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LONG READ: Was Times Of Malta’s Agenda Bought By Keith Schembri? I Asked Two Of My Former News Editors

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This is a strange article for me to write. Last weekend two of my former employers were charged with corruption and financial crime.

They’re two very normal people: Adrian Hillman, who also taught me a credit at University of Malta, and Vince Buhagiar, who I rarely interacted with but who I always perceived to be a naive and jovial person who had somehow accidentally found himself at the helm of this beautiful but flawed institution.

Watching Buhagiar being driven to the court house, while knowing Hillman is a wanted man in the UK, made me seriously question what went on at Times of Malta when I was there, between 2008 and 2013.

Times of Malta noticed me just before the 2008 election which GonziPN would go on to win by a whisker. I had organised Insite’s political debate at University of Malta a few days before the vote. I was very proud of the event because it was the first time an American-style timed debate had been held with the smaller parties being given the same time and platform as PN and PL. It was also incredibly well attended.

The speakers were PN’s Lawrence Gonzi, Labour’s Alfred Sant, AD’s Harry Vassallo and Azzjoni Nazzjonali’s Josie Muscat (a conservative right-wing party that used to exist) and they were all given equal space and asked tough questions by our chosen journalists Karl Schembri, who later went on to join Al Jazeera, and Josanne Cassar, now a blogger with MaltaToday.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was in the audience, near her son Paul, who was famously filmed giving One News the finger for spending the whole time pointing a camera at his mother. She was also among hundreds of attendees who booed Sant whenever he spoke and cheered the countdown to zero when his time ran out.

Labour was furious by the outcome of the debate. Kurt Farrugia, who was running the English-language news portal Maltastar.com founded by Joseph Muscat, and would go on to become his spokesman, angrily accused me of organising the event in collusion with the PN.

Politicians always find someone else to blame when things go wrong. Accusing the media of being in your competitor’s pocket is a common play.

I never applied to work at Times of Malta. I was urged to join during my last year at university because the incoming news editors at the time, namely Mark Micallef and Ariadne Massa, had sensed I could be a good, fair and balanced journalist.

During my time there I was a significant thorn in the side of Lawrence Gonzi and the Nationalist Party. Not because anyone was paying me to be difficult, but because the PN was in government and it needed to be held to account.

I challenged them strongly on their outdated positions against divorce and gay rights. I exposed the secret salary raises they gave themselves, which Gonzi unbelievably still defends till today despite having made a complete mess of it and having made it almost impossible for politicians to get paid well today. I also challenged their record on transparency, meritocracy, rule of law and the environment. That’s what journalists do.

Meanwhile, Joseph Muscat became Opposition leader. I was sent to cover some of his first speeches and I was immediately impressed. He was saying all of the right things in all of the right ways, and I immediately knew his studied message would resonate with people.

Maybe I was not as tough on Muscat as I should have been. My focus, as tends to be the case with journalists, was more on the Government than the Opposition.

I was also working within a newsroom that was notoriously hostile to Labour. Remember, Labour thugs had once burnt down The Times’s offices. And the paper also never forgave Sant, now an MEP, for his opposition to EU membership. So I felt my role was to balance things out a little.

In fact, I often felt I was a voice of reason in the wilderness and my colleagues were not seeing what I was seeing: that Joseph Muscat was going to win the next election hands down and they’d better start taking him seriously.

After he won the election, I felt I was proven right and people like Daphne were wrong for dismissing Muscat as Sant’s poodle who had peaked too soon.

Throughout my time at the newspaper I strongly felt I was doing the right thing. I also felt I was doing it on my own terms. I certainly got a lot of guidance from my mentors Mark Micallef, Ariadne Massa, Herman Grech and Steve Mallia, as well as the other journalists and editors in the newsroom. And I’m sure we made many mistakes. But we always acted in good faith, in pursuit of truth and with a strong desire to inform our audiences as best we could.

I also had many conversations with Adrian Hillman who liked to potter about in the newsroom and was very pleasant to speak to. If he was trying to influence me, it was extremely subtle. At the time I genuinely felt I was trying to influence him and I perceived him as being way too close to Mario Demarco, who was a sitting Nationalist Minister at the time and who I also needed to hold to account.

The only time I remember being told to tone down a story was when Gonzi finally apologised for the secret pay rise scandal. I thought that was the beginning of achieving full accountability and we could now escalate things to demand political responsibility. But my editors felt it was enough that the ministers were refunding what they took from the taxpayer. They thought I should finally put this story to bed, and I reluctantly agreed.

That was one of the times when I felt PN would always be afforded more leeway than Labour by this institution. Keith Schembri said last week that the PN establishment could never stand to see Labour building a bridge with The Times. I think this is what Muscat meant when he claimed to be the underdog despite being the favourite to win. They were very conscious of the paper’s natural suspicion towards Labour and they did everything to change it.

I was 26 when I left the newspaper, so like many of Malta’s journalists, I was probably too young and naive to notice certain things. That’s why for this article I wanted to ask some of my older colleagues.

I heard Herman Grech speak on the Repubblika live stream this week, and it was certainly poignant to hear him say that Schembri built a bridge with Hillman, not The Times. I know what he means and I vouch for him as a true journalist who always acted in good faith, even though one cannot simply dismiss Hillman as not being part of The Times.

I also spoke to Ariadne Massa to see what she thought. Unlike Herman, she no longer works at Times of Malta. In fact, she left to pursue a career in PR which we also worked on together for a while. I asked whether she felt the newspaper’s editorial stance under her stewardship was affected by Hillman’s secret illicit business relationship with Schembri.

“I wouldn’t say there was any stance ahead of the 2013 election. We cannot view that period with today’s optics or knowledge. At the time, the public overwhelmingly decided that it was time for the PN to step aside,” she said.

“Journalists captured those sentiments, which gave birth to the discourse that Times was Labour’s new English medium; infuriatingly, this narrative kept resurfacing, even though the newsroom dedicated the entire year after the 2013 election to punching holes in Labour’s promise of meritocracy, an exercise made all the more disheartening when Labour won the MEP elections a year later with a bigger majority.”

Ariadne’s point is interesting. I can relate to that feeling when in 2017 I was a journalist again, this time running my own platform with Lovin Malta, and it was very disheartening when Labour won with another historic majority even after Panama Papers was revealed.

“Our principles as an editorial team were — and have always been — to report fairly,” Massa tells me, something I know to be true as well at least of the majority of journalists I have ever worked with.

“People love to paint the Times with a blue or red brush and when I first joined I’d be asked if the Demarco family was dictating what I’d write. They weren’t, and neither did Keith Schembri have any influence on the newsroom,” she said.

It’s certainly true that Demarco did not dictate what we wrote. But I think his shadow was felt, even just by the fact that so many readers reminded us of his involvement the way Ariadne herself describes. And as for Keith Schembri, it may feel like a stretch to say he did not have “any influence” on the newsroom. But her point is that it was no greater than the influence any major political operator would have had. Ultimately, a newsroom’s currency is information. And when you’re in politics, you have a lot of that to sell.

“Of course every party attempts to have an influence, but in the 20 years I worked there as journalist and later as Head of News, I never saw this translate into any interference from the editors I worked with,” Ariadne says.

“What I can say is that they [the editors] jealously guarded the independence editorial had from the management; this was a value we all treasured and which empowered journalists and editors to take difficult decisions, which at times upset commercial and political organisations.”

So what about Adrian Hillman and Vince Buhagiar?

“Sadly, unbeknownst to the editorial team the promise of money and the tentacles of power seem to have seduced two of our former managing directors,” she says.

“Watching Vince Buhagiar being whisked to court under arrest shocked me, sickened me, saddened me and made me furious all at once, as I never suspected someone who to me was always a gentleman would ever be charged with any crime, except of maybe being too nice.”

“The crimes he and Adrian Hillman are now accused of threaten to overshadow the work of the newsroom. And by perpetuating this narrative, we only serve to fulfil the vision of Keith Schembri and his party to weaken The Times of Malta.”

“Incapacitating every pillar in our society is what seems to have been that Labour administration’s end goal for supremacy and dictatorship,” she concludes.

Read that sentence again. It’s an important one. Incapacitating every pillar in our society is what seems to have been that Labour administration’s end goal for “supremacy and dictatorship”.

“The betrayal the public feels is shared by the company’s editorial arm who woke up to find a Trojan Horse in their midst, which was disloyal to a newsroom that remained bereft of investment and adequate salaries for a 24/7 job,” Ariadne adds, referring to the conditions of workers like herself under Hillman’s leadership.

“But what’s crucial at this juncture, for democracy’s sake, is to stop attacking the very journalists who have taken huge risks to uncover these heinous acts of corruption and turn the outrage on ensuring each poisonous tentacle of corruption is chopped off,” she concludes.

This is an important message to critics of journalists who are using these charges as a way of undermining their current work.

I also spoke to Mark Micallef, who I consider to be one of the smartest and fairest journalists Malta ever had. He now works for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, where he leads research on organised crime.

“The editorial team and most of the journalists, photographers and videographers I had the pleasure to work with at Times of Malta are people whose integrity I would vouch for with my eyes closed. All newsrooms face pressure and attempts to influence it, and in that pressurised environment you get to see what people are really made of,” he says.

“In this context, and dealing with the most controversial (and sometimes dangerous) issues on agenda, in more than 10 years at The Times as a journalist and later as News Editor, I can say I never experienced any untoward attempt to meddle with reporting. On the contrary, the newsroom was always a lively site of contestation, debate and disagreement, where everyone had all the opportunity to contribute to the news agenda, voice their opinion, and their disagreement.”

“This is why Saturday’s events are an especially infuriating moment for present and former members of the newsroom and editorial team.”

He then shared his thoughts on learning about Hillman’s escapades with Schembri.

“I have been filled with anger, disgust, shame and a sense of betrayal ever since the allegation that Adrian Hillman took bribes in respect to the printing press contract was first made by Daphne Caruana Galizia,” he says.

“The only satisfaction from the present juncture is that this story has finally come to a head, and that we might begin to get see some justice at the end of this sad and dark chapter.”

But he also thinks Allied Newspapers still has a lot of explaining to do.

“I for one, think it is totally unacceptable for the parent company of Malta’s leading newspaper to have carried out an internal inquiry and kept its findings secret,” he said, urging the newspaper to publish its inquiry into Hillman’s actions, a stance the editorial team also took today.

Micallef warns: “Not only do they owe an explanation because this is a matter of national import but because only a full public, transparent explanation with full accountability (irrespective of criminal responsibility) will spare the newspaper any further damage.”

“Precisely because the commercial side of the company is separated from editorial, the latter is currently suffering the brunt of the public’s anger and the conspiracy theories without having a say in how the company handles this critical matter.”

This point is interesting too. The Times prides itself on having a clear distinction between the newsroom and the commercial arm of the company. Maybe there is an argument to be made that such a model is imperfect too because it permits the commercial arm to do harm to the editorial.

I also reached out to Steve Mallia, who served as editor of Times of Malta and now works with Ariadne in PR. He preferred to share his thoughts in an opinion piece published in Times of Malta today, though he offered an advanced copy.

I’m sure other journalists at Times of Malta also have a lot to say, including their star reporters Jacob Borg and Ivan Martin, who are probably already sick of always being the story.

What’s clear is that everybody feels betrayed by the alleged actions of Adrian Hillman and Vince Buhagiar, primarily because it calls into question all the journalistic work the paper has ever done, especially under their watch.

I believe Herman Grech, Ariadne Massa and Mark Micallef when they say their work was not unduly influenced by Keith Schembri, despite their managing directors.

I cannot vouch for what happened after I left in 2013.

But I know that after 2016, when Panama Papers broke, all journalists saw the facade lifted off Keith Schembri’s face.

Even though we were slightly thrown by the Egrant saga – which still feels unresolved either way – the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia erased any doubt that things were more sinister than we could even imagine.

Each day that passed made it more and more clear that voters – including some journalists like myself – were sold a beautiful dream by Muscat, only to be served a total nightmare.

What’s also true is that Keith Schembri and his cabal were clearly trying to take as much control of our independent media as possible. Stories like Joseph Muscat urging an RTK journalist to join The Times, Yorgen Fenech wanting to buy The Malta Independent, giving MaltaToday’s Saviour Balzan prime time on TVM, getting Lou Bondi off the air and in. a government consultancy, and many others all start to make more sense today in strategic terms.

This was part of the wider plan to dismantle the institutional checks and balances – not just to ensure Labour was given a fair shot but so they could use that to consolidate power and cash in, creating a perfect culture for organised crime to thrive.

And this is why Daphne Caruana Galizia was such a problem for Labour. She could not be cosied up to, and instead she was exposing every side deal and friendship as it happened.

To downplay her reporting, Labour accused her of being a PN operative who could never stomach a Labour victory.

Then, instead of using their talents and success to build long term trust in Labour and prove her wrong, they used Labour to assert dominance and make money, at the expense of permanently morphing the party into a criminal organisation that will struggle to ever climb back – and proved her right.

I think it’s unfair to tar Allied Newspapers and Times of Malta’s newsroom with the Adrian Hillman and Vince Buhagiar brush, because Hillman was immediately sacked and disowned by his organisation after Caruana Galizia reported the claims.

By contrast,Joseph Muscat and the Labour Party stood by Schembri until the very last day – and the consequences are now being felt.

The good news is that the ordinary people of Malta are finally starting to win this battle, and the bad guys are going down.

Even if he does not fully understand it yet, Robert Abela has the unique opportunity to fulfil the dream which Joseph Muscat both spoke of but self-sabotaged: a Malta of fairness, justice and meritocracy.

A country that has a Police Commissioner like Angelo Gafa, not any of his recent predecessors who were either puppets or resigned before they became puppets.

A country that has an Economic Crimes Chief with balls, like Alexandra Mamo, not Ian Abdilla who sat on Panama Papers until his seat couldn’t take it anymore.

A country that has a strong Attorney General’s office which does not get bullied in court by a few loud lawyers whose friends are all going down.

A country that thanks Simon Busuttil for his perseverance and service, not banishes him overseas in shame.

A country that deeply regrets the loss of Daphne Caruana Galizia, not still holds resentment towards her for flaws which pale in comparison to the effective work she did to open our eyes to all this years ago.

It’s sad that it took the threat of losing money for Malta to get its act together. But perhaps that’s why initiatives like Moneyval are so important. Hopefully, we’re not too late to fix what we’ve broken.

The good news is this: Today Malta is a better place than it has been for many years. It is horryifing that it took the heinous murder of a journalist to get the country’s wheels of justice moving. But they finally do seem to be moving.

And instead of casting doubt in each other, especially in the few people who stick their necks out on the frontline, it’s time to remember that the majority of us are good people who want what is best for this country. Even the people you might not like.

We need a complete reform of not just our political, justice, and enforcement systems but also our media. We need to strengthen the independent media so that it never becomes vulnerable to such take-over attempts again. That includes taking brave policy decisions on party-owned media and better regulation on political advertising, as well as transparency in government funding especially at PBS.

But while there will come a time for reform, the time now is to stand together against organised crime. We should let our brave police officers do the work they trained their whole lives to do. We should support our journalists knowing how under-resourced and overworked they are. We should support our activists for remaining firmly on the ball even when some of us were happy to look away.

We also need to support the politicians who are enabling this work, while remaining vigilant throughout.

In Herman Grech’s last play, They Blew Her Up, a police officer remembers making a breakthrough in the Caruana Galizia case while protesters chant outside for their resignation.

It was the day he felt proudest of his police work, ironically while the police HQ was being assaulted with tomatoes.

It’s an important image to remember as we head into another chapter of this never-ending saga.

What’s important for police officers, politicians, activists and journalists to know today is that Malta fully supports the fight against organised crime.

So let’s keep doing what we need to do.

Share this article if you agree.

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Christian is an award-winning journalist and entrepreneur who founded Lovin Malta, a new media company dedicated to creating positive impact in society. He is passionate about justice, public finances and finding ways to build a better future.

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