In a move that indicates just how unwilling Anġlu Farrugia is to go against the government, the Speaker of the House abstained from casting a deciding vote during a parliamentary committee meeting on Wednesday – a move which has effectively stalled the adoption of the Standards Commissioner’s report that found minister Carmelo Abela to be prima facie in breach of ethical standards, and which effectively meant that Abela would have had to refund the €7,000 in taxpayer’s money that he used to run promotional adverts ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle.
Farrugia’s move may well be unprecedented, but it is hardly surprising. After all, a campaign to try and discredit the Standards Commissioner and his office has been well underway for some time now, led by government whip Glenn Bedingfield who has spent the last two months attacking (both in parliament and online) with allegations, innuendos, and partisan rhetoric an independent institution that is occupied by a person who is appointed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
The accusations in parliament against the Standards Commissioner ranged from political bias, that he had failed to answer parliamentary questions that Bedingfield had made concerning recruitment practices at George Hyzler’s office, hypocrisy, and even that the Commissioner’s office had leaked a report. You get it, the works. The comments were then picked up by the usual social media megaphones and amplified.
And like most things connected to pro-government propaganda, Bedingfield’s assault is part of a pattern. In September last year, the government whip also tried to discredit the public inquiry looking into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, by using the exact tactic – saying it had become politicized. It was such an insidious disinformative line and was being repeated so frequently, that in the end, the members of the board expressed their anger and offence at the insinuation that was being repeatedly levelled at them.
And of course, there is Bedingfield’s testimony during the public inquiry itself where he attempted to justify his posts against Daphne Caruana Galizia, that included intrusions in her private life posted on his self-titled blog while he worked at the prime minister’s communications office, as an “equal and opposite reaction” to the journalist’s articles. When it was pointed out to him that he was a public official attacking a journalist on time paid by taxpayers, he justified the attacks as “freedom of expression” – the handy shield propagandists, hate-mongers, and spin doctors like to hide behind.
Bedingfield’s role of shielding the government from criticism doesn’t seem to have changed much, only now he does it from his seat in parliament rather than from behind a desk within the Office of the Prime Minister.
When the Council of Europe’s Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism launched its 2021 report, it was accompanied by an online discussion among some of the platform’s partner organisations. One point that emerged while discussing the issue of State-capture of media outlets was how part of this involved “media on media” attacks. Sarah Clarke from the organisation Article 19 described how attacks against independent media in countries like Turkey and Serbia are orchestrated by high-level politicians that are then picked up by pro-government media to attack independent newsrooms or journalists.
And within this context, one can see quite clearly how it all played out: how it started with Bedingfield’s parliamentary questions, which turned into consistent remarks first by him but then picked up by various government supporters and churned out as opinion pieces or news items on the Labour Party’s various media outlets. In this case, it wasn’t the independent media or civil society organisations being targeted but an independent institution.
The Council of Europe’s platform partners could have well been talking about Malta and they could have well been talking about how it is not just independent media but also independent institutions and civil society groups that are critical of the Maltese government that are repeatedly targeted by orchestrated discrediting campaigns.