Two years ago, Tim Sebastian interviewed Chris Fearne who had the unenviable job of defending a government in denial about corruption in its ranks and about its failure to acknowledge its responsibility to ensure its critics were not blown up in car bombs.
Much water has passed under the bridge since that interview. Joseph Muscat is no longer prime minister after resigning in disgrace. That disgrace is not acknowledged within his country. In fact, Joseph Muscat has just been given a job by Robert Abela’s government to negotiate a deal with a scandal-ridden Swiss arts dealer to set up an operation here suspected in the rest of the world of pervasive money laundering. Joseph Muscat’s staffers have moved to work for Robert Abela and followed each other at a public inquiry to testify that since Daphne was killed the subject never even made it to the water-cooler where they would rather discuss football.
But outside of Malta, speaking a language their supporters appear unable to understand – English – Robert Abela’s government is presenting the penitent, supplicating, agonised and self-flagellating face of Evarist Bartolo.
He was wheeled out to answer Tim Sebastian’s updated questions on what Malta looks like now that all of Chris Fearne’s defensive deflections from two years ago have collapsed and the assessment that Malta’s government is a den of thieves and murderers was pretty much on the money.
Watch the whole interview because there are few more delightful pleasures in life than watching an expert interviewer asking the questions that government ministers have dodged here for two years until someone gave up and threw an egg at Owen Bonnici instead.
You can sum it up in the answer to one of the very first of Tim Sebastian’s questions.
Tim Sebastian describes Joseph Muscat’s government as “rotten to the core” and a “byword for corruption”. Evarist Bartolo watched him say this dreading the pause which he would have to fill with his answer. Unlike Chris Fearne two years ago, Evarist Bartolo made no attempt whatsoever to contradict the terms. Yes, he implicitly replied through the irritation under his hair shirt. He worked for a government that was rotten to the core and a byword for corruption.
Evarist Bartolo acknowledges that he should have resigned from government in 2016 when the Panama Papers came out and Joseph Muscat did not fire Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. He says this like an old man on his deathbed regretting not asking his childhood sweetheart to marry him before he went to war only to have come back and found her married to his buddy.
2016 is 4 years ago. When did Evarist Bartolo start regretting he had not resigned when the Panama Papers came out? And when did he stop? He must have stopped. He’s still there.
Tim Sebastian asked Evarist Bartolo if he thought Joseph Muscat deserved the OCCRP’s award for the 2019 world’s man of corruption an award reserved in the past to people like the Philippine’s Duterte or Azerbaijan’s Aliyev. Evarist Bartolo does not say Joseph Muscat did not deserve this which means he agrees with the term.
What is he doing now speaking for a government that continues to engage Joseph Muscat to work for it?
When Tim Sebastian asks Evarist Bartolo to explain how someone who claims to be a man of principle could bear belonging to such a corrupt government, Evarist Bartolo gives him the catch-all sociological explanation to all that is wrong with Malta: ‘we’re small’.
“The rule of family and the rule of friends is stronger than the rule of law,” Evarist Bartolo says. Tim Sebastian is horrified. Surely, if you’re a man of government you do not accept this? Evarist Bartolo chuckles with that uncontrollable smile that comes from someone who cannot hide their embarrassment. He acknowledges it was his job as a man of politics to promote the rule of law. And he admits he has not done so.
He works for the government that continues to employ the services of people like Robert Musumeci that have called us mad for suggesting the rule of law is anything but Joseph Muscat’s right to do as he will.
Tim Sebastian wouldn’t have any of Evarist Bartolo’s claim in his own defence that “internally” he pressed for action against Konrad Mizzi “and others”. He reminds him he voted in Parliament to keep Konrad Mizzi when a confidence motion was discussed. In the ultimate show of undemocratic resignation Evarist Bartolo pleaded “my vote would not have made a difference.” “If you have principles you stand for them,” Tim Sebastian insists. “You didn’t.” Defeated, Evarist Bartolo abdicates: “I agree.”
The story then moved to November 2019 when Yorgen Fenech was arrested and people went out into the streets in their thousands. Evarist Bartolo congratulates himself because he says that “internally” he warned Joseph Muscat that he would resign if the prime minister didn’t.
Tim Sebastian is unimpressed. “The fact is your silence before then makes you complicit.” Again, Evarist Bartolo waives a white flag. “I tried to do my bit. I haven’t done enough.”
And still he does not do enough. That emerges in Tim Sebastian’s line of questioning about the present government that Evarist Bartolo speaks for as foreign minister. The journalist presses the minister to explain why Malta’s prime minister still handpicks judges and magistrates when the Venice Commission has said that must change back in December 2018.
“We’ve started to make the changes,” Evarist Bartolo hopefully explains remembering vaguely something Owen Bonnici said about a year ago. “Oh, you’ve started, have you?”
Tim Sebastian reminds Evarist Bartolo that he has prematurely ejaculated over the commencement of improvements before. In May 2016 Evarist Bartolo celebrated the “starting” of reforms in the fight against corruption. And yet look where we are now.
The interviewer asks the government minister why did he stay on after 2016? Why, if he was such a keen opponent against corruption did he not publicly denounce his colleagues for crossing red lines. “I did so internally,” Evarist Bartolo replies. “It was a survival strategy.”
A survival strategy he calls it. In my book that’s called cowardice. You’d have to wonder what this country would be like if Daphne Caruana Galizia strategized for her survival above all else.
Tim Sebastian then pops open the weakness in Evarist Bartolo’s argument. According to Evarist Bartolo’s improvised auto-biography he secretly and “internally” denounced corruption and the breakdown in the rule of law. And yet outwardly he claimed the government was on the right path and actually contested the June 2017 election under the renewed leadership of Joseph Muscat.
This means that Evarist Bartolo is comfortable with his multiple masks. He is comfortable denying and covering up the corruption within his party and government and look to the world like all is fine. How can we know he’s still not doing it? Actually, the only reasonable assumption is that he is indeed lying about what he knows.
“You know much more than you’re telling. You know where the bodies are buried. Are you afraid for your life?”
“No. I have spoken up.”
“You have not spoken up. You danced around the subject. You were protecting the murderers by turning a blind eye. This is still happening. Who is protecting the murderers in Malta?”
“The killers in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s case have been brought to justice.”
“You know more than this. It is you who said murderers are being protected. Who is protecting them?”
“I cannot give you answers on that.”
“Why not? Have you been to the police with what you know?”
“I am doing my duty.”
“I don’t know what that means. You kept a corrupt man in power.”
“I will be judged by what happens. It’s not the end of the story till all the truth is uncovered”.
“By admitting that, you admit that you know this network that arranged her assassination hasn’t come to light yet.”
“It will happen.”
A chilling exchange in which Evarist Bartolo does not deny that he is aware that we still don’t know the whole truth about the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
At one point a freakish mirror in mirror sequence within the interview happened. Tim Sebastian read out something Daphne had written about Evarist Bartolo and it felt like Tim Sebastian was reading Daphne’s review of the interview he was conducting at the time.
“’If Evarist Bartolo were decent and honest, would he have stuck with the Labour Party since the 1970s? Of course not. Decent and honest people left in droves when they saw what was going on.’ She’s right, isn’t she?,” he asks rhetorically.
He goes on to quote Daphne saying that the principled Evarist Bartolo is just as much a cover for his own compromise and corruption even as he rode “Muscat’s power-hungry bandwagon.”
And again now as he goes to the world with whip and hair shirt fulfilling what he describes in his own words as his strategy of survival.
“In my own little way, I did what I could to try and change things.” How small that example is when set against the indomitable courage and the burning sacrifice of Daphne Caruana Galizia.