Adverts featuring Minister Carmelo Abela published in print media last year did not provide “information of value” to the public and were intended to boost the minister’s image.
They were, therefore, in breach of ethical standards, a report (see pdf link below) by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life has found.
The report was published on Wednesday following a unanimous decision by the Committee for Standards in Public life, following a meeting on Wednesday afternoon, during which members debated whether the contents of the said report were leaked to the media prior to a discussion on its contents were set to be discussed last Friday.
Abela, who is a minister within the Office of the Prime Minister, was reported by civil society NGO Repubblika to the commissioner over print advertisements that appeared in national newspapers.
The ads, which depicted Abela accompanied by slogans, did not provide readers with essential information and did not fulfil the criteria for a pre-established budgetary provision, effectively serving as public relations for the MP on the taxpayer’s bill, the NGO said.
The report found that the campaign cost the taxpayer €7,012.98, including VAT, to feature the advert in Illum, Malta Today, The Sunday Times of Malta, The Malta Independent on Sunday, It-Torċa and KullĦadd. The ads were placed by advertising agency Striped Sox.
The commissioner found that the messages found within the ads, which heavily featured Abela’s photograph, could not be considered to be informative or of interest to the public to merit being paid for through public funds.
“It does not appear that the information contained in the advertisement can reasonably be qualified as being of genuine interest to the public. Four of the above points can be classified as generic, and certainly provide little to no indication of the actual work carried out by the ministry since its inception. These points cannot be seen as informative to the public, given the lack of detail or specific information regarding the work carried out by the ministry,” Hyzler said.
“This advert was clearly intended to boost the image of Minister Carmelo Abela rather than provide any information of value to the general public, given the prominence of the photograph and the absence of informative content on the work of the ministry. The expenditure of public funds on the advert was not warranted. It served the interests of the Hon Carmelo Abela as a member of Parliament who was seeking to retain his ministerial post.”
Last week, Labour MPs asked for an investigation into leaks from the Standards in Public Life Parliamentary Committee, after Newsbook carried a story saying that the report, penned by Commissioner George Hyzler, had found Abela in breach of ethical standards when he used public funds to pay for newspaper adverts promoting himself.
Hyzler denied the charge, adding that the leak did not originate from his office, which has “strict security on all documents and material”.
He also called on the Speaker of the House to begin discussions on the publication of reports, with the current practice of not doing so “giving rise to unfounded suspicions”.
Typically, reports where no misconduct is found are published by the commissioner and forwarded to the committee as a courtesy. However, when a breach of ethics is found, reports are kept under wraps until they can be discussed by the committee and decisions can be made on what further action is required.
The committee can choose to either adopt the report and decide on further action, negate it while giving detailed reasons for doing so, or ask the commissioner to investigate further or provide further details before a decision can be reached.
Opposition MPs Therese Comodini Cachia and Beppe Fenech Adami contended that from the recordings and minutes of the committee’s previous meeting, journalists following the complaint could make an educated guess as to what conclusion Hyzler’s report had arrived at, given that it had reached committee to be discussed.
MPs Edward Zammit Lewis and Glenn Bedingfield, who represent the government on the committee, raised strong objections to the idea that Newsbook’s story was the result of a journalist reaching an obvious conclusion, arguing that segments of the story alluded to specific parts of the report.
The committee agreed that the report should be published and that commissioner Hyzler would attend the forthcoming meeting to answer questions about the report.
In a statement, the Office for Standards said that the main issues at hand were the separation between the role of minister and that of a member of a political party and the diligent use of public resources.
While it was up to the Committee for Standards to adopt or reject the report and consider the appropriate remedy, the commissioner noted that in the UK, MPs who are found to have misused public resources are required to refund the cost.
Reacting to the report, Repubblika said ministers abusing public funds for self-promotion was "far from an isolated incident" and it expected Abela to be ordered to refund the money.
“We expect Parliament to adhere to serious democratic procedures and order the minister to refund the public funds spent to promote himself. Repubblika also expects the government to implement rules and guidelines to curb this abuse once and for all, particularly now that a general election is near,” it said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Labour MPs asked for the office of the Standards Commissioner to be investigated for leaks.
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