The tenor and the Sopranos 

Here’s a placard from the French 2002 presidential election: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!”

That was the election in which Jacques Chirac, mired in corruption scandals dating to his time as mayor of Paris, ran against the far-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front. It was a placard urging voters to get their priorities straight.

Chirac never did go to jail; his lieutenant, Alain Juppé took the bullet and got an 18-month suspended sentence.

Allegations of corruption have been levelled at Christine Lagarde, now President of the European Central Bank, dating to her time as French finance minister. And, last year, the former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, received a one-year jail sentence for corruption.

French politics don’t smell of roses. Nor do Italian politics, with or without Berlusconi. Nor Spanish politics.

Germany had its party financing scandal almost a quarter of a century ago; it disgraced one Christian Democrat leader and destroyed the career of another.

The Social Democrat Chancellor who followed was Gerhard Schroeder, who zipped straight from national office to work, disgracefully, for Russia. Even at the height of the pandemic, some regional politicians couldn’t help themselves from profiteering off people’s health.

Under Boris Johnson, Downing Street became widely associated with corruption. Long before that, the City and London’s prime real estate was swirling with oligarchs’ money, the wages of corruption and kleptocracy.

As for the White House, Joe Biden’s family is as steeped in sleaze as Donald Trump’s, not to mention the Clintons and the Bush-Cheney administration.

So is the tenor Joseph Calleja right to say that Malta’s international reputation is taking an unfair rap? He told The Sunday Times: “Believe me, I’ve been to many countries, and let me tell you, we have nothing less than any of them. And I absolutely don’t see how we are more corrupt than any of them.”

Any of them? Denmark and Finland, too? Together with Sweden and Singapore they regularly top the league tables for least corruption. Is that all an illusion? Transparency International must be wasting its time and ours.

Calleja is plainly wrong, but why he’s wrong needs pointing out. He’s an intelligent man and, despite the patronising tone (he’s travelled to many countries, has he?), a tenor’s life does offer a special window on top-tier global corruption.

As an industry, opera is at the confluence of several patronage networks — political, corporate and artistic. It’s a money-losing and yet also highly prestigious and lucrative art form; it’s almost custom-made for various kinds of corruption.

Throughout his career, Calleja will have encountered repeated scandals, in many countries, running from Italy (just about every opera house) to New York’s Met: here, an artistic director sexually exploiting singers whose careers are in his hands; there, bribery in procurement; here, compromises with the mob (if it controls the construction industry) and there, with politicians looking to give jobs to their canvassers.

From this vantage point, it’s easy for all the world to seem made up of equal shares of sopranos and Sopranos. Investigations never take off because, when it matters, no one sings. It’s also easy, perhaps, to see the same gilded figures get away with it for years.

So, the answer to Calleja cannot be: “What do you know that we don’t?” We’d risk getting the riposte: “Quite a lot, actually.”

Calleja is wrong for another reason. He may have the facts but he hasn’t added them up properly.

First, before we compare Malta to other countries, let’s compare it with what it was like, say, 15 to 25 years ago. If Calleja believes that Malta under Joseph Muscat was no more corrupt than Malta under Alfred Sant, Eddie Fenech Adami or Lawrence Gonzi, then he cannot be serious.

You don’t have to believe those administrations were spotless. It’s enough to believe as the majority of Maltese do — to go by every national and international survey and index — that with previous administrations the corruption and maladministration were in a lower league.

If we can agree that corruption has got much worse, and much more dangerous for national security, isn’t that something we should be concerned about?

As for our international reputation, it hasn’t taken a beating only because of the various corruption cases. We’ve suffered because — perhaps primarily because — we haven’t done anything near enough about them.

We can point fingers at the French and Sarkozy — but he did get a jail sentence. Berlusconi has been prosecuted multiple times. The Germans didn’t shrug off Helmut Kohl’s slush fund: his reputation took a beating, while his successor, Wolfgang Schaüble, lost his (realistic) chance of becoming Chancellor, despite not having anything directly to do with the scandal. As for the Trump and Biden families’ finances, there are investigations underway.

No one says that the Scandinavians are more honest than the rest of the world. Scandinavian firms do get embroiled in corruption but usually it’s outside Scandinavia, given the strict rules and penalties in their home countries.

To say that Malta is no worse than other countries is to claim that less secrecy, more transparency, stronger accountability and well-resourced investigative bodies don’t matter — since we’re clearly weak on all those counts and yet, somehow, we’re no worse off, according to Calleja, than countries with much stronger anti-corruption systems.

That’s a crazy claim. It says anti-corruption systems are useless and that system failure is irrelevant. It says that crime pays the same wages everywhere. All that’s contrary to both common sense and the experience of global anti-corruption experts, who’ve been to many countries, too.

I’ll wager it’s also contrary to the considerable collective experience of good governance that has been accumulated by the distinguished administrators of his personal BOV Foundation (that is, all of them except Michelle Muscat, who is distinguished but not for such experience).

I don’t know whether they’ll advise him to insist on more transparency, and less secrecy, when it comes to the public funding of his concerts. Perhaps they should. Joseph Calleja is a national treasure, not pirate booty.


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1 year ago

All countries have corruption but the difference here is no one gets investigated unless they are a minion and not a PEP and if they do the AG accidentally throws them a get out of jail card?

Francis Said
Francis Said
1 year ago
Reply to  Greed


1 year ago

As I live and pay my taxes in MAFIALAND I’am only interested in what happens here, so to compare Mafiamalta with other countries does not make sense; this is what most of the people of trust say as this is their only excuse to support corruption.

Francis Said
Francis Said
1 year ago

Hear hear another great article.

Charles Camilleri
Charles Camilleri
1 year ago

I don’t blame J. Calleja for speaking the way he did, being one of the gravy train persons.

simon oosterman
simon oosterman
1 year ago

And a recognized expert on comparative levels of corruption, who also knows how to sing.

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