Saviour Balzan | Sunday, 08 February 2009

The story of two hats according to a Maltese

This week, I received an email and a query from a journalist whom I have chosen not to mention by name. His question hovered over a point which he possibly believed was and constituted a conflict of interest on my part.
In my eyes it was evidently sparked by our news coverage and stories about Richard Cachia Caruana’s role in the St John’s Co-Cathedral ‘dig-yourself-a-hole-in-the-middle-of-Valletta’ saga.
This particular journalist, rather well known for being a permanent appendage to the Cardinal, is such an objective guy I would not know how to describe him otherwise. Everyone knows that, just like humans control the movement of their toes, fingers and tongue, the Cardinal apparently does the same with this very journalist.
The Cardinal, as we know all too well, is yours truly’s fetish. And as our front-page article attests, the one and only Mr Cachia Caruana will after all be Malta’s choice for European Commissioner.
Now the definition of a conflict of interest is when a writer or an editor such as myself, or any other individual, has an interest that might compromise their reliability. A conflict of interest exists even when no improper act results from it, and a conflict of interest exists when there is the mere appearance of impropriety that can undermine confidence in the individual or organisation.
Now this journalist was of course referring to something I did five years ago. Which coincidentally, was when I worked side by side with the Cardinal himself. A great pleasure I must say. An experience in itself, something I will not forget for the rest of my life.
But what is even more bizarre is that he questioned whether my past role in promoting European Union policies, raises the issue of a conflict of interest in my present role as a media person and host for TV programmes.
Well, with some stretch of his imagination it could. But this is not the point.
The point is that really and truly, I cannot be described to be someone who has never erred or suffered from conflicts of interest. But surely, compared to most other journalists I can at least jot down my no-go areas on the back of a matchbox. When it comes to other writers, their list of untouchable subjects surely requires reams of A4 paper.
The point is that it is not what we did or did not do, but whether what we did was improper, wrong, unethical or more importantly malicious. Or whether it impinges on our credibility.

Improper and wrong
For example, when George Abela was a leading member on the electoral commission in 1987 back during the good old times of KMB, he had personally blessed the electoral boundaries that landed Labour with another theoretical electoral victory (ie. a majority of seats), but he was not malicious and neither was he unethical. He was wrong.
George Abela, by the way, is the candidate for the next President of the Republic. And everyone is apparently over the moon with his nomination. Except all those who had been promised the same post, such as Dr Louis Galea, by Gonzi.
A few more examples will help illustrate the point of wrong behaviour or strange behaviour. When Charles Flores was a top manager at TVM, and actively managed the news so that it had nothing to do whatsoever with the real news, and actively portrayed a false image of the real world before 1987, he was not malicious or unethical. He was simply bloody wrong and improper.
As an aside, may I remind my readers that Charles Flores is a member on the committee of the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM), the organisation that represents most especially journalists who nominate themselves for a prize.
That takes me to another hero, and IGM committee member: Joe Vella, editor of the Weekend Chronicle, a socialist newspaper in the eighties that recycled partisan rubbish just as most political newspapers do and have done. In those times he presided over the most horrendous form of self-censorship, depicting a reality that simply did not exist.
But conflicts of interests do not start and end with journalists. The journalists themselves should at least start by setting some basic standards for themselves. One cardinal rule is that anyone who calls himself a journalist and has a specific interest in public relations and marketing firms, should call themselves PR agents not journalists.
Surely this is elementary.
And one good reason why someone like the colourless Malcolm Naudi, who is the Chairman of the IGM, should be booted out and asked to retire from the IGM to do what he is best at, representing the car industry and write press releases for them.
In a small country like Malta, the number of individuals who fail to declare their interests is hardly surprising. Should they? Yes, they should.
In some cases, it seems potential conflicts of interest can be tolerated. But in other cases they should not. That is why officers in high posts should be awarded a handsome financial remuneration. This should preclude them from doing other things which may compromise them.
In the last years, the obvious conflicts of interest came from people who sat on government boards and commissions and who were then allowed to involve their private interests. In every walk of life involving government, many individuals are appointed according to their political leanings. This is in itself already a problem, but it becomes worse when one realises that the intention of that particular person is not only restricted in getting a handsome pay package, but for extending one’s own personal contacts.
If there is a post-graduate study that should be suggested to discerning students of communications or sociology, it surely must be the web of power networks that exist and circulates like a virus. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to investigate all the individuals who were appointed and what happened after they were appointed. Well in short, they were appointed because they were essentially individuals who are sure not to be a problem. What happened to their careers after their appointment would make interesting reading.
Now, it has to be said that there have been appointments which were based on meritocracy, the case of Michael Bonello and Chalmers are perhaps two good examples. But there others who are not. The examples of the Prime Minister’s PRO Alan Camilleri at Malta Enterprise and Dhalia chief and Austin Gatt’s personal assistant Claudio Grech as CEO at Smart City and Chairman at MITTS come to mind.
Not all political animals are unsuitable for the top jobs. Lawrence Zammit Chairman at Air Malta is definitely someone ideal for the job. He is a Nationalist but it doesn’t mean that he cannot run the National airline in the interests of the company and the government. And more importantly he does not have any apparent conflicts.
The long and short of all this is that when it comes to conflicts of interest, the best policy is to declare one’s interest. But you cannot wave a green flag to every conflict of interest.
It would not be such a bad idea if the journalist asked those illustrious gentlemen a queston about conflict of interest.

What not to talk about
After some careful reflection, I have decided not to refer to the following subjects, fearing it would ruffle some feathers, and of course… I only wish things to stay as they are:
1. MIDI’s unsecured bond issue
2. The millions owed to MEPA by MIDI for dumping waste into the sea
3. The late invoice issued by MEPA to MIDI for the dumping
4. Why Carmelo Abela as deputy speaker in parliament shoots down his own party’s motion
5. The breast screening national programme
6. Kenneth Demartino’s warden service
7. Malta Enterprise
8. Claudio Grech’s conflict of interest as head of Smart City and Chairman of MITTS and now MITA
9. Enemalta’s audited accounts
10. David Casa’s voting record on gay issues!
11. The new gaming shops sprouting in our villages
12. The board of censorship

Eating out
Opinion writers have a penchant for believing that their columns should be a reference point for people’s lifestyles. So here goes.
Just as Mona believes in her own culinary standards, I too have an interest in food and drink, even though I don’t always share her same outlook. But then she is a critic and critics are there to be different and proactive.
Unlike her I do not believe that silver service is a prerogative for good cuisine and fun. And I very much welcome the simple, creative slow cooking where you can relax and have a good time. This to me is as important as the décor and the penguins running around you bothering you and interrupting your very important conversation.
We just need more informality in our restaurants.
And you cannot be asked to pay through your nose when the food presented to you is simply a medium-rare beef fillet on a white plate, with nothing else to accompany it.
So if you are looking for a new eatery to have a smashing time and not feel bad about paying a bomb for nothing really special, please stop here, because I have as yet not discovered the ideal bistro where food and ambience come together to provide us with that ideal eating out event.


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