A couple of days ago, after the news broke that alleged financial criminal and disgraced former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, is receiving treatment for an aggressive brain tumour, his mother wrote, in Maltese, on Facebook: “How I wish I lived in a dictatorship where freedom of speech doesn’t exist. They exploit freedom of speech to destroy families and speculate on people’s health before the results have even come out yet”.
While we’re all well aware that a whole host of Labour ministers, officials and their families would do anything in their power to be living in a dictatorship run by themselves, the idea that a potentially very significant development is reported purely out of spite, to “destroy families,” demonstrates a mind-boggling ignorance of what constitutes the role and obligations of a public servant.
As the implications of Schembri’s diagnosis began to dawn on the public – this is his second battle with cancer, having reportedly received treatment for a tumour in his eye some years ago – the wheels on the Labour Party spin machine began whirling fast.
Taking their cue from Labour’s multitude of propaganda trolls polluting every comments board and discussion forum on the internet, clueless supporters began shrieking in echo of Josephine Schembri’s post.
Hysterical accusations of “bitter” and “evil” journalists “taking pleasure in someone else’s ill health” came thick and fast, along with demands that Schembri stop being mentioned at all, because “he’s very ill” – as though being poorly cancels out all crimes and exonerates all sins.
Serious questions about how Schembri’s illness may impinge on the criminal cases against him, whether his condition means he may somehow end up avoiding having to face the justice he deserves, are not malicious, spiteful attacks. They are necessary, timely and pertinent.
Indeed, we already know that the police have decided to postpone a scheduled interview with him as a result of his being unwell. His father missed a court sitting in order to be allowed to sit by Schembri’s bedside.
So yes, we have a right to know and to question what exactly is happening. Schembri was a public servant, paid through the taxes of the Maltese population, entrusted with one of the most crucial and most responsible jobs that exist, that of serving as the right-hand man of the prime minister of the country.
That he exploited that position and that trust as monumentally as he did is not something that will go away because he’s sick, no matter how serious that illness is.
No human being should ever take pleasure in another’s pain, of course not. But discussing the severity and implications of a cancer diagnosis for a former public servant charged with corruption, money laundering, fraud and forgery is not gloating, and his trolls and trollops should never be allowed to get away with saying that it is.
Do these people really imagine that the rest of us aren’t able to see their desperate attempts to throw up smokescreens, fling red herrings around and generally attempt to use abuse and manipulation tactics to bully the rest of us into submission?
Fortunately for those of us with even a halfway decent education, this is doomed to fail. Quite apart from the fact that basic logic will tell you that they’re wrong, we’ve got the example of what other democratic countries do when their officials, politicians or criminals get sick.
In November 2011, international financial markets were rocked by the news that Lloyds Banking Group Chief Executive Antonio Horta-Osorio was seriously ill with exhaustion and had gone on immediate sick leave, just six months after taking on one of the most high profile and challenging banking roles of the time.
The shares of the “too-big-to-fail” giant bailed out by the British government in the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis crashed by 4.5% the day this was announced, wiping almost one billion pounds off the bank’s market value.
It was major news, splashed across the front pages of British newspapers, making the top headlines on TV and radio stations and covered equally closely by all international financial media.
Within minutes of the bank’s announcement, news reports were building up details, analysts were quantifying implications and pundits were discussing and speculating on the seriousness of the illness, the likely treatments and what the potential outcome could be. Every aspect of the situation was examined, written about and speculated about.
Horta-Osorio was suffering from extreme stress and fatigue, caused by overwork, and didn’t return to work for more than two months. Mental illness still carries an element of stigma, especially in a world as cut-throat as international banking, and many questions were raised about whether this spelt the end of the high-flying Portuguese-born banker’s career.
In the end, of course, Horta-Osorio went on to spend 10 years with Lloyds, turned it around, unwound the State’s bailout stake and successfully returned it to full private ownership in 2017. He steps down as Lloyds CEO next month.
Apart from offering a heart-warming story of success in the face of adversity, Malta’s Labour Party supporters have a lot to learn from the way Horta-Osorio, his family, friends and supporters handled what could have been a disastrous event for him.
There were no wild, furious accusations against the media organisations that covered the story, no mealy-mouthed indignation that his illness was a private affair and “how dare they intrude on a suffering family’s troubles” with articles and opinions on what was happening.
Of course, there weren’t. Because in other democratic countries where education is compulsory, most understand that holders of public positions – whether it’s politicians voted in by the electorate, State officials paid from the public purse or executives in publicly traded or State-owned enterprises – are automatically no longer just private people.
They answer to their voters, taxpayers or shareholders. They, and their families and friends, know they have an obligation beyond the immediate confines of their closest circle.
We have every right to discuss, question and analyse the implications of Schembri’s illness. His alleged crimes, both those he’s been charged with and those yet to be faced, affected every single Maltese citizen, taxpayer or resident.
The fact that he’s seriously ill does not in any way alter or cancel out the harm he did. Indeed, those of us who most desire to see his crimes exposed and punished are the least likely to “take pleasure” in his illness, especially if the worst happened and this crisis proved terminal. Disease is not and never will be any kind of substitute for justice.