There was already a lot to unpack in Keith Schembri’s Facebook post published on 18 March where he revealed that he is waiting to be charged in connection with alleged kickbacks he gave to former Allied Newspapers Managing Director Adrian Hillman, and many have already trawled and picked apart his lengthy tirade.
Even before Saturday’s events unfolded, his social media post was also chock-full of disinformation strategies all conveniently rolled into one broadside in a concerted attempt at altering narratives and shifting attention or blame.
Taking to Facebook to break news ahead of the media is a good way to create momentum in your favour while everyone plays catch-up, and to set the narrative you want your supporters to believe. It is not the first time that government officials have used their privileged access to sensitive information in order to set the context for its pre-fabricated spin.
Getting there first also doubles as an effective distraction. At the same that time Schembri uploaded his Facebook post, his lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo filed a Constitutional Case asking the court to declare as a matter of urgency that the in genere inquiry concluded by Magistrate Josette Demicoli into kickbacks involving Adrian Hillman was null.
Despite his announcement and attempts at legal manoeuvres, Schembri was still charged, along with 10 other individuals, with money laundering, criminal conspiracy, accountancy crimes and fraud. Bail was not granted and he was remanded in custody.
Identify your enemies
Aside from the hackneyed trick of mentioning “The Establishment”, a populist trick former prime minister Joseph Muscat employed with gay abandon, Schembri’s post also made sure to identify a number of enemies. These include Simon Busuttil, who had requested the inquiry in May 2017, and the Attorney General for freezing his and his family’s accounts. He also criticises the court-appointed expert and says she is “biased”.
Schembri also singles out The Shift, twice, for revealing news that the magisterial inquiry had been delivered to the Attorney General. The targeting of news outlets that government officials do not like is nothing new, and accusations have been levelled towards The Shift before by individuals trying to defend themselves in court. In 2019, former ministers Konrad Mizzi, Edward Scicluna, and Chris Cardona had attempted to discredit the findings of The Shift on the Vitals Global Healthcare deal by lashing out at this news portal in their appeal to be excluded from the magisterial inquiry. They failed.
Immediately following Saturday’s court proceedings, the narrative shifted. The day after Schembri’s arraignment, the Labour Party’s media, as well as its most vociferous mouthpieces, were full of references that aimed to turn the focus from Schembri’s declared “bridge” he built with The Times of Malta to the newspaper’s links to the pre-2013 Nationalist government.
Prime Minister Robert Abela appeared on the Labour Party’s station also shifting focus to the Nationalist Party administration that was last in power eight years ago, saying the criminal gang now facing justice had consolidated its roots prior to 2013. Yet he failed to mention or even begin to explain how this gang was fiercely defended by disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in the face of warnings and evidence.
Tugging at our heartstrings
Aside from Schembri’s rags to riches story – he uses the word “boy” when referring to himself when he is a grown man – Schembri also repeatedly mentions his children and his elderly parents. Schembri uses the identical spin that Joseph Muscat used when the disgraced former Prime Minister gave his “Egrant press conference”, where he talked about his wife and children, at one point stopping to shed tears for all of us to see. The narrative he began shaping from that point onward was that all investigations into Egrant were nothing more than a cruel witch hunt designed to upset his wife and children.
And it seems Muscat is not yet done talking about Egrant. Muscat also took to Facebook on Sunday to comment on the arrests. Deftly making no mention of his former chief of staff, Muscat said that the case happened under a Nationalist government and was linked to The Times of Malta and goes on to add that he would continue to insist justice was done for the “Egrant lie”, which he described as a “falsified story invented with a national background”.
Turning things on their head
As Saturday’s events unfolded, a number of political observers wondered how long it would take Prime Minister Robert Abela to utter the expression “the institutions are working”. Not long at all, as it was the first answer he gave when asked for his reaction during his interview on One TV. However, as welcome and as overdue as these developments are, it is safe to say that to date “the institutions” at best work intermittently or for the wrong purpose.
Government spin often consists of inverting or hiding the truth. We’ve heard how waves were only in the sea and inexistent mechanisms were in place. We’ve also heard that the authorities always work on the basis of “scientific advice” in their handling of the pandemic, but then they refuse to publish the advice upon which they say they acted. We were told that one must be “positive” and “progressive” when these words are used to mean that we should turn a blind eye to maladministration in government and corruption in the highest political circles.
We will now be told that it all happened before 2013 – the ‘not on my watch’ excuse – and that somehow the Labour government was unable to do anything about it all these years. With all these inversions of truth, is anyone, surprised that Keith Schembri should say that he is being “persecuted” because of his political opinions and his loyalty to the Labour movement? They should not be surprised there are those who don’t believe it.