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Hey, look over there!

Every time Joseph Muscat’s government is exposed with some new corruption scandal, we see newspaper stories about how yet another ratings agency has praised Malta’s economy.

What a remarkable coincidence that is.

It reminds me of this very dramatic coin trick where I pass a small object straight through my head and cough it out my mouth. I used that trick all over Mongolia to bridge the language gap. Kids really loved it.

I got a lot better at that trick when I started paying attention to how my audience saw me. I’d look at the hand where the coin was supposed to be, and follow that hand with my eyes. Sometimes I’d even point at it with my other hand. The kids would look, too, and they’d be amazed when I slammed my hand on top of my head and the coin was gone.

Of course, the coin was in my other hand all along. It was all just misdirection.

Something similar is happening in Malta — but in this case, you’re the kids being told to watch the wrong hand.

Anytime Joseph Muscat’s government is under fire for some new corruption scandal that won’t go away, I see the news media publish an announcement about a new economic incentive, or a report from some foreign ratings agency about the outstanding performance of Malta’s economy.

The country’s main newspapers parrot these stories obediently and move on, but no one ever analyses them, or attempts to challenge or explain them.

How did the ratings agencies come up with their findings? What are they based on? And what do those numbers actually mean?

Look at unemployment, for example. “Low unemployment figures — Malta’s doing great!” Really? During the lead up to the 2017 election, most of those jobs came from massive public sector hiring.

Government jobs consume wealth, they don’t create wealth. Unemployment figures go down in the short term, but the crisis of paying for it gets kicked down the road, just over the immediate horizon. You still have to pay for all those underemployed persons of trust and triple-dipping Ministers, of course. But no one is worrying about that right now.

How about GDP? Where’s this money coming from? Online gaming, passport sales, and other dodgy deals. Each of them can vanish in an instant, leaving nothing but a gaping deficit behind.

Malta is already seeing warnings of such tremors, with gaming companies being investigated by foreign law enforcement for their mafia connections, and a Maltese bank shut down and another with operations suspended, while the others are subject to increasing levels of scrutiny abroad. The warnings are there, but it doesn’t look like anyone is listening.

When it comes to international ratings agencies, there are very good reasons to question their numbers.

After all, ratings agencies were partly responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown in the United States. The reports they issued were too favourable, and they didn’t disclose real risks. They influenced the overconfidence that led to the crash. That doesn’t say much for the quality of their work.

But perhaps the most important reason to exercise a little scepticism when it comes to ratings agencies is that they are paid by the client.

That’s right. Every time Moody’s, Fitch, or Standard & Poor’s issues some new rating about Malta’s financial solvency or its ability to repay its debt, your government has requested and paid for that rating using your money.

According to The Guardian, “If you want to be rated, you must pay an agency between $1,500 and $2,500,000 for the privilege, depending on the size of your company. In theory, this creates a conflict of interest, because it gives the agency an incentive to give the companies the rating they want.”

I’m not saying that the agencies are just telling the client — the government of Malta — what they want to hear. But I am saying that you should be sceptical. Do your own research, and question the numbers that these ratings are based on. The Shift News has already shown the government’s use of false statistics.

Muscat knows that if he wants to stay in power and avoid serious impartial investigations into the shady financial dealings of his closest associates, he needs to maintain the illusion that Malta’s economy is booming, and that his followers will keep making money just as long as he is their leader.

The majority of Maltese voters are totally fine with corruption as long as they believe they’re getting a piece of it. They demonstrated this very clearly when they voted in favour of rampant corruption in the 2017 election. And so no one questions the government’s glowing economic announcements because they tap into the greed for personal, short term gain. The audience is being told exactly what they want to hear. Everything else can be overlooked and excused.

That’s not a very flattering picture, is it?

Of course, ratings agency reports aren’t the only item in Joseph Muscat’s bag of tricks when it comes to diverting attention away from the nonstop corruption scandals that plague his government.

Another standard tactic is to publicise articles that name Malta as a top 10 tourist destination, or as one of the world’s most desirable countries to live in for expats.

Well, here’s something that most readers won’t know. These are paid for by your tax dollars, too.

Some of these stories are based on paid press releases written by Malta Tourism. Sites like GlobeNewswire charge several hundred euro per press release to distribute these announcements, which are then picked up by various media outlets.

Other stories are written by freelance travel writers who visit Malta on sponsored press trips. The Malta Tourism Authority is paying for these writers to come to Malta, putting them up in nice hotels and showing them around the island in exchange for positive coverage.

According to the Malta Tourism Authority website, “On average an estimated 750 journalists are hosted annually by the MTA, whether they are familiarisation trips for travel agents or media, the guests are taken care of by MTA from the moment they arrive until they depart.”

That includes Conde Nast, Flair magazine, Marie Claire, National Geographic, the NY Times, and the Travel Channel. Visit the MTA website and see for yourself.

Tourism authorities won’t always come out and say that they expect a writer to publish glowingly positive stories after being hosted on a press trip, but that expectation is clearly understood. I’ve been writing for travel magazines for the past 13 years. I don’t accept press trip offers, and I refuse to write those types of stories, but I can confirm that this is how much of the industry works.

It’s all smoke and mirrors.

Muscat’s government loves to use these stories to convince supporters that the standard of living in Malta is the envy of the world, and that Malta’s economy — an economy smaller than that of the city of Birmingham — is the wonder of Europe.

But what if there’s a corruption scandal and there aren’t any new ratings agency reports or travel media stories to roll out?

You may remember some of these desperate gems of misdirection used by the Prime Minister over the last couple years:

  • The Russian Conspiracy, where we were told that Vladimir Putin himself was behind the Egrant allegations, working secretly to destabilise a corruption-plagued island micro state on the fringe of North Africa.
  • Announcements that were completely made up and then exposed: Muscat announces that Etihad Airways is buying a substantial stake in Air Malta — much to the surprise of Etihad.
  • And has anyone figured out what that bizarre Afriqiyah Airways Christmas hijacking was all about?

“Quick, look over there!”

The Cuttlefish from Burmarrad has many ways of clouding the waters when he wants to divert your attention from the latest corruption scandal.

And that’s exactly what Prime Minister Muscat reminds me of: a panicked squid escaping from a predator.

But there’s a funny thing that you should know about squid…

I spent a day on a boat with a fisherman in southern Thailand once. The lures we used to catch squid were just fish-shaped jigs with a collar of tiny wires sticking up from the bottom. Much to my surprise, I didn’t have to hook the squid at all. They grabbed the lure and hung on all the way to the boat. I just turned them upside down and plopped them into a bucket.

Squid get caught because they squeeze so hard to what they’ve grabbed, and they won’t let go.

And that’s when you reel them in.

Glenn Bedingfield

Press freedom: A lesson for Glenn

Konrad Mizzi

Disinformation #27: Manipulation of the NAO report on the power station deal