Now more than ever, we need a police media briefing unit

Simply put, prime ministers should play no part in any criminal investigation, in any shape or form, ever: regardless whether they’re implicated in the case or not. There are, naturally, moments when prime ministers are fully justified in addressing the nation; but these do not extend to what should really have been a police media briefing, of the kind that never happens here at all

I may not always see eye to eye with the Caruana Galizia family on all matters; but on one thing they certainly have a point.

It should not be the Prime Minister briefing the press on the latest developments of an ongoing criminal investigation.

To be honest, I am surprised this even needed to be pointed out. And there wasn’t any need to elaborate, either. That the Caruana Galizia family also considers Joseph Muscat himself to be a prime suspect is… well, interesting, I suppose, from an international news angle; but not at all relevant to the argument at hand.

Simply put, prime ministers should play no part in any criminal investigation, in any shape or form, ever: regardless whether they’re implicated in the case or not.

There are, naturally, moments when prime ministers are fully justified in addressing the nation; but these do not extend to what should really have been a police media briefing, of the kind that never happens here at all.

So, by briefing the press himself instead, Joseph Muscat also arrogated unto himself the powers of a Police Commissioner. Which is doubly unwise, because: a) that is precisely what his detractors have been accusing him of doing all along, and; b) because it’s just one of those things that should never be done, full-stop (yet has been consistently done in this country for as long as I can remember, and probably much, much longer than that.)

OK, I’m about to list a couple of the better-known cases, just to pre-empt the usual ‘why-don’t-you-mention-this-that-or-the-other’ feedback I usually get in the comments section below.

Here goes. When the Chief Justice and an Appeals Court judge were arrested on bribery charges in 2002, it was “an ashen-faced Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami” (to quote Daphne Caruana Galizia) who announced the arrest to the nation in a live television broadcast.

Just like Muscat today, Fenech Adami had no business to make that announcement … and the fact that he did so even led to an (unsuccessful) call for a mistrial by the accused.

Likewise, the same prime minister had no business to get mixed up in the case of the attempted assassination of his own private secretary, Richard Cachia Caruana: to the extent of even conducting interrogations himself, and offering a Presidential pardon, covering numerous crimes, in return for evidence that didn’t even stand up in court.

And yes, I am aware that there is also an irony staring us all in the face here. For Daphne Caruana Galizia had defended Eddie Fenech Adami from criticism on both those occasions: but most especially in the Cachia Caruana trial, in which she also happened to be a witness herself.

A lot more beside could be said about both cases: especially in an age when everything that was considered perfectly normal until only yesterday, has suddenly become the stuff of instant outrage.

But I won’t bother, because… well, I happen to agree with that tired maxim that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’.

Who cares if Eddie Fenech Adami was equally wrong 20 years ago or more? The glaring elephant in the room is that it’s still just as wrong all these years later… yet local journalists all still accept it as a perfectly ordinary state of affairs. (In fact, it fell to foreign journalists to point out the anomaly first.)

Technically, however, it should be the Police Force itself to brief the press; and in a case of nationwide (and international) concern, it should ideally be the Police Commissioner in person. But because old habits are so entrenched, there simply isn’t any form of permanent structure in place to make that possible on a regular basis.

(On a separate note, this explains why the Police Commissioner looked like such a fish out of water on the one time he did address a press conference, shortly after the murder. It’s just not something Maltese Police Commissioners are used to doing. Joseph Muscat, on the other hand, can handle the media with ease. He’s been doing it for over 20 years now, on both sides of the divide…)

To be fair, the police do have an official communications branch of sorts, called the CMRU: but from my own experience, it seems limited to only ever issuing press releases… and even then, only ever covering the scantiest of scant details about any given case (A typical example would be: ‘A man died yesterday. Investigations are under way. End.’)

The sort of press briefings that are now expected involve something much more… complex. It would require a dedicated press office, complete with staff and resources, designed for the purpose of keeping the media informed of details that (in the Police’s view) are sufficiently important to be publicised, without in any way jeopardising the investigation itself.

This, in turn, necessitates having a team at hand to assess the media angle of any investigation: to be able to take on-the-spot decisions concerning the balance between the public’s right to know, the suspect’s right to privacy, the fear of alerting unidentified suspects to details of the investigation… and a hundred and one other considerations: including ‘do we even have to brief the media at all?’

In the UK, this is something that forms part of any policeman’s basic training. There is even a ‘Media Relations’ handbook given to every police officer: and just to give an idea of the complexity, this is from the ‘Media briefings’ section.

“Officers and staff should liaise with [the Corporate Communications Departments] about planning and arranging briefings. The rationale for the briefing must be recorded by either the CCD or [Senior Investigating Officer]. Consideration should be given as to whether or not an embargo agreement is required. If one is required, it should have signed agreement from the media and be retained for audit purposes…”

In Malta, on the other hand, we have… nothing at all. It is, in fact, the absence of a comparable media relations unit that makes press briefings by the Prime Minister so customary to local journalists… and so utterly bizarre to foreign ones.

In this particular case, however, there is an added complication. Stripped to its bare essentials, the announcement Muscat made on Wednesday morning was that he had signed a letter authorising a Presidential pardon to the ‘middleman’ involved in Daphne’s murder.

And despite the name, ‘Presidential pardons’ can only be issued on the recommendation of the prime minister in person.

This is another of those bizarre things we’ve all just accepted over the years… in spite of all the occasions this mechanism has failed us in the past. In fact, Joseph Muscat spent around 90% of his press conference last Wednesday talking about how much he disagrees with the Presidential pardons system, and all the occasions where it has proved counter-productive in the past.

Such a shame he didn’t find any time to reform this mechanism he disagrees with so much, in the almost seven years he’s been prime minister…

But no matter. It is, by now, too late to fix this part of our broken system in time to have any bearing on the murder investigation itself. But it is probably too early to assess the full extent of the damage this lacuna is causing on an almost day-to-day basis.

Already we have seen media outlets slipping up (I won’t point fingers, as it’s happening to everyone), and having to retract details of earlier reports. One newspaper prematurely reported Yorgen Fenech’s release from custody on police bail, for instance. And by the time the error was rectified, the story had already assumed a life of its own on Facebook.

From this perspective, it was not just the fact that Joseph Muscat briefed the media that was wrong; but also that he cautioned the media to be ‘prudent’ and ‘mindful of its responsibilities’ in the same press briefing.

As a former journalist, the Prime Minister should know that we have to rely on official sources to accurately report on the state of any criminal investigation. He himself is our only official source right now… and because he is not (and should not be) part of the investigation, that makes his contributions hearsay, at best.

And if even this second-hand information is, in any case, full of holes – Muscat couldn’t even tell us what charges, if any, were being contemplated against Yorgen Fenech: which is usually the first information any police media briefing would provide – well, he can hardly blame the media for doing their job, and trying to fill in the blanks themselves.

This is, in fact, what has been happening for the two years since Daphne was murdered. All the speculation that has surrounded this case from the very beginning…. it all arises from the complete lack of reliable official information, at all levels, everywhere.

That farcical police press conference I mentioned earlier? It was not the best of starts, I’ll grant you… but it should really have been a springboard to beefing up the CMRU into something that can actually provide this all-important media briefing section.

And even if it is too late, there is still time to ensure that the next major twists and turns will at least be communicated to the media (however poorly) through the proper channels.

The only alternative is for the media to continue doing what they are doing today: i.e., wildly joining all the dots in whichever way best suits their own agendas.

And… well, speaking only for myself, I just don’t think that’s the right way to go.

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