Tens of thousands of euros in public funds have been spent on a massive Budget 2023 propaganda exercise when the budget itself advocates a tightening of the public purse strings as the country faces record public debt levels.
According to a new yet still incomplete list of direct orders published by the Office of the Prime Minister, propaganda for the government’s latest budget has already cost taxpayers close to €200,000.
The sum does not include the tens of thousands of euros paid for advertisements that were carried by traditional print media outlets and television stations almost incessantly in a bid to drive home a partisan message of how positive the latest budget exercise had been for the electorate.
Apart from the enormous expense the propaganda exercise has cost taxpayers, against a backdrop of national debt surpassing the €9.2 billion mark, the list also shows all the main service providers were paid through direct orders and that they are the same people who provided services for the Labour Party’s various electoral campaigns.
Using the offices of the Finance and Administration Directorate of the Office of the Prime Minister, two direct orders worth over €65,000 were issued to Ikona Artworks Ltd for the design of the budget’s information campaign as well as a post-budget information campaign in newspapers.
The latter also included a question-and-answer session by Caruana using The Times of Malta’s online platform. It is not known which ministry financed the latter event.
Ikona is owned by former Labour ONE TV employees and was a relatively unknown advertising agency until it made a name for itself following social media ridicule for the artworks that visually depicted Maltese proverbs which it placed around Valletta for the European Capital of Culture in 2018 as part of the Kif Jgħid il-Malti project.
The agency had been paid over €630,000 for “advertising and marketing” services back when Kurt Farrugia was disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat’s Head of Communications.
Incidentally, the OPM’s new list of direct orders for budget propaganda includes another €38,000 for a company owned by Farrugia’s brother, Justin, called Sharp Shoot Media.
The company, which has been receiving tens of thousands of euros in funds from PBS to produce television programmes, was also used by the OPM to produce adverts for the Budget 2023 campaign.
Webee Ltd, owned by Roderick Bartolo, has been used by Labour since 2013 for its online social media platforms. It was paid €46,610 to boost the government’s budget messages on social media.
Webee Ltd was involved in the Lands Authority leak of personal data in 2020.
In the few weeks following last autumn’s budget, all social media platforms were flooded with budget adverts for which the public footed the bill.
Billboards were another means the government used to drive its point home, with Border & Co Ltd having been paid €11,100. No details were given on the cost of the production of the billboards placed along the country’s main roads promoting the budget.
Through another set of data, normally scattered across various government cost centres and publications to make it more difficult to determine the total spend, the OPM reported it spent over €14,000 for the hour-long press conference held in front of Castille right after the Budget Speech.
Once again through direct orders, Que Sound Ltd was paid €6,037, iCan Ltd was paid €5,300 and Nexos Ltd was paid another €3,000 for lighting.
No details were given on how much the OPM spent on the large stage set up for the occasion, stage management and the press conference’s transmission.
More direct orders, which will undoubtedly raise the budget propaganda exercise’s price tag, are expected to be published in the coming weeks.
Even Caruana himself had found himself on the wrong side of the new Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, after telling Parliament in reply to a parliamentary question by Opposition MP Eve Borg Bonello that the ministry spent a mere €35 on advertising the budget.
Following a complaint from independent politician Arnold Cassola for breaching ministerial advertising guidelines and self-promotion, since the adverts featured Caruana’s face and name, the finance minister was ordered to write “a short written apology to acknowledge that the Code of Ethics for Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries was violated since his photo and name were used in the advertisement, and undertakes that this violation will not be repeated by him in the future”.
“I am formally apologising and undertaking that this fact will not be repeated in the future.
“In addition, as a gesture of goodwill and of my own free will, I am today refunding to the public treasury the minimum cost of eighty-three euros and ninety cents (€83.90) plus fifteen euros and ten cents (€15.10) in VAT costs incurred for this post from my personal funds.”
That case has now been closed but it may set a precedent for future political advertising and ministers’ self-promotion on the public bill.