The pigs of change
You really have to watch this video. Turn the volume RIGHT up.
Harry Vassallo and the prison sentence
There is something not quite right about this story, so I am not going into detail until we do have the details.
Yet these are my immediate observations. The government had nothing to do with it, because with the separation of powers, the government can’t influence the decisions or workings of the courts. It was not the government that converted the fine to a prison sentence. It was the courts.
So why did the police turn up to arrest him today when the fine was converted to a prison sentence as far back as October? These are precisely the details we need. In my understanding of these situations, when the police turn up to take you to prison, they give you just enough time to pack your bag. They do not allow you to call a press conference, go home to your wife and kids and decide what comes next.
We need a statement from the Commissioner of Police, and we need to see those court papers.
It appears that this process has been on-going for years, and that the case, or so we were told at the press conference, was decided months ago. Why, then, did Harry Vassallo say nothing about it? He should have been the first to let his supporters know, instead of letting them find out in this manner. Instead, he kept it quiet and even more quietly made his plea for a presidential pardon. He did so even as AD and its activists were raising hell about the plea for a presidential pardon put in by a clerk at the Transport Authority, who had taken a bribe.
I’m sorry to have to point it out at this delicate juncture, but this is along the same lines as Vassallo campaigning for the rights of landlords versus protected tenants when he is a protected tenant himself and refuses to hand the property back to the owners. When he realised that my husband knew about it, as the lawyer for the landlord, he rang him, shouted insults and threatened him with all manner of verbal abuse not to go public with it. My husband is not the kind of man who likes to go public with things, and it had never occurred to him. But Vassallo, of course, was concerned about me.
My first reaction when I read the story was oh God, oh no, I can’t believe this is happening. His poor wife, I said; his poor kids. I even had lots of sympathy for him. We all make messes in our lives; it’s how we handle them that counts. But then I said, for heaven’s sake – if the shopkeeper down the road were to find himself in the same situation, what would we say about it? We would say that he should have put his affairs in order and not let things reach that messy stage. The VAT department is actually not that draconian. Its aim is to collect revenue, not to put people in prison. It would rather have the money than somebody in jail. People are regularly fined for not filling in VAT returns. They somehow get the money together and pay, or they cope with the consequences as best they can.
The thing about Harry Vassallo is that he thinks of himself as a common man with uncommon advantages. Where it suits him, he is the common man – hanging onto the protected tenancy of a place that lies empty, failing to keep his affairs in order, applying for a presidential pardon. And then where it suits him, he exercises his uncommon advantages – expecting to neither pay a fine nor serve a prison sentence, calling a press conference to protest against something that very many others have endured but blamed only their own muddling inefficiency for.
Vassallo kept the whole process secret for all these years – it does take years – so then why didn’t he keep this last stage secret too? Why didn’t he go to his extended family for help, pay the fine and move on, perhaps trying to find ways to pay back his dues? Please don’t tell me that his siblings and in-laws would rather see him go to prison than help him pay the fine.
He had another choice: to be open about it from the beginning. But this hybrid decision, first keeping things hushed and then calling in the press to try to stay the course of justice and score some sympathy votes in the process, worries me. What it tells me is that if Harry Vassallo had got the presidential pardon he asked for, none of us would have known about it. The process was kept quiet right up to that stage, and so the presidential pardon would have been kept quiet too.
This doesn’t ring right. Vassallo has made a political career out of criticising similar failings in other politicians, of telling us that he and his people are the only ones who are squeaky clean, of insisting that AD in a coalition government will police the politicians. Ah, I asked at one point: but then who will police AD?
Harry Vassallo has been challenging the prime minister for refusing to enter into coalition with him. After this, the prime minister must be thinking that it’s a damned good thing he warded off those particular advances. Imagine if, at this late stage in the electoral game, the PN and AD were fighting the election as coalition partners, and this news broke. Vassallo can play the small martyred victim now, but as the coalition partner of a large party machine, he wouldn’t have been able to do that all. He would have embarrassed the Nationalist Party hugely, and might even have cost them the election.
Yes, of course I feel for Harry Vassallo in that position – very much, too. But most of all, I feel for the wife and children whom he has dragged into this appalling mess, standing under the television cameras and blaming the government for persecuting him, as though it was the government who was responsible for filling in his VAT returns.
His persecution mania is now wholly out of control. Some weeks ago, he accused Tonio Fenech of using his (Harry’s) son to score a political point, for which Fenech later apologised. Now here Vassallo is, using his young children to gain sympathy votes at a press conference, portraying himself as the victim of King John’s tax collector. If he doesn’t want his children used, then he should start by not using them himself.
Children of that age should be protected at all times from their parents’ problems. No children so young should be made to stand in front of the cameras and made to worry about things they don’t fully understand, like their father going to prison. I think it is despicable to do this to them. When our front door was set on fire by criminals in the middle of the night 13 years ago, my husband and I worked right through to dawn to clear up the mess, so that when the children woke up, they wouldn’t notice that anything had happened. And then, of course, they went to school and some tactless teacher asked the eldest about it, and he said no, everything was normal at home. I can just imagine how worried those kids are. And it’s not the government’s fault, or the fault of any evil oppressors. It’s their own father who is letting them down.
The latest update as I write this is that the police are investigating because there seems to be a discrepancy between what Vassallo said and what in fact happened.
But this still leaves everyone with a problem – because of course, Harry being Harry, he has made his personal problem a national quandary. If Vassallo goes to prison, we will all be very upset. And if he is given special treatment that is not available to anyone else, purely because he is the leader of a political party, then we shall be upset too – not least because he is the leader of a party that campaigns against just such abuse of the system by politicians.
This isn’t China
There’s a lot of confusion about press cards, so I’m going to weigh in with my two cents’ worth. When I first started working, we didn’t need press cards to go to press conferences. We just turned up. That’s the way it should be. In all these years, I have never had a press card – yet I think you will agree that I am somebody who works for a newspaper.
There were a few times when I needed a press card, but that was only for international conferences and similar events held in Malta. The press card served the purpose of a security pass. It wasn’t proof that I worked for a newspaper. It was proof that I had a reason to enter the premises and that I wasn’t about to let loose with a machine-gun.
Because these events were usually organised by or in association with the government, the security/press pass was issued by the government’s Department of Information. Because the media scene in Malta was still highly undeveloped (a few newspapers and state television and radio), Malta was not accustomed to a system of accreditation by the media organisation itself. This is the system used elsewhere: the press card is issued by the journalist’s employer, and serves simply as proof that the person in question represents that media organisation. It is not proof that he is a journalist.
In the free world, press cards are not issued by the state. I am amazed to find myself having to explain why, when the reasons should be obvious. Any organisation that has the power to issue a press card also has the power to refuse to issue it, and the power to withdraw it. No government should have such power over the very individuals who are there to scrutinise it. Hasn’t this occurred to anyone?
Strange ideas about journalism
I have noticed over the years that there are some very strange ideas about journalism here in Malta. It is assumed by the Labour Party, for example, that I am paid by the Nationalist Party to write my newspaper column – because a newspaper column written as it should be was completely outside the Maltese experience before I started doing it. Yet it was not outside, for example, the British experience and we are not without London newspapers here. So I can only conclude that the people who think like this don’t read anything except the backs of their cigarette packets.
When it was pointed out to them that writing a newspaper column is an actual real job, there was much fluttering among the pigeons, and the Labour elves came up with an interesting new insult: ‘You are a paid columnist’. One wishes to weep, but enough of that is being done in public, so forbearance is called for.
Several years ago, Georg Sapiano, who was then working for television and radio, suggested in conversation that he believed journalists should have warrants like the other professions. (I wouldn’t imagine he still holds the same view as this was a long time ago.) A very heated argument ensued. Journalism is not like accountancy, law, architecture or medicine, I told him. It cannot be put into the same bundle. The other professions require state warrants only for the protection of the citizen, to ensure that clients or patients are not cheated or hurt by a false or fraudulent practitioner.
The role of a journalist is completely different, and a journalist should never be put in a situation where he or she can only write or broadcast with permission from the state (a warrant). This was so obvious that even while I was arguing about it, I felt it was surreal. I argued so forcefully about this that I almost blew Georg’s ears off. Where in the free world do journalists have state warrants?
Now, to my great and abiding horror, I discover after a long absence from the press conference scene that the DOI press card is serving a similar purpose. People are not allowed into press conferences given by pompous officials unless they have one – even if they work for the press. It is beyond ridiculous.
I have had the most terrible battles about this, but to my great disappointment, I find that instead of insisting that the DOI press card system, which crept up on us unawares, is done away with, the Institute of Journalists and the Committee of Journalists – two rival organisations that share a similar problem of being ridden with the employees of political parties – are helping to shore it up.
And so the Institute of Journalists, instead of protesting against the fact that a DOI press card is required for entry to Broadcasting Authority political press conferences, has protested that one such card was given to Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando ‘when it shouldn’t have been’. Yes, I agree that Jeffrey shouldn’t have been given a press card, but not for the reasons that the Institute of Journalists is making a fuss about. He didn’t need one because he is a member of parliament, and if a member of parliament – or anyone else for that matter – wishes to attend a press conference being given by the leader of the opposition, he should be free to do so. I can already see the question coming: how can we let everyone in?
But of course we can, and of course we should. We’ve all seen the televised press conferences on international news channels. The rooms are packed, and you can rest assured that nobody is carrying a press card issued by the government. At most – if the person speaking is a global leader – they might have been issued with a security pass after showing proof of accreditation and identity. Are we now saying that when the leader of the opposition or the prime minister gives a press conference, we have to check journalists for bombs and machine-guns?
I think that the only reason the more unthinking journalists back up this system is because they imagine it gives them status. It is pointless my trying to explain that journalistic status comes only from the quality of your work, and not from your press card. The fact that I haven’t had a press card for around 15 years does not put me on a lower rung, work wise, than the Super One cameraman who has.
There is a certain amount of insecurity among those who work for the media in Malta. There are many strange beliefs – for example, that you can’t hold a political opinion, or express it, if you are a journalist. The result is reams of newspaper columns and articles in which the writers attack everyone and praise no one so as to seem ‘independent’. In their book, independence, impartiality and sheer indifference are all confused.
DOI press cards
But back to the DOI press cards. After the last general election, I went to the then prime minister’s press conference for no greater reason than to catch the mood. We were on track to joining the EU and it was an exciting moment. I wasn’t counting on the woman at the reception desk. ‘Ma tistax tidhol minghajr press card.’
She asked for my name. There wasn’t even the merest flicker of recognition, which led me to conclude that she hadn’t read a single newspaper at any time in the previous 15 years – or listened to Super One. OK, I said – call the soldiers near the door. They’ll recognise me. And of course, they did. Soldiers tend to be good at this kind of thing.
Still that wasn’t enough, so I grabbed a copy of the previous Sunday’s edition that was conveniently lying around, flipped to my column and held it up to my face. There, you see? Still no joy – she had been given orders and by God, she was going to follow them to the letter. Then I brought out my identity card and matched the name to the name above the newspaper column. Look, it’s really me. No response – and I couldn’t get any aides because they were all buzzing around upstairs with their phones off.
So I said, right, I’m going up anyway, and I crossed the courtyard, with the receptionist screaming at the soldiers to arrest me and the soldiers quite obviously unwilling to do so because they could see what a farce the whole thing was. Halfway up the stairs I met a junior aide, covered in embarrassment. The dumb receptionist had rung him in a panic to say that a woman without a press card called Daphne Caruana Galizia was making her way upstairs and the soldiers were refusing to cooperate in stopping her.
The junior aide wanted to know why I didn’t have a press card. I explained that I refuse to hold a press card issued by the state, on principle, and it would be pretty pointless anyway, given that a press card is there to prove that you work for the press and roughly the entire country already knows that.
I am dismayed to see that the system hasn’t changed, that it has in fact become worse, and that journalists themselves are doing their best to encourage and maintain it, thinking that it is to their benefit when it is actually to their serious detriment.