Earlier this month, Christian Peregin made the shock move from media to politics, leaving the successful news website he founded to join a political party behind in the polls. He speaks to Jacob Borg about his plans. 

You’re the PN’s new strategist. What does this role entail exactly?

My contract is tied to the electoral campaign. I hope to be helping to communicate the vision of the next government.

Presumably you must have certain targets. What’s the plan, are you looking to just help with the election and then move on?

I’ve gone all in, right. I’m in the process of selling my business. I’ve given up my career as an independent journalist, probably for life. And I really want to be part of a vision for a new Maltese government. Hopefully, this will materialise quite quickly. I’m in it for the long run in the sense that this might take a while, you know, theoretically, it will take a while, if you look at the numbers…

Watch parts of the interview with Chris Peregin. Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

Do you think the PN can win the next election? 

I think anything is possible. The message from the FATF is ‘we don’t trust this government’.

And with good reason. If the Nationalists work together and decide to get on the same page and start a new page, it’s not impossible.

But there you are talking about stemming the internal haemorrhages. What about attracting people from the other side?

Yes, but if we work together, we can define a vision that will attract everyone, it will attract lots of voters. It’s obviously a huge uphill struggle, because you’ve got the power of incumbency. You’ve got a very well-oiled machinery of a government that is not afraid to use this power of incumbency.

It’s a bit of a David and Goliath situation, but if we are strategic and smart about how we define a vision for Malta for the next 20-30 years, that can give direction in terms of how we get from where we are now, and in some ways, to where we were. In terms of our global standing, our reputation has regressed severely. And also, in other ways where we have never yet been able to go.

Like on issues of the environment, planning issues. On how we approach things that we’ve never quite been able to solve before.

In 2017, you wrote a Lovin Malta article listing 13 reasons why the PN lost the election. One of the things you had highlighted was the PN’s reliance on ‘divisive elements’. You had mentioned Daphne Caruana Galizia, who is now dead, David Thake, Salvu Mallia… What is your strategy going to be? How are you going to keep the Jason Azzopardis and Adrian Delias of this world under control?

This is the big challenge. It has been the big challenge for the PN for more than 10 years. A big part of it is internal communication, which is missing in many ways. A part of it is having a vision that everyone unites behind. When you have a clear vision, then there is a purpose. I won’t be articulating it in this interview because I’m working on it and the party has been working on it.  People like Claudio Grech and even Adrian Delia’s people before the leadership race.

The party has been working on many ideas, but it hasn’t yet brought them together and expressed them in a good enough way, that everyone sees the potential of it. Once you see the potential of it, it is difficult not to unite.

I’m not saying I’m the one who is going to solve the problem, but I’m here to try find ways of solving it.

When you were a journalist, you were very unsure about Adrian Delia. Do you think he should stay on as an MP?

I supported Adrian Delia’s leadership campaign, the original one. I thought he was the better of the four candidates, at the time.

When Daphne was killed, the world changed. And it changed for him specifically.

The PN strategist describes Delia as an asset for the party.The PN strategist describes Delia as an asset for the party.

I think it’s admirable and positive that despite everything Adrian Delia went through, and you can’t forget that he did give up literally everything for this. I know what it’s like now to go all in, within a smaller context to what he did.

I think it’s amazing that he’s still an MP. He looks like he’s really enjoying that role and he fits that role. He is in many ways a man of the people who can probably represent his constituents in a phenomenal way.

I think it’s a lesson, an example to what other people should be doing, they should find their role in the party where they will shine, you know, and shine.

Hasn’t the shine been taken off Delia given all the accusations?

I’m not here to police people. I don’t think it’s my role. It was my role as a journalist before, and I would like to think I did it effectively.

My role here is to help build an alternative government. I will respect the decisions of the party. I think Adrian Delia is an asset for the building of an alternative government.

What drew you to Bernard Grech? What characteristics drew you towards the PN?

Bernard Grech is the right leader for the moment. He is the right leader for the time. That is very important in leadership…

… so you see him as an interim leader?

No, no, no. He is the right leader. If the world changes the way it did for Adrian Delia, we do not know. Today, we have someone who represents this father figure who means well, who wants what is best for his country. He is putting his life to service. He is not someone with a massive ideological agenda. He is not someone with a…

… Isn’t that a problem? No one knows where he stands and where the PN stands.

This is an issue of the party, it’s not an issue that a leader can come in and solve or impose on the PN. The PN and the Nationalist vote is too sure of their ideas to have policies dictated to them from the top. I think it needs to be fostered from the team. Bernard Grech is the kind of person who can get that done. To do it sustainably, it needs to be a vision forged together.

PN leader Bernard Grech.PN leader Bernard Grech.

One of the qualities you weren’t too keen about was Grech’s penchant for not paying his taxes. You had said you don’t want to live in a country where an opposition leader pays off his taxes just so he can contest the leadership. How have you suddenly reconciled that and ended up working for that person?

First, it is interesting to note this tax audit on Bernard Grech happened immediately after he started speaking out at PN and Daphne Caruana Galizia vigils. The moment he got on the government’s bad books, they were zooming in on his books. Tax disputes are not ideal, but it also happens to a lot of people. It is not something that is intentional.

It is not the minor issue you are making it out to be. Let’s not forget, the FATF greylisting was in part due to how we do not tackle tax evasion.

It is a bit concerning when it comes to the FATF, that because of the very nasty spotlight the government cast on Malta, a hairdresser who might have not declared 100% of their income is now being dealt with criminally instead of administratively. 

One of the problems the PN has faced in the last 10 years is that all these leadership races had led to a complete cutting off of institutional knowledge every time

And we keep protecting the people who we’ve known for at least five or six years, have been incredibly devious and criminal when in power.

In a democratic society, everyone has an obligation to pay their dues, from the hairdresser to the opposition leader and prime minister.

Yes, I agree.

Who did you vote for in the European Parliament elections?

I do not even remember. Probably PN. It was post-2016. Definitely PN.

How long have you been a member of the party?

I joined around three years ago.

When Adrian Delia was opposition leader?

No, I’ll give you a little scoop here. I joined both parties, the second that both of them allowed voting for leadership. In my mind, if I could have a say in who my political leaders are, then I should have a say.

Peregin was simultaneously a member of both Labour and PN.Peregin was simultaneously a member of both Labour and PN.

So, I joined both parties. I did not get to vote for the Labour one because the timing did not allow for me to participate.

Who would you have voted for?

I think I would have voted for Chris Fearne, but I did not get to. But I did vote for the PN one. And I voted for Bernard Grech. Obviously, I have now resigned my membership of the Labour Party.

One of Lovin Malta’s biggest campaigns was political ownership of media machines. Are you going to start using the PN media for those same nefarious purposes that you tried to push back at, and what are you going to do to instil some change?

Again, I’m not here to dictate or orchestrate the media. I’m here to help at a strategic level. I’m here to lend my voice to the discussions that will undoubtedly take place about all the structures in the party. I have met many of the people at NET and Media.Link, and I…

… did you get a few funny glances?

Well… arguably yes, right. But when we spoke, we were actually more on the same page than I thought. First, a lot of people believe the Labour spin that I want to shut down the stations. This is not true. What I’ve campaigned for, and what I believe in, is that there should be as much distinction as possible between the political parties and the media organisations. The guys at NET agree they should have more editorial independence and more independence to be credible and to respect their audience’s intelligence.

Have you asked why Media.Link [the PN’s media arm], has not presented accounts for 17 years?

I did.

What was the answer?

Erm. The problem seems to be that when you have such a backlog, when you have people who left certain positions and didn’t do what needed to be done for years, it becomes very difficult to fix that retroactively. Even in terms of auditing, and things like that.

There are massive holes in the accounts then?

I’m not sure if there are holes, I think it’s just very difficult to verify what there is.

So, the situation is that no auditor in his right mind would sign off on the accounts?

I think it’s a challenge…

How is that going to be resolved?

You are preaching to the converted. I exposed this [when I was a journalist]. I know it is unacceptable. What I know is, that the party also knows it is unacceptable. Now instead of just pointing that out, I’m going to be here trying solve it.

Another thing Lovin Malta campaigned for was more transparency when it came to government advertising. Do you think the PN should lead by example, by being more transparent about which companies are paying money to Media.Link? Because we know, this can either be used for genuine advertising, or as a handy way to bypass party financing laws.

It’s a big discussion. Transparency is certainly a value that the Nationalist Party should embrace. In many ways. Realistically, there are commercial sensitivities. And you are already in a situation where there isn’t equality of arms. Reducing the equality of arms further is a big challenge. But again, you know where I stand on these things, and now here I am, lending my voice to those decisions.

The guys at NET agree they should have more editorial independence

What was your relationship with Joseph Muscat? You voted for Labour in 2013, there seemed to be mutual respect between you. You were one of the few journalists he gave an interview to after the Panama Papers. What was the dynamic?

I don’t think I’ve ever gone out to lunch with him, or had any type of relationship per se. I supported a lot of his ideas. I thought he had a very good vision for the island when he was in opposition, and I think after he got elected to government, there were immediate signs that something was a bit off. In 2016, that became incredibly clear.

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat.Former prime minister Joseph Muscat.

I voted for Labour in 2013. I absolutely didn’t vote for Labour in 2017. And that’s because to me, he breached the electorate’s trust. The saddest part of it is that nobody in modern history had the chance to change the systems in Malta as much as he did. And instead, he entrenched them in a way that they might be impossible to change, to fix. To me, it is devastating to know that I enabled that.

Why did you join the PN? Ideologically, particularly when it comes to civil liberties, wouldn’t PL have been a more natural draw?

I am a very open-minded person. Even though that means I’m quite liberal, or very liberal.

Which is something the PN isn’t really associated with.

It should be though. It was in the past. There were key moments in the past where it was visionary in its liberal ideas. Its fight for democracy, for EU membership. Its fight for independence.

To me it is about finding common ground. I am not anti-conservatives. I understand the position of conservatives.

There are points to which ideologically I am more distant to Labour. To me, it’s not so much ideological, it’s more this democratic deficit, that you’ve got such a gap between the opposition and government.

And what that means for the voice of journalists or activists or civil society, which is too easily dismissed until a foreign institution comes along and forces our hand to take decisions.

That’s not a democracy I want to live with. It’s something I would like to be a party of changing.

Can the PN afford another bloody leadership contest? Bernard Grech will have to resign when the PN loses the next election. Are you just here laying the groundwork for Roberta Metsola to come in?

I won’t lie. When Roberta’s name was considered in the run-up to the leadership contest I thought: of course, Roberta should be the leader. Today, given the fact that she is the vice president of the European Parliament, she has a chance of being president of the European parliament.

Roberta Metsola.Roberta Metsola.

At a time when global policy has never been more important for Malta. You know, COVID, climate change. I think today the PN should be helping her to thrive. To have Malta and the PN’s voice at the discussions table, at that level, as much as possible.

I don’t think we should be begging her to come clean up the mess in the Nationalist Party. If her times comes to lead in Malta, then great.

One of the problems the PN has faced in the last 10 years is that all these leadership races had led to a complete cutting off of institutional knowledge every time. Everyone left with the leader each time. I don’t think that was a great idea. You end up starting from scratch every time.

Although I’m in this for the long term, I am not making calculations. If I am needed after the election I’ll stay, if I’m not needed, I’ll leave and contribute in another way.

This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

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