Here’s another take-away from yesterday’s testimony by Keith Schembri to the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry.
Keith Schembri recalls the time when he had been diagnosed with cancer. He emailed his resignation from the post of PM’s chief of staff. “I had cancer,” he told the inquiry yesterday. “If it were for me I would have packed everything up and stayed at home. Then the hijack happened. I was facing a final round of chemotherapy and I was asked to lend a hand, as I spoke Arabic. And I was pulled back in.”
One is inevitably reminded of Michael Corleone, especially since the film from which the lines comes has just been rejigged by its maker: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
But I digress.
The significance of this must not be overlooked. When Joseph Muscat was asked to justify not removing Keith Schembri after the Panama Papers leaks, it wasn’t because the then prime minister agreed with Keith Schembri’s defence that what he had done was kosher. In a TVM interview on 25 May 2017, he described Schembri as “a doer and a mover” and argued that his decision to retain him in office showed that he “put the country first”.
That’s how important Keith Schembri was to the government. He did and he moved and keeping him in spite of a huge political cost for his boss, the prime minister, was an act of patriotism and national interest.
So the resignation of a guy like that is, by implication, a matter of national interest and concern.
The fact that Keith Schembri was considering “packing everything and staying at home” and that he handed in his resignation, was a matter of huge public interest.
And yet the government kept cancer, its treatment, the chief of staff’s dejection over it and his consequential resignation a secret and when Daphne Caruana Galizia reported on this in November 2016, all hell broke loose.
Here’s Daphne herself recalling the time:
In November, I broke the story that Keith Schembri was at that moment away from the island, that he had gone to London with Franco Mercieca (an eye surgeon as well as a Labour MP) for tests because of a fatal tumour on his optical nerve, and that they had been referred to the United States for further tests. I also reported that he had not been going in to the office for a while and that the Prime Minister was covering up for him in his illness and absence.
Muscat, Schembri and Mercieca had all gone ballistic when that story broke. Mercieca went wild in parliament, insulting me like a fishwife. Muscat went into full-on bitchy ‘I’ll get you’ mode. And Schembri, frustrated as hell at not being able to sue me because it was true (and not libellous anyway), got his lawyers to write to the Data Protection Commissioner to order me to take down the story because it breached his privacy.
The context of these recollections was a post by Daphne just a few days before the June 2017 election where she was trying to figure out why the general election was happening a year ahead of its time.
Daphne recalled that in November 2016 Keith Schembri weaponised his friendship with Henley and Partners’ Christian Kaelin who threatened her with a SLAPP suit over things she had written more than two years before. “Why now?” she had asked Kaelin when she met him at the time. “Because an election is coming,” she said he told her.
Think about it. Keith Schembri and Joseph Muscat got so angry that Daphne uncovered something they were obliged to inform the public about but which they kept as a secret, that they got their friend to punish Daphne with a massive lawsuit in the UK.
Keith Schembri was still seething several months after when he testified at the Egrant inquiry that started the following May.
Speaking to Magistrate Aaron Bugeja, Keith Schembri said his testimony “can be on the record or off the record. You’re asking me about this article writer, I think this person has caused a lot of harm to my personal life and my family life,” Schembri said.
Everyone knows that I have health problems, and she invented a condition, made my family crazy. I was going to America for treatment and she provided my date of death without even… I am living proof of her lies, you see. I don’t think it’s right, as in the data protection commissioner forced her to delete the claim that I have an inoperable eye tumour from her site or pay €2,500 and €250 a day… and the article is still online, you see.
It’s not because I want to squabble, I don’t mind, but she has crossed the limit. At the worst time of my life, it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind… I was at a clinic in America, going for a PET scan, I had to wait for half an hour and I saw a comment ‘make cancer bring him down’. I have no respect. I don’t know how to hate but I have no respect for people like that and I think I am currently responding to a frame-up (montatura).
She’s been lying about me for weeks, a year, a year and a half and I promised myself that I wasn’t going to sue her for libel. However, last week I opened two libel suits against her. It can’t go on like this. There’s a difference between subjective opinions about a person and this impacting your family. When your 13-year-old daughter approaches you and says ‘Daddy, they said you’re going die at school’ and you don’t know how to respond… I feel hurt that I am here today responding to these allegations.
Not from your end, you’re doing well, but I mean, this has gone… I have never seen anything like it, never in my life, you know, not even abroad, no one has ever done these things. We are currently discussing a blog like this, I think it’s disrespectful to our country.
Well, it wasn’t lies, as it turns out. Keith Schembri confirmed as much yesterday at the public inquiry.
We’ve heard the noise from this anger from the evidence heard against Yorgen Fenech as well. Yorgen Fenech has suggested that Keith Schembri was the real mastermind behind Daphne’s killing and actually paid money to get the job done.
When Melvin Theuma testified last February he confirmed that one of the recordings he supplied to the police captures Yorgen Fenech speaking to him of Keith Schembri’s anger about Daphne’s reporting on the cancer diagnosis.
The transcript catches Yorgen Fenech say: “He told me that they have got to it. He told me 100 times they would capture her. All of them were fuming including Joseph and everyone else.” Melvin Theuma told the court “Joseph” refers to the then prime minister and he was mentioned in the context of anger at Daphne’s posts on Keith Schembri’s cancer diagnosis.
What impression does one get from these moments of unguarded revelations? One would never dream of criticising anyone, however great their public responsibilities, for the manner with which they deal or even fail to deal with something as life-changing, if not life-ending, as a cancer diagnosis. If Keith Schembri felt like calling it a day and quitting the scene, and fight this alone and on his time, I think the decision would have been unimpeachable.
But his decision and the decision of his boss to keep this secret, presumably out of some primaeval power-mongering concern with looking less than infallible and immortal, was unacceptable in a democracy. As such Daphne Caruana Galizia’s reporting of it, however much it might have hurt Keith Schembri and forced him to have a tough conversation with his daughter, it was her duty and the duty of any journalist aware of the information to inform the public on that which Keith Schembri sought to hide.
The use of the courts and the regulatory institutions to gag her was out of order. The use of their rich friend to punish her through a massive cross-border lawsuit was abusive and anti-democratic. As it happened, libel was not an option because it’s not libel if it’s true. And it was true. And Daphne called Christian Kaelin’s bluff and the idea of suing her in London fell through.
When I hear that Keith Schembri’s fury had reached the ears of Melvin Theuma, the middleman in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder plot, I fear that the failed attempts at institutional bullying and a vindictive and ruinous lawsuit may not have satiated Keith Schembri’s lust for revenge.
‘She had crossed a line,’ he had told a Magistrate. Had he?