Standards czar urges implementation of government advertising guidelines

Standards for Public Life Commissioner is urging the implementation of existent guidelines so no doubt can be cast again on similar cases

The guidelines which are being considered for implementation have been made public since 2021 (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)
The guidelines which are being considered for implementation have been made public since 2021 (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)

Standards czar, Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Azzopardi has recommended the implementation of guidelines on government advertising which were issued two years ago.

The previous Standards Commissioner, Dr. George Hyzler, had referred a case regarding an advertisement published by a minister to Parliament's Standing Committee on Standards in Public Life in March 2021, which is when these standards first appeared. On the matter, the Committee was unable to reach a consensus as Speaker Anglu Farrugia, who had the deciding vote since he was the Committee's chairman, abstained on the grounds that the ministerial code of ethics was unclear about government ads.

As a result, Commissioner Hyzler released the recommendations in August 2021 to act as a guide in matters involving government adverts.

In June 2022, Commissioner Hyzler referred a fresh case to the Committee regarding government advertising that were placed in newspaper KullĦadd. The Commissioner came to the conclusion that these adverts constituted an ethics violation based on the previously published guidelines.

The Committee finished reviewing this matter on June 28. Here, the Speaker's casting vote led the Committee to reject Commissioner Hyzler's report. The guidelines had no legal standing, the Speaker claimed, thus he could not support the report. He did, however, add that he approved of the guidelines' content and believed they ought to have legal standing.

On July 18, 2023, Joseph Azzopardi, the current Commissioner, sent a letter to the Committee where he said that the recommendations were simply meant to serve as a guide for how current ethical standards should be implemented in situations involving publicly-funded ads or promotional materials, not as new rules in and of themselves.

In his letter, the Commissioner indicated his opinion that in both of the cases it had looked at, the Committee had interpreted the pertinent laws "too narrowly". He said that allegations of ethical violations shouldn't be addressed in the same way as criminal accusations.

Azzopardi said, “If one takes these two cases as a precedent, it would mean that the Committee is neither willing to rely on the ministerial code of ethics nor willing to refer to the guidelines when considering alleged breaches of ethics relating to publicly-funded advertisements. In effect the Committee has created a situation where it cannot take action against such breaches. This situation must be resolved with urgency.”

Therefore, Commissioner Azzopardi advised that the principles be changed into regulations and included to the ministerial code of ethics, which makes up the second schedule of the Standards in Public Life Act.