Electrogas e-mails originally leaked to assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia show MaltaToday editor Saviour Balzan agreed to run a “controlled” interview about the power station project, at a time when the government and consortium were facing pressure over missed deadlines.
The idea for a “cosmetic image building” interview was pitched to Tumas Group CEO Yorgen Fenech in January 2016 by Electrogas’ PR company.
“This will be controlled if we choose the right interviewer/newspaper and will do us a lot of good in terms of approachability and building some equity in case we eventually need it,” the e-mail to Mr Fenech said.
A follow-up e-mail to Electrogas commercial director Catherine Halpin and Mr Fenech said Mr Balzan had agreed to the interview “as discussed”.
Replying to questions by The Sunday Times of Malta, Mr Balzan said the interview was featured in his paper’s commercial section, where press releases and other supplement features are published.
“These pages are not strictly news, and are used to feature advertisers’ announcements,” Mr Balzan said.
The leaked e-mails show Electrogas were sent the interview questions in advance and “controversial” material that emerged from the actual interview was deleted after a back-and-forth with MaltaToday.
One of the quotes deleted, according to the e-mail exchange, was about the cost of the gas being supplied by the Electrogas consortium to Enemalta.
During the interview, Ms Halpin was quoted as saying that the most important factor was a stable supply of gas, even if at a higher price, than a cheaper supply that may turn out to be unreliable.
Further e-mail exchanges between the PR company and Mr Fenech show the Tumas Group CEO disputed this quote, arguing that the fact that Electrogas had won a competitive bid meant it definitely had the best price.
The PR company later confirmed that “the price part is completely deleted” from the interview.
No recollection of paid advertorials
Yet, investigative reporters from the Daphne Project later showed that taxpayers would be losing tens of millions of euros from the gas-fired station contract, given the price at which it was agreed to purchase its multi-year supply of gas.
Asked if the interview was a paid advertorial, Mr Balzan said he did not have any recollection of paid advertorials in 2016 and he could not recall any specific meeting with Mr Fenech about the subject.
He said the interview was carried out by a non-core staff member who was employed for little over a month.
Mr Balzan argued that a fair comparison for readers would be the work Malta Today’s journalists carried out on Electrogas and the LNG power plant, the 17 Black scandals and the numerous editorials calling for the resignation of Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri.
A separate e-mail exchange from May 2017 saw Mr Fenech declaring that the only media outlets that could reproduce a story about financial difficulties being faced by Electrogas featured on Daphne Caruana Galizia's blog were the Times of Malta and Net TV.
“I’ve spoken to Independent and Malta Today. Only outlets that can reproduce are Times and Net,” the internal e-mail read.
During a TVM interview with Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi a month after revelations linking Mr Fenech to the mystery company 17 Black, Mr Balzan avoided naming Mr Fenech or the Tumas Group, instead referring to the 17 Black owner as an “Electrogas director”.
Mr Balzan refused to say if his TVM programme has received advertising from Tumas Group.
“XTRA is not a Media Today production and all adverts are booked with another company and PBS. The wide-ranging interview with Konrad Mizzi was not only about 17 Black but also about Mizzi’s political work,” Mr Balzan said.
The other company in question is Business to Business Limited, which is wholly owned by Mr Balzan.
“As a newspaper owner for the past 20 years and a journalist for over 35 years, I have spoken with Malta’s leading industrialists, prime ministers and politicians from every side.
“I respect all those who choose to speak to me, for whatever reason. If sections of the Maltese press think certain newspaper owners or journalists should shun those who no longer enjoy the favour of a political party, the Times should publish its blacklist for everybody’s benefit,” Mr Balzan said.
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