Book Council chair defends decision not to promote Mark Camilleri’s book

Book Council chairperson tells court council refused to promote ‘A Rent Seeker's Paradise’ because of its ‘potentially libellous’ nature

Author Mark Camilleri has filed a constitutional case claiming discrimination over the Book Council's decision not to promote his book 'A Rent Seeker's Paradise'
Author Mark Camilleri has filed a constitutional case claiming discrimination over the Book Council's decision not to promote his book 'A Rent Seeker's Paradise'

The National Book Council’s decision to refuse to review or promote a book critical of corruption in the local political context had been taken based on the author’s Facebook posts and without having actually read it.

This emerged in court last Thursday, when the Chairman of the National Book Council took the witness stand in the ongoing constitutional case filed against the entity by author and outspoken government critic Mark Camilleri.

The author had filed the case last June, against the National Book Council Chairman, who is also named Mark Camilleri, and the State Advocate, claiming to have suffered discrimination because of his political views.

He alleges that the Council had refused to review and promote his book `A Rent Seeker’s Paradise,’ “for political reasons, in view of the acute criticism of the government and the Labour Party which the book contains.”

The defendant Camilleri had been occupying the position since September 2021, taking over the position from the plaintiff.

Mark Camilleri the author, the plaintiff, was himself a former Chairman of the Council in the years 2013 to 2021, and later broke ranks with Labour, becoming a vocal critic of the party, after Robert Abela’s election as leader in 2020.

‘The exile’

From the witness stand, under cross-examination by the plaintiff’s lawyer, David Bonello, the defendant chairman told Madam Justice Audrey Demicoli that his relationship with the author was “good, like it is good with others, meaning that he is a stakeholder in the National Book Council and I treat him like I treat others.”

Bonello asked the defendant to explain why he had once described the author as “exiled.”

“Well, because obviously, he lives outside the country, you know. I don’t think I said something out of this world by saying that he lives abroad,” Camilleri had replied. The lawyer asked whether, according to the witness, everyone who lives abroad is ‘exiled.’

“I felt, I said exiled in a disparaging way, as it was interpreted,” replied the witness, going on to say that it had been said in a private conversation, a screenshot of which had been passed on to the plaintiff.

Pressed on where this conversation had taken place, the Book Council Chairman said that it had happened on Facebook. “Somebody had asked me what had happened to my predecessor Mark Camilleri, and I told them sort of ‘how do I know what became of the exile’ full stop.”

Review of published book

Bonello asked the witness about the Council’s publication of book reviews on Maltese language newspaper Illum. Camilleri replied that the Council sponsored a page on the paper and “obviously, like every other sponsored page, we have the editorial choice of what books we review and which books we don’t.”

The reviews are carried out by Mark Vella “every week”, he confirmed.

“Every week,” repeated the lawyer. “Yeah,” the witness replied.

“Roughly how many books are published every week?” was the lawyer’s inevitable follow up question. 

The witness said he was unable to say, explaining that it was “problematic” as there were many different genres. He denied the suggestion that he would set the editorial direction, saying that it was a team effort involving the council’s staff complement of six members - of which the witness was one - but not the council as a board. 

The lawyer asked who the team would communicate their decisions to, to which the Book Council Chairman explained that Mark Vella’s finished review would be sent to them in advance. “Now, should the book be somewhat sensitive in nature, he generally asks us in advance whether or not to review the book or not.” He confirmed that Vella was free to review whatever book he wanted to and would then send his review to the editorial team for a decision on whether or not to approve it. The editor of Illum had no say on the subject of the sponsored review, confirmed the Chairman.

A Rent Seeker’s Paradise

Asked about the procedure adopted with the plaintiff’s book, ‘A Rent Seekers Paradise’, the witness said that “because the book had not yet been published as a physical book, but only as an ebook, obviously I convened the whole team on it and we felt that because of the nature of the book as it was, obviously because we are a public entity, we decided that for now, at that moment, it was not wise to publish the review of that book, obviously because of the sensitivity of the cases that it contained, obviously there were also potentially libellous cases.”

Under cross-examination by Bonello, the Chairman was forced to admit that he had not actually read the ebook before the decision not to publish the book review was taken. “So, you took this decision based on reports on the broadcast media,” stated the lawyer. “Correct,” the chairman replied. 

Replying to further questions from the lawyer, Camilleri explained that Mark Vella had expressed the desire to review the book, but that the team had decided not to go ahead with it. Asked what the reason for this decision was, the witness said “there was political content, which could potentially be libellous, which I as… we as a council did not wish to end up with legal problems if we publish as a review.”

Although the Chairman of the National Book Council had not actually read the book before reaching the decision, he said he had been aware of lawsuits and libel suits being mentioned as having been filed by MPs. “I obviously wanted to safeguard the council from potential libel cases et cetera if we were to publish and us from legal problems.”

The witness reminded the court that he had only taken over the reins for a month and had an institutional role to safeguard the council from such problems. “I could not, after a month, immediately take a decision saying ‘whatever happens, happens.’”

He had spoken to Mark Vella over the phone, he said, telling him that it was “not the right time” for this book to be reviewed. “Don’t forget…I was just starting, I wanted to safeguard the name of the Council, right? That is my job at the end of the day.”

Bonello painstakingly teased out the witness’ admission that the Book Council Chairman had sought the advice of his superior, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry for Education, Frank Fabri, over the phone. “I told him that, listen, because I obviously started hearing certain complaints from Mr Camilleri that we hadn’t carried out [the book review] and I explained to him why I took this decision and did not publish it.”

“He told me I did well to inform him.”

Asked what he felt was sensitive about the book, he said he felt that, in general, when the contents of a book were not fictional in nature, “if not backed up with facts, it is potentially libellous.”

The witness also confirmed that the council had never stopped any other book from being published, qualifying this statement by adding that it was the first book about contemporary politics which the council had encountered in his experience.

Defence lawyer Timothy Bartolo also cross-examined the witness, asking him directly whether he had ever been influenced or given a politically motivated order with regards to the publication of this or any other book.

“Never. If that type of pressure were to be applied to me I would immediately resign.”

Lawyer James D’Agostino, representing the State Advocate, also cross-examined the witness, asking him whether he had been aware of the fact that the plaintiff had been building up anticipation about the book on Facebook, prior to its publication.

“Yes obviously,” Camilleri replied.

“So, am I correct in my understanding that the knowledge which you said you had, despite not having read the ebook, was precisely because of what the plaintiff had published on Facebook?”

“Correct,” replied the Book Council Chairman.

“Am I also correct in stating that amongst these sneak peaks that he had been giving on Facebook, he had been making reference to Joseph Muscat with allegations of corruption and also about Rosianne Cutajar regarding corruption and also possibly intimate relationships with third parties?”

“Yes, obviously yes,” answered the witness, also confirming that the author had also hinted at other things which he dealt with in the book.

“So, you are saying that it was on this basis that you are telling us that you had been very concerned about whether the review should take place or not?” D’Agostino asked.

“That’s right.”

Further cross-examination was reserved. The case continues on December 2.