Former PBS Head of News wins and loses in MaltaToday libel cases

Different outcomes to two libel cases filed against MaltaToday by Natalino Fenech

Former PBS head of news Natalino Fenech
Former PBS head of news Natalino Fenech

Monday was something of a mixed bag for the former Head of News at Public Broadcasting Services, Natalino Fenech, after a court decided two libel claims that he had filed against this newspaper, rejecting one but upholding the other.

Fenech had filed the first lawsuit against MaltaToday's managing editor Saviour Balzan over an article he published in 2008, entitled “Gonzi's new way of doing politics at MEPA.” In that article, a the author remarked that PBS's announcing that Joseph Muscat would not be contesting the Labour leadership battle was “a big fat lie.” It said that Muscat had, in fact sent a statement to that effect to Fenech, who at the time was heading the national broadcaster's news section.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale heard how other offending passages included descriptions of Fenech as “someone who does not like Labour but he is also someone who specialises in spin,” a proponent of George Abela for the party leadership, the author of a “funny book about hunting that was full of inaccuracies and massive exaggerations” and as having allegedly prompted a journalist to ask Balzan whether he had ever eaten game in France.

The court noted that Muscat had issued a statement denying he had announced his withdrawal from the leadership race less than an hour after PBS had broadcast the claim on the 8pm news. It also noted that Fenech had published a book critical of bird-hunting in Malta in 1992. Ornithological Society Secretary Joe Sultana had testified that “the statistics provided by the plaintiff ...the figures were somewhat exaggerated and incorrect,” due to the methodology he had adopted.

It dismissed that libel case, observing that the national broadcaster had been used to transmit a false message to the viewing public. “This fact in and of itself is sufficient grounds for criticism, if necessary harsh criticism, because the news should always be true and correct and based on facts that are substantially correct.”

But in the second libel case, filed by Fenech in 2013 against Balzan and online editor Matthew Vella, the court held that an article reporting that a decision to replace Fenech with Reno Bugeja as head of news, in the former's absence had arrived at the incorrect conclusion. From the evidence, the court held that it was clear that the author of the article had been informed of an email sent shortly before and, seeing the phrase 'it has been decided in your absence,' had concluded that Fenech had abandoned his workplace, without attempting to confirm this with him.

Magistrate Depasquale pointed out that it was the obligation of the journalist to investigate stories thoroughly before publishing them, awarding the plaintiff €2000 in damages.

In a reaction to the judgement, MaltaToday's managing editor Saviour Balzan, said he was looking at the possibility of filing an appeal.