muscat administration, and were overshadowed by the work of our competitors brought on board by the ICIJ.

However, this did not stop us from reporting the news and doing our fair research on the intricate links between the business community and the Maltese tax regime. Neither did we shun our editorial responsibility to report all the news and all sides.

Between 2013 and the election of 2017, Maltese journalism passed through a caustic period that was marked by a change in political discourse, toxicity and abuse on the social media reaching unprecedented levels, and MaltaToday being unfairly targeted.

MaltaToday played its own important media role in the snap elections of 2017, for it refused to give in to much of the guesswork and assumptions being made on unproven allegations that dominated the headlines. The newspaper queried the Egrant allegations rather than embracing them as the truth. It was a gamble that was borne out of journalistic diligence, for the effects of the Egrant inquiry left so much egg on the face of the media, that many readers simply stopped taking newspapers seriously. In the face of Muscat’s landslide victory and the catastrophic infighting in the Nationalist party, with the never-ending negative press that surrounded Adrian Delia, the newly-elected PN leader, Egrant became a risible affair.

The last two years have offered opportunities for great reportage but they have been dictated to a certain extent by the Caruana Galizia assassination. It has been a harrowing and disastrous event for the media and society, mainly for the brutality of the murder that risked cowing the media and its affront to Maltese society as a whole.

But it also laid bare the poor attention to detail and fact-checking by many journalists, even the foreign media, to turn Malta into a petri-dish of scandal, subterfuge and mystery.

Malta has always been consumed by a monochrome vision of sorts; everything is either black or white. But MaltaToday has always striven to hover around the grey zone in this Venn diagram of Maltese views, reporting both sides of the story, putting things into context and more importantly, reminding readers of the danger of forgetting the perspective of every story, that important historical and anthropological vein of storytelling.

There is, however, another danger: the crisis print journalism faces with increased costs and falling readership. The challenge is to reverse the downward spiral in the face of the daunting task of monetising quality journalism online. It will not be easy. I always argue that I lived all my life in journalism not as a business, but to create a business that can sustain journalism. Today I live in the schizophrenic role of being an owner, journalist and businessman. I feel that I am first a journalist, with a yearning to get the news out and the truth.

MaltaToday, I believe, is a newspaper of impact, and it will continue to play its important part in Maltese life. But the survival of journalism needs the intervention of the State, of a social pact inspired by the democratic value of newspapers, if we are to retain and enlist the best brains to serve as journalists. Sadly, I am not too convinced the State is keen on taking up this task.

20 years from now, it has yet to be seen where MaltaToday will be. I know it will be in a stronger position than it already is.