Malta Today and Illum co-owner Saviour Balzan has raked in more than a million euros worth of taxpayers’ money in PBS programme fees and government contracts in just five years, between 2015 and 2020, an investigation by The Shift can reveal.
Balzan, the only independent newsroom editor still getting contracts to produce current affairs programmes for the public broadcaster PBS, swooped into the space left after newsrooms like the The Times of Malta had their PBS programmes axed. He also delegated programmes to his sister, Mariella Dimech.
The Shift’s investigation began in December 2020, since when we have been filing Freedom of Information requests to PBS and all government ministries, asking each entity for the contracts and the amounts paid to Balzan or his companies.
Most of these requests were rejected and had to be contested, sometimes multiple times, as the entities involved tried to block this information from reaching the public.
Balzan continues to be protected by various ministries, as well as PBS. The broadcaster remains adamant it will not divulge its business arrangements with Balzan due to “commercial sensitivity”, despite the fact that, as public broadcaster, PBS answers to taxpayers funding its operations.
30 contracts in 5 years
After close to a year of battling to get sight of the contracts through freedom of information rights, The Shift can now show that Balzan profited personally from these contracts. He continued to enrich himself even as Malta Today took State funding in order to survive COVID – the government awarded another €100,000 to Malta Today, according to the company’s audited accounts.
But the difference with Balzan is that he’s set up his own personal companies through which to profit personally from his connections with government ministers with their backs against the wall on corruption allegations. Balzan, known for his regular criticism of other journalists and government critics, did not compete for these contracts. Most were direct orders from those in government who trust him.
Through his co-ownership of Media Today and his other private business entity – Business 2 Business Ltd – Balzan was awarded at least 30 separate contracts to provide media and editorial consultancy and services to ministers in the last five years, effectively making him a government-funded spin doctor. These contracts clearly also put him in direct conflict with journalistic ethics.
According to the list of Balzan’s government contracts, the co-owner of Malta Today personally signed 30 contracts with the government between 2015 and 2020 and was paid over €500,000 for his services.
This does not include the tens of thousands of euros he receives from PBS coffers every year for his ‘independent’ current affairs programmes. PBS sources confirmed to The Shift that Balzan has been paid well over €500,000 so far for his programmes from taxpayer funds under the PBS’s Public Service Obligations (PSO) funds.
His biggest client, apart from PBS, was Transport Minister Ian Borg, who gave Balzan contracts not only directly through his ministry but also through agencies he controls, mainly Transport Malta and Infrastructure Malta.
The Shift is still contesting refusals to provide information on a number of other Freedom of Information requests that would bring the total to a far higher amount than is currently evident.
An ‘independent’ media owner in the government’s pockets
Contracts with various ministries seen by The Shift and personally signed by Balzan show that he is advising and coaching ministers on their media appearances at the same time as he is editing and penning stories, editorials and commentaries on his own newspapers.
Transport Minister Ian Borg, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and Education Minister Justyne Caruana have all handed Balzan tens of thousands of euros in contracts to act as their personal advisor.
Balzan’s direct contracts to act as a government spin doctor while managing an independent media house do not include other handsome payments in government-sponsored advertising and paid content published in his newspapers.
While government-sponsored advertising has been sustaining Balzan’s media house for years, media insiders estimate that his newspapers would have collapsed without the regular injection of taxpayer funds.
Ministers to serve
Balzan’s ‘lobbying’ has earned him scores of lucrative contracts over the years, many of which saw him acting as an advisor to various Cabinet ministers. This revelation dictates that his work during the past five years should be re-evaluated.
Balzan’s extraordinary interview with Michelle Muscat after the brutal assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is one such event. Muscat, the wife of the then prime minister Joseph Muscat, caused public outrage when she said during that interview that she was more upset than the family by the murder, as she would now have to live with the lies of a journalist assassinated on her husband’s watch.
Balzan signed agreements through which he bound himself and his employees to prepare scripts and media strategies for government ministries, including “holding sessions with the minister and with senior officials within the ministry on media perception,” according to contracts seen by The Shift as a result of Freedom of Information requests.
In the case of Minister Ian Borg, even while Balzan was manning his newspapers and TV programmes, he accepted to “provide media strategy” to the ministry, “prepare briefs for the implementation of media campaigns and give advice on communication strategies”, “draw up reactions on sensitive media topics or suggest the nature of ministerial responses” and “identify potential key problems and ideal response mechanisms”.
While Balzan was still serving as Minister Zammit Lewis’s communication strategist through a one year contract signed on 10 September 2020, his newspaper, Malta Today, carried an interview with the same minister two months ago, at a time when the justice minister was facing pressure to resign following the publication of intimate chats with his friend, accused murderer Yorgen Fenech, in which he called his own voters “Ġaħan” (village idiot).
Balzan was doing all this while also producing and presenting prime time current affairs programmes on PBS, in direct breach of the national station’s editorial policy. According to the PBS’s code of ethics, programme presenters on the national stations should “not engage in off-air activities that can lead to any doubt about their objectivity on-air and to what is transmitted.”
According to the same code, as a programme producer and presenter, he ought “not to regularly write or participate in public debates on issues of current affairs on politics, economic business or finance or matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy.”
So far, the PBS editorial board has not taken any action against Balzan, nor has it addressed his many conflicts of interest.
In one of the most glaring conflicts of interest, Balzan was paid over €32,000 in two months to direct an ‘information campaign’ about the controversial Central Link project, which was attracting unprecedented criticism of Minister Ian Borg. This was revealed by The Times of Malta and confirmed in a series of Freedom of Information requests made by The Shift.
Balzan also used his ‘influence’ to make handsome profits from producing publications, contracted through his business ventures even though he does not own a printing facility and had to sub-contract these jobs to other suppliers.
The University of Malta, the ITS and the Malta Tourism Authority all signed costly contracts with Balzan to produce and publish their publications.
Balzan’s known closeness with disgraced former MFSA boss Joseph Cuschieri appears evident in the list of contracts obtained by The Shift, which shows that Malta Today was granted repeated PR contracts by both the MFSA and the Malta Gaming Authority when Cuschieri was at the helm.
Cuschieri was forced to resign last year over his association with Fenech, who has since been accused of commissioning journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.
Balzan milking a corrupt administration
Balzan also manoeuvred to position his publicly funded current affairs programmes on the national broadcaster in the most lucrative advertising slots available, despite mediocre ratings.
Mainly through the help of his then-friend, accused financial criminal and disgraced former OPM chief of staff, Keith Schembri, Balzan was allocated some of the most sought after slots on prime time TV.
This helped make his programmes, particularly ‘Xtra’, the only available form of political discussion, where ministers and the prime minister gave their side of the story when faced with grave accusations, all the while refusing to give interviews to or take questions from the independent media.
In order to ensure Balzan’s programmes retain the exclusive prime time slots, rival productions were axed. These cancelled shows include Xarabank produced by Peppi Azzopardi and Times Talk produced by The Times of Malta. The latter came about when Adrian Hillman – facing accusations with Keith Schembri on a corrupt deal – was at the helm of Allied Newspapers, publishers of The Times of Malta.
The Shift is informed that Balzan receives several thousand euros a week from taxpayers’ funds to sustain his TV operations, reaching close to €200,000 annually, PBS sources confirmed. Balzan’s sister, Mariella Dimech has also benefitted, hosting a mental health show called ‘Dwarna’.
During a court case instituted by former PBS CEO John Bundy, dismissed by the public broadcaster just over a year into his contract, Bundy pointed his finger at Balzan as one of the main reasons for his dismissal. Bundy won the case, although a recently decided appeal reduced the amount of his settlement.
According to Bundy’s testimony in court, Balzan had warned him not to touch his programmes when the CEO wanted to change the national broadcaster’s schedule because Balzan’s programmes had poor ratings and incurring losses for the public broadcaster.
Lobbying for Labour and income
Balzan has used his newspapers and weekly ‘commentaries’ to put pressure on politicians and government-controlled agencies to bow to his pressure and hand him lucrative government handouts, Keith Schembri said under oath in court.
Balzan’s proximity with the Labour government is known among many working in the journalism field, and was also exposed by Daphne Caruana Galizia, who Balzan called “The Queen of Bile”.
Last December, exposing Balzan’s tactics, Keith Schembri described Balzan as a “lobbyist” rather than a journalist: “Saviour Balzan came to me more than once asking for [TV] programmes. Not once, it was a normal occurrence. He would lobby for certain companies”.