An analysis of the financial links between government and TVM presenter Quinton Scerri – the new host of ‘Topik’, a TV show set to replace a popular discussion programme after its host Mark Laurence Zammit resigned on claims of political interference – reveals that Scerri’s events and media promotion company received a total of €135,929 in direct orders between 2017 to 2019.
Information in the Government Gazette shows the direct orders were largely related to contracts involving government-promoted events such as ‘Lejl Imkebbes’ and the Malta International Food Festival. In 2020, Scerri was also given a part-time consultancy role as a communications consultant for agriculture minister Anton Refalo on a scale 3 salary.
After former WE Media chief presenter Mark Laurence Zammit announced he had resigned from his position as the figurehead of TVM discussion programme ‘L-Erbgħa fost il-Ġimgħa’ on 1 August, PBS announced that Zammit’s slot would be replaced by Scerri.
It is not yet known how much Scerri’s company, NRGY Concepts, has cashed in with other major national events it organised such as the International Wine Festival, the Oktoberfest beer festival at Montekristo and the Malta national children’s choir festival.
Scerri also runs a joint venture with Clinton Bajada, ONE TV presenter and radio host and owner of Stradarjali.com. The two are shareholders of a company known as Beyond Strategic Consultants.
The row between Zammit and PBS, who claimed he had quit due to interference from the state broadcaster that led to him not being allowed the “freedom to work in line with journalistic principles”, escalated when WE media issued a statement intending to discredit Zammit’s claim.
While PBS framed its response to Zammit’s claim as him being uncomfortable with the public broadcaster’s regulations, WE media “clarified” that the programme “wasn’t axed by PBS”. Zammit made no such claim.
WE Media (likely under pressure from PBS) sought to deviate from claims of interference by the State broadcaster by “clarifying” that the programme “wasn’t axed by PBS” (not claimed), that Zammit was “on notice” (which confirms he resigned) & ignoring the claim of interference: pic.twitter.com/cP6jKefU38
— BugM (@bugdavem) August 2, 2021
Scerri’s own programme ‘Popolin’, which he was hosting and will no longer be aired, was recently involved in controversy after the Broadcasting Authority upheld a complaint against a feature on the correctional facility in Corradino. The clip, aired on 30 April, faced accusations it whitewashed criticism of an environment in Malta’s prisons, with various academics such as the Dean of the University of Malta’s faculty of social wellbeing and media reports repeatedly highlighting conditions of squalor and fear within the prison.
A vocal critic of the prison regime, Peppi Azzopardi, had filed the complaint. The Broadcasting Authority ordered PBS to air a counter feature that “respected people’s intelligence”.
The TV presenter, event organiser and former ONE journalist has a long history with the Labour Party. in 2014, Scerri made headlines when his position as mayor of Żabbar was no longer tenable following accusations from fellow councillors over attempts at entrapment using secretly recorded conversations.
An inquiry into the matter, led by magistrate and Labour stalwart Joe Mifsud, had unequivocally condemned Scerri’s conduct, arguing the affair was a breach of the law and that Scerri had handled the matter in an irresponsible and amateurish way, according to news reports at the time.
Scerri had also set up a team to organise events outside of the council’s official channels, with no financial statements being presented to the council for the work that was done, earning him further rebuke from the magistrate who went as far as quipping that Scerri’s positive results in the 2013 election had “gone to his head”.
Zammit’s history, on the other hand, is linked with Xarabank veteran Peppi Azzopardi. The programme was the latest axed by PBS in August 2020 after 23 years of scoring invariably high ratings and viewership, even if was criticised for its populist approach.
Xarabank, which often took on emotional stories, controversial figures and heated debates on national issues, was replaced by Serataron, a programme with even less substance.
Both Zammit and Azzopardi’s popular programmes were dropped amid reshuffles going on at the public broadcaster, which has repeatedly received flak for its lack of impartiality and objectivity in its reporting, including by international monitors of press freedom. The opposition party said it is considering legal action on the matter.
The Shift had also reported on further issues relating to impartiality at the state broadcaster. In April of this year, PBS board director Pablo Micallef was called out by The Shift for leading propaganda efforts on Labour party media outlets.
In February, The Shift had also published an article about the government’s plans to inject PBS with €30 million in taxpayer money over the next five years after the company’s most recently published accounts revealed that its debt and liabilities exceeded its assets by €6 million.