Poor Glenn Bedingfield got slapped down. Even Anglu Farrugia wouldn’t back him — and that says a lot.
The Speaker of the House closed parliament by decree a week early in December 2019 to protect Joseph Muscat from protests that wouldn’t go away. And he covered Carmelo Abela’s arse when the inept minister was slammed by the Standards Commissioner for spending public money on self-promoting newspaper ads containing little more than his own vapid face.
But even the pliable Farrugia couldn’t support Bedingfield’s claim that The Shift was in “breach of privilege” for reporting that the prime minister was being economical with the truth.
Robert Abela was asked in a parliamentary question to list exactly how much money the OPM spent on public relations and communications consultancies since Labour was elected to power. Abela narrowly interpreted the question as excluding OPM itself and replied only in relation to “entities & departments under OPM” which move around regularly.
Like any good lawyer, he chose his words carefully: no entity or department that falls under his remit spent money on such services. He wanted to imply the splurge happened before he took charge, and by entities that no longer report to the prime minister. But he knew the question dealt with spending since 2013.
The Shift found the answers by digging through the Government Gazette.
The OPM dished out direct orders for PR and advisory consultancies like a Vegas gambler trying to outrun a losing streak.
This wasn’t just hundreds of thousands dished out to friends-of-friends, either. When Malta’s reputation went down the toilet after Daphne Caruana Galizia was brutally murdered in broad daylight, the OPM hired famous foreign public relations firms to try to fix its sordid reputation.
They were even desperate enough to use Bell Pottinger, the now-defunct firm that managed reputations for the Pinochet Foundation, Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, the first lady of Syria, and convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius.
But the OPM wasn’t alone in hoping spin would fool some of the people all of the time. Their spending spree was a fraction of the total splurged by this government on marketing-related services.
It’s a bit like using taxpayer money to polish a turd, but I won’t say that because it would be crude.
Now, no one likes having their lies exposed in public. It’s embarrassing, and it damages your credibility — and in Abela’s case, misleading the House is a capital crime. When you find yourself in a position like that, you have two choices. Own up and apologise, or go on the attack, screaming “Unfair!”, “Traitors to Malta”, and “Why are you picking on me?”
Cue the government’s favourite windbag.
I suppose it’s understandable that Bedingfield was confused. Labour’s Chihuahua couldn’t see the difference between a journalist reporting her findings and a paid government employee in the Office of the Prime Minister publishing a blog aimed at attacking a private citizen whose anti-government criticism was attracting too much of a following.
Paid government trolls aren’t exactly in line with European values. But this has never been a government that subscribes to European values. The prime minister may have changed; the government remains the same.
No government can seize power and operate a kleptocracy without widespread support. How many circles rippled out from Joseph Muscat’s ‘Kitchen Cabinet’, perhaps with diminishing knowledge of the actual crimes, but equally driven by easy gain, content to keep their mouths shut as long as they got a few crumbs from the table?
How many bankers, accounting firms or lawyers sniffed the scent of rot but were gorging too much from the trough to sound the alarm?
Labour clings to power by dishing out an endless stream of non-jobs and illicit direct orders. But cash-for-temporary-loyalty and silence must be balanced against public outrage as each new transgression is exposed.
It’s your money they’re spending, after all. No matter how much cash they put in the pockets of friends-of-friends — or spend on phoney reputation management — there will always be a significant number of citizens who would rather see it spent on health care, education, and making life better for all rather than some.
Joseph Muscat largely dismissed such concerns in his arrogant belief that he could buy most people and marginalise the rest. His mistake was projecting his own shameless greed on everyone else.
Abela knows he can’t take it for granted. He watched his predecessor scuttle out of the Valletta Ditch like a rat when honest citizens screamed, “Enough”.
Buying silence is a delicate balancing act, and it doesn’t work very well under a spotlight.
You can expect the attacks to continue in the lead up to the inevitable election because it’s a contest Labour can’t afford to lose. Too much dirt would come out in the aftermath, and they won’t control the institutions that shielded them from the consequences since 2013.
The Shift will continue exposing corruption and the misuse of public funds, and Party hacks like Bedingfield will twist it into a partisan issue by crying ‘personal attack’.
It’s all empty bluster.
Like an angry toddler venting its rage when it doesn’t get its way, Bedingfield is either screaming or shoving things into his mouth. And as Anglu Farrugia inadvertently pointed out, this time it was his own foot.