A group of judges and magistrates were among those treated to a tour of the Gladiator 2 set by the Malta Film Commission, complete with a lunch and quiz testing their knowledge of the history of shooting film in the country.
The activity, for which all the members of the judiciary were invited, has raised questions over whether their participation was appropriate.
It took place on March 24 and was organised by the Judicial Studies Committee, a body set up in 2003 for “the initial and continuous judicial training” of magistrates and judges.
The judiciary code of ethics allows members to accept benefits from the executive if they are addressed to them collectively but bans them from accepting any benefit “which might possibly influence them in the proper fulfilment of their judicial duties or which might give an impression of improper conduct”.
Sources said the Malta Film Commission “regularly” organises tours for several groups of senior government officials, telling the film producers that the activities serve to promote the Maltese film industry locally and abroad.
Guidelines for Malta’s generous 40 per cent cash rebate include a condition that “during the production, the Malta Film Commission has the right to organise an official set visit/visit with the minister and/or senior government officials and organise a photo opportunity which may then be used locally and internationally to promote the Maltese film industry, as and when required”.
But legal sources said that the activity for magistrates and judges appeared to be a recreational one and raised questions of appropriateness, especially in the context of long-running controversies surrounding the lack of transparency in the Film Commission’s lavish spending.
Sources said, on that day, the Malta Film Commission first took the group on a tour of several film sets, which included a visit to the Gladiator sequel set, which was still under construction at the time.
During the tour, the members of the judiciary that attended were given facts and figures on the history of film shooting in Malta.
They were then were treated to a lunch and a 30-minute multiple-choice quiz game.
“It was just a fun game and they seemed to enjoy it a lot,” said one source.
The Code of Ethics for Members of the Judiciary says that “as a rule, a judge may engage in historical, educational, cultural, sporting or like social and recreational activities, if such activities do not detract from the dignity of the judicial office or otherwise interfere with the performance of judicial duties”.
It also allows them to “accept any advantage or benefit from the executive” if it is addressed to the judiciary collectively.
The code of ethics also says, however, that members of the judiciary shall not participate in activities organised by “associations or bodies with political leanings, or which in their nature or in the purpose of their existence can be in conflict with their independence or impartiality”.
It also prohibits them from acting “in such manner as might imply political partiality”, and “shall not accept any gift, favour or benefit which might possibly influence them in the proper fulfilment of their judicial duties or which might give an impression of improper conduct”.
Some sources questioned whether activities like this one could create the impression of inappropriate friendliness between the Malta Film Commission and the judiciary.
“Will the magistrates and judges be able to treat the Film Commission fairly if the entity ever ends up in court before them?” one source asked.
“In many ways, it is a harmless activity, true, but it could also be paving the way for future conflicts of interest.”
Earlier this week, the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation said that the commission had filed a civil case to annul a decision ordering it to reveal how much it paid British celebrity David Walliams to appear at the Malta Film Awards.
The foundation had won a Freedom of Information ruling to obtain that information.
Questions sent to the Malta Film Commission, to the Tourism Ministry and to the chief justice remained unanswered.
In a reply to questions, the Association of Judges and Magistrates of Malta invited Times of Malta to direct questions to the Judicial Studies Committee, “who organised the activity”.
Questions sent to the Judicial Studies Committee remained unanswered.
Sources said that while some foreign film crews do not mind the occasional tour, the habit does not go down well with all of them, especially with those who are forced to halt filming or other work on set until they wait for the officials to walk around the set.
But they must allow it, otherwise they risk losing the extraordinarily generous 40 per cent rebate that Malta is known for.
The Malta Film Commission’s lavish spending on luxurious events and cash rebates has been landing it in one controversy after another.
Last month, Times of Malta revealed that through the Film Commission, the government will have given more than €143 million in taxpayer money to different films and series in five years, and that the Gladiator sequel alone will have sucked €47 million of that amount.
The rest of the commission’s spending, however, remains largely shrouded in mystery, and the government has still not disclosed how much the lavish Mediterrane Film Festival last June and the Malta Film Awards last year cost.
On Friday, the Tourism Ministry and Film Commission defended the cash rebate scheme and said an economic study they commissioned showed that in 2022, the country made €3 for every €1 it dished out on rebates. They declined to publish the study, citing legal advice.