The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

TMID Editorial: Natural history – The prince, the tooth and Herrera

Friday, 2 October 2020, 08:17 Last update: about 3 months ago

Malta was in the international news this week and, again, it was not about something that helped our reputation.

It all started when Kensington Palace announced that Prince George, the third in line to succeed Queen Elizabeth after his grandfather Prince Charles and father Prince William, was presented with a shark tooth. The fossil was a gift from naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who had found it in Malta during a holiday more than 50 years ago.

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In comes Culture Minister Jose Herrera who, in defence of Malta’s natural heritage, said he would start the ball rolling to retrieve the tooth. His remarks were picked up by the international media, which marvelled at the fact that Malta would go through all the hassle to bring back the fossil, risking a diplomatic incident and irking the royal family.

The backlash soon arrived, with Herrera being openly criticised for wanting to get back a fossil which costs a few euros when the priorities should be other matters. Others supported the minister, saying that what is ours should remain ours. But 24 hours later, the culture ministry withdrew its plans, and Prime Minister Robert Abela indirectly reprimanded the minister, telling the media that “one should not create unnecessary controversies”.

It is always fascinating when this kind of story surfaces. It brings out the best and worst of our collective character as a nation. In the age of social media, where everyone seems to be – and thinks that he or she is – an expert on any subject, it immediately goes viral.

Herrera should have been more careful in the way he reacted to the story. Yes, it is positive that a minister responsible for culture takes an interest in matters pertaining to the country’s natural history, but it’s a completely different thing when he goes all out the way he did once the story broke. For one thing, a check on the value of the tooth would have been enough to stop him from making plans to retrieve it.

On the other hand, it was good that Herrera immediately recognised that he had committed a mistake and withdrew his idea to go ahead with official demands for the retrieval of the tooth. Given what the PM said publicly, the two are likely to have exchanged a few words about the incident. It is not often that politicians admit making a mistake; many plough on stubbornly in a bid to prove themselves, and so in this case Herrera must be commended for his decision to reverse his initial idea and close the lid on the story.

As for the prince, the photo published by Kensington Palace showed a happy boy captivated by the fact that he was holding a fossil that existed millions of years ago. One day he will probably visit Malta like his great-grandmother, grandfather and father have done on several occasions. In preparation for the visit, he will probably be told about the time when a Maltese minister planned to deprive him of a fossil that had been given to him as a gift. Who knows, he might decide to hand it back.

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