Can there be any surprises left in the reporting of corruption in Malta (‘A sure way to make crime pay’, leader, and ‘Combating corruption’, opinion, both February 25)?

It is almost exactly 40 years since I first came here, as a reporter, to investigate government corruption in the building of the Gozo General Hospital (in those days known as the Craig Hospital and then as the Victoria Hospital) with British government funds.

The architect John Poulson had given me a copy of a letter he had written to a Maltese developer, in the late 1960s, congratulating him on the way he ‘handled’ local politicians. It was, Poulson wrote, much in the same way as he handled them back home.

But that was where the similarity ended. Poulson and many of the politicians and government servants he had bribed went to jail. Deputy Prime Minister Reginald Maudling was publicly shamed and eventually resigned. In Malta life continued as normal.

That, it should be noted by the political partisans, had occurred mainly under the Borg Olivier government. One of the payments Poulson made was for £5,000 – a fortune in those days – for a totally unnecessary ‘equipment contract’ for the building.

At least, it was unnecessary except for greasing what he called “the always outstretched palms of the Maltese government”.

By the time I stumbled across the story there had been a regime change. Dom Mintoff was in power. It made little difference. The developer who had been bribing contacts declined to speak to me, as was of course his right. I later learnt (from what we call ‘sources’ – even then there were few real secrets on the island) that he had immediately telephoned Borg Olivier who had in turn called Mintoff.

The result was effectively a ‘dawn raid’ (6am) at my hotel with detectives ordering me to leave Malta on the first available flight:

“You can make your own way to Luqa. Or we take you in handcuffs and they don’t come off until the aircraft lands.” This was, as I said, my first encounter with this ‘friendly’ island.

Since then I have followed the anti-corruption blather in Malta with a small degree of fascination and with no little amusement.

I heard politicians in Brussels debate in their corridors and tea-rooms whether corruption in Malta was so endemic as to possibly bar its entry into the EU. For it was public knowledge (or at least general perception) and nothing, it seems, has changed in the past 40 years.

I read about Mintoff’s henchmen (or maybe only one henchman) touring bars with a suitcase full of public licences, available at a price. I have read about magistrates openly receiving bribes without censure and about judges being blatantly bent.

I read about driving examiners receiving bribes in return for driving licences and being given a presidential pardon – instead of jail sentences. And now there is this farce over potential “absolution” for those involved in bribing officials in the utilities business.

Is there no morality in this quasi-religious island? (That’s a rhetorical question.) I think the answer is that people don’t like it, but they think they might need it themselves, at some stage.

If you can get a favour in return for a back-hander, it’s probably best not to rock the boat, but to bear it in mind for when your time comes. Worse is the fear that if you voice any complaint it will be logged and remembered next time you or one of your relatives wants something from government.

In Sicily, they call it the mafia. In Malta it is called government.

There has been some debate in these pages recently about defining ‘culture’. Corruption is part of Malta’s. The political complexion of the players, as far as I can see, doesn’t make the slightest difference.

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