Defending the indefensible

By disseminating private, compromising photos with a view to damaging the victim’s reputation – possibly even getting him fired – Cyrus Engerer betrayed the principle of trust on which public office actually rests.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The recent Cyrus Engerer incident has in a sense brought out the worst of the traditional political divide. It has also served as a timely reminder how much of the rhetoric behind the pre-electoral ‘meritocracy’ mantra was in fact rooted in dishonesty.

Last Thursday the Court of Criminal Appeal found Engerer guilty of disseminating pornography, overturning an earlier acquittal by the magistrates court. Engerer, until that point a prominent Labour candidate in the European election, responded by withdrawing his candidature. But significantly, he will be retaining two public posts: that of consultant to the Civil Liberties ministry, and chair of the government’s LGBT council.

Predictably, the case has risen to dominate an election campaign that has so far failed to inspire much enthusiasm among the population at large. This may ultimately serve to detract attention from the more serious repercussions, which go well beyond the outcome of the European election. More worryingly, the political dimension is also likely to further entrench the two parties in their respective positions.

The Nationalist Party’s response has so far been to affix Engerer’s head as a trophy on its battlements. Coming so soon after the Opposition leader’s claim that he was non-confrontational, Simon Busuttil has now entered full confrontational mode… clearly intent on milking as much electoral advantage from the situation as possible.

Ironically, he has been aided by a Prime Minister who appears to be blind to the effect of this unsavoury affair on his own government’s credibility. Joseph Muscat’s reaction to this event has been little short of astounding. Rather than attempt to distance himself from the embarrassment as much as possible, he was waded knee-deep into Engerer’s defence… even going so far as to praise him for his ‘integrity’ in resigning, when Engerer had no choice but to resign.

But it was Muscat’s decision to lionise the disgraced candidate in terms once used by Mintoff to describe the greatest heroes of the Labour movement – the ‘suldati tal-azzar’, who defied a Church edict and risked (by the standards of the time) eternal damnation to show their support for their party – has not only provoked an appropriate reaction of scorn and derision, but it also serves to insult older Labourites who no doubt feel ashamed to be associated with Engerer’s behaviour.

This in turn suggests that Joseph Muscat may still be labouring under the illusion that his impressive victory last year was indeed an endorsement of his own leadership of the Labour Party, and not in part also a rejection of the former administration. It seems he genuinely believes his own party propaganda, and casts himself as a revolutionary leader who can do no wrong in the eyes of the party faithful. If so, this is a grave miscalculation on Muscat’s part. Already there is evidence of disillusionment, only one year into an administration that came into power on the battle-cry of meritocracy. Now Muscat risks burying that motif altogether, by allowing Engerer to retain at least two posts that he manifestly does not deserve.

The Opposition is technically right to call for Engerer’s resignation from the LGBT council – though arguably not for the reasons cited by Busuttil – and it is surprising that the NGOs involved have not echoed this call.

But the issue is not so much that Engerer’s crime (as the PN claims) is ‘homophobic in nature’. This claim actually misrepresents the case altogether. Engerer did not circulate the images because the victim was gay. He did so to hurt a former partner who had spurned him. A similar crime involving a heterosexual couple – of which there are, and always will be, plenty to choose from – would not be deemed ‘heterophobic’. But it would be considered no less reprehensible.

The case actually concerns respect for the right to privacy, which falls squarely in the category of civil rights and liberties that Engerer is bound to uphold through his joint positions as both consultant to the Ministry of Civil Liberites and head of the LGBT council. It also cemented the impression of vengefulness and irresponsibility on Engerer’s part, which taken together cast a serious stain on his credentials as a person capable of honouring the commitments of public office.

By disseminating private, compromising photos with a view to damaging the victim’s reputation – possibly even getting him fired – Engerer also betrayed the principle of trust on which public office actually rests. Add to this the fact that he used illegal means to pursue these goals – including stealing the images to begin with, as well as hiding his identity in order to anonymously slander a third party – and in every sense of the word his behaviour becomes indefensible.

The prime minister should take stock of the situation and move without delay to contain any further damage. As long as Engerer retains his role as consultant to government on two counts, Muscat’s administration will likewise remain susceptible to the charge of defending the indefensible. By severing ties with his disgraced former candidate, Labour will both close an unfortunate chapter that has left it open to attack, and also appease internal critics who view this as yet another abdication of the meritocracy promise.

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