Ministers who came under fire by the Standards Commissioner last week for misusing public resources to promote their personal Facebook pages are struggling to explain their actions.
While Prime Minister Robert Abela has kept quiet so far, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna attempted to defend himself in a 12-minute video he uploaded last night. But his explanation left a lot to be desired.
“Even though (the Commissioner’s observations) sound very ugly, I will explain them in as light a way as possible,” the Finance Minister began in the video uploaded on the freshly set-up Facebook page of the Finance Ministry. (Scroll down for video)
“None of the ministers mentioned, including myself, spent any government money on their private Facebook pages,” Scicluna claimed.
He’s blatantly wrong though.
For starters, one of the four ministers rapped by the Standards Commissioner openly admitted to spending public money on his personal Facebook page more than two years ago, when Lovin Malta began pursuing this story.
Back when he was Parliamentary Secretary for EU Funds, Aaron Farrugia had confirmed spending hundreds of euro from taxpayer money to promote government initiatives on his personal page.
And Farrugia was one of the only ministers to respond to Lovin Malta’s questions at the time, even though he failed to reply to the Standards Commissioner more than a year later when questioned officially.
Another minister whose social media was examined by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler was Transport Minister Ian Borg.
Borg also failed to respond to simple questions put to him by the Standards Commissioner. And he never answered Lovin Malta’s questions about his Facebook spending.
But official figures for the period March 2013 – September 2017 show that his ministry spent more than €50,000 on Facebook boosts alone.
Given that the Transport Ministry never had its own Facebook page – and still does not – it stands to reason that this money was spent directly on Borg’s own Facebook page, which unsurprisingly has almost 60,000 followers.
Then there’s Economy Minister Silvio Schembri who also failed to respond to the Standards Commissioner but recently faced questions by the press and denied ever using public funds to “boost” posts on his personal page on Facebook.
But even if Schembri is telling the truth – and only a thorough audit can determine this – the point remains that up until this week the Economy Ministry did not have its own Facebook page. Therefore, all official social media content created for the ministry used to be published through his personal page.
The Commissioner tackled this point in his report where he examined an official ministry video published on Schembri’s personal page.
“Since the video does not appear on any official channel, I can only conclude that the video was produced specifically for Minister Schembri’s personal Facebook page, which represents misuse of public resources. Minister Schembri did not reply to my request for an explanation. The same video ends with Minister Schembri’s personal logo, as shown in the screenshot below, indicating what appears to be the lack of any clear distinction between the official and personal spheres.”
Interestingly, the Commissioner was even harsher when it came to the videos produced by Scicluna.
“The distinction between the official and personal spheres is still more unclear in this example, which concerns a video in which Minister Edward Scicluna appears to be speaking in his official capacity as Minister for Finance. The video is professionally produced, with introductory and concluding sequences using motion graphics, and it appears to have been shot in the Minister’s office. It is one of a series of videos entitled “Fil-Fehma Tiegħi” (In My Opinion), all of which feature Minister Scicluna and follow the same format,” Hyzler wrote.
When originally questioned about these videos by the Commissioner, Scicluna replied four days after an already-extended deadline and defended the use of public resources for this series.
Scicluna said the video series began when he was an MEP and was able to use the European Parliament budget for this purpose.
“Once elected and appointed as Minister for Finance in March 2013 I continued the practice of explaining and informing about topics related to my work as Minister and member of parliament through this weekly video blog,” he said, adding that once produced by the ministry, they are uploaded on the ministry’s website and then uploaded onto Youtube and Facebook.
Hyzler did not take kindly to this response.
“The Minister’s reply is incorrect in so far as it suggests that the video was uploaded to his ministry’s official website and shared from there to YouTube and Facebook. On the contrary, the ministry in effect shared through its official website a video published on Minister Scicluna’s personal YouTube channel. This, together with the fact that the video was produced using public funds, represents the complete erasure of the distinction between official and private spheres,” Hyzler said in his report.
He added: “Minister Scicluna also states that his weekly videos deal with topics relating to his work as minister and as member of parliament. However, paragraph 4.9 of the code of ethics for ministers, as reproduced earlier in this case report, obliges ministers to keep their roles as ministers and as representatives separate.”
“It is beyond the scope of this investigation to determine whether there is a genuine need, in the public interest, to produce weekly videos about topics relating to the Minister’s work, and whether this need justifies the costs involved. But it is clearly unacceptable for official resources to be used in the production of any videos that deal with topics relating specifically to Prof Scicluna’s role as member of Parliament,” Hyzler stated, pointing out that local MPs do not enjoy a specific budget for these purposes.
“Apart from the issue of misuse of public resources, this practice inter alia gives ministers and parliamentary secretaries an unfair advantage over other members of parliament competing on the same electoral district.”
Hyzler said a minister’s personal Facebook page should never be the primary avenue for official ministry videos.
“Nor should such a video feature the minister’s personal logo, whether or not this is added on initial publication or when it is shared. The addition of a logo goes beyond sharing official content: it implies appropriation of that content for personal ends.”
Crucially, the Commissioner said: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the production of videos in this manner is a thinly-disguised means for a minister to promote himself and to raise his political profile at public expense.”
In his video, Scicluna claimed that the Commissioner had no problem with the video series except that for “technical reasons” of when and where it is to be uploaded first.
But he is clearly being economical with the truth in a bid to downplay the scandal.
And to make matters worse, the video he uploaded yesterday may have even breached the new rules he has promised to obey.
According to the Commissioner’s proposed guidelines, “expressions of the Minister’s political views” should be restricted to his personal pages – not official pages – and should not be paid for using taxpayers’ money.
And yet, Scicluna used the newly created Finanzi page to defend his actions in a video series called Fil-Fehma Tiegħi (In My Opinion), concluding with the ministry’s logo.
Good practice would have been to use his personal page (and personal resources) to share his personal opinions about whether he personally misused public funds or not. Right?
Watch the full video here and see whether the Finance Minister’s explanation makes sense:
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Robert Abela has not yet given any public response to the Standards Commissioner’s report and has not replied to questions from Lovin Malta asking for the government’s official social media code.
Lovin Malta, which called for the Standards Commissioner to investigate the matter last year, has written to Abela for his reaction to the report.
Among other things, Abela was asked whether he ever gave legal advice on the matter in his role as the legal consultant to Cabinet.
It is understood that all Cabinet members have been instructed to make a clear distinction between their personal and official pages. Abela was asked whether he has given a deadline to all ministers to fall in line.
The Prime Minister has failed to answer Lovin Malta’s questions by the time of publishing, including whether he would support the idea of Cabinet members returning public funds.
According to information that had been published in Parliament, ministries spend around €25,000 per month on Facebook boosts alone (€1.2 million in a 55-month period). This has prompted calls for an Auditor General inquiry and Cabinet members to pay back misused money. The Nationalist Party yesterday also called on the police to investigate.
Even though four ministers were found to have misused public resources in the report, this was the result of a small random sample examined by the Standards Commissioner. Hyzler made it clear that this is not an exhaustive report and the “worst offenders” may have been left out.
On a more positive note, it seems most ministries and parliamentary secretaries are slowly regularising their position and doing what should have seemed obvious in the first place: giving their ministries an official Facebook page from which to disseminate official information.
What do you think of the Finance Minister’s response?