The Malta Independent 15 August 2022, Monday

‘Joseph Muscat has no place in sports’, PN’s sport spokesperson says

Albert Galea Sunday, 10 July 2022, 07:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

The Nationalist Party’s sports spokesperson Graham Bencini has said that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has no place whatsoever in sports, saying that all he brings is division to something which should instead provide unity.

“It’s not because he comes from the Labour Party… it’s not the point.  The point is that Joseph Muscat – and nobody can deny this – was voted as the most corrupt person in the world in 2019, and was found to have led a government which created a culture of impunity that led to the murder of a journalist,” Bencini told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

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“By bringing Joseph Muscat you have created controversy and division, and sport is about unity,” he said.

Bencini, who was elected to Parliament for the first time in March and is the PN’s spokesperson for public broadcasting and sports, was speaking in a wide-ranging interview with this newspaper, with the subjects ranging from public broadcasting, sports, the Public Accounts Committee, and the latest episode of division within the PN.

Public Broadcasting: PBS must have ‘total independence’

Asked whether the party is continuing with its constitutional case against the public broadcaster, Bencini replies in the affirmative, saying that the party will not stop until it reaches its goal of PBS being a “fair and independent station.”

Bencini mentions how PBS has been classified as a “state-controlled” media station by the Centre for Media, Data and Society – the worst out of seven possible classifications.

“Many people do not distinguish between a state broadcaster and a public broadcaster: they aren’t the same thing. A public broadcasting service is there for the benefit of the public and to educate the public.  A state broadcasting service, like we have now, is controlled by the state and is there to push the agenda of the government and their propaganda and therefore brainwash the population to repeat the government’s lies,” he explains.

He cites an example from a couple of months ago, when PBS was the only media house besides Labour’s ONE TV which chose not to air part of Pope Francis’ speech which spoke against corruption and uncontrolled land development.

“That goes to show how serious the situation is… even the Pope was censored, let alone what happens with other people,” he says, adding that the Broadcasting Authority – which is meant to regulate public broadcasting – has found no issue with this either.

Bencini also mentions how the government has failed to provide him with the annual reports of PBS’ editorial board – a board which was created in 2004 as part of the National Broadcasting Policy – despite multiple PQs being asked to this end.

Asked what alternative the PN is proposing to the current situation in public broadcasting, a system generally marked by political appointments at the broadcaster and by the Broadcasting Authority itself being made up of members appointed by the two major political parties, Bencini said that first and foremost there was be “total independence” from the political class.

He mentions two systems used abroad as possible alternatives, one being the Italian Sistema di Lottizzazione – a system which divided airtime between the country’s main political parties but which eventually fell apart as more and more parties came to the fore – and another being the BBC in the UK, which is owned by a foundation charter.

“These are just ideas, but there are many models from abroad where the public broadcaster is totally independent from political parties, and we have to come to that point for the public broadcaster to be of benefit to the public. Any model which gets us there should be considered,” he says.

Another major development – which does tie into this debate on public broadcasting – in recent months has been a constitutional case filed where media house Lovin Malta is seeking to have political party media stations deemed as unconstitutional and have them banned.

Both the PN and the PL have defended their respective media houses to the hilt, and Bencini says that in the current climate the party “has absolutely no other choice” but to retain its media station.

He says that as things stand, the only way that Opposition MPs get an opportunity to make their voices heard is through the independent media and through the party’s own media platforms, because PBS is state controlled.

“Without our own station we have no way whatsoever of getting our message across […] it costs us a lot of money every year, but we have no choice.  We represent a large part of the Maltese population… over 120,000 people… we need to have a voice, and that only way we can have that is through our own media and the independent media,” he says.

Sports: ‘It could have been anyone, but not Joseph Muscat’

Besides being the spokesperson for public broadcasting, Bencini is also the PN’s spokesperson for sports, and no situation has been more controversial in the sporting world as of late than the appointment of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to the helm of the Malta Professional Football Clubs Association.

“I have made it clear, publicly, that Joseph Muscat has no place in sports,” Bencini begins when asked on his views on the matter.

“It’s not because he comes from the Labour Party… it’s not the point.  The point is that Joseph Muscat – and nobody can deny this – was voted as the most corrupt person in the world in 2019, and was found to have led a government which created a culture of impunity that led to the murder of a journalist,” he says.

“Bringing someone like Joseph Muscat, a former Prime Minister with all his controversy and baggage, and who was made to resign despite having the biggest electoral mandate in history, is unacceptable because sport is not meant to be a politically associated body,” he continues.

“By bringing Joseph Muscat you have created controversy and division, and sport is about unity.”

He pointed out that he has “absolutely no problem” if there was any “reputable” person from the Labour Party camp or any other political camp to lead this body, but that Muscat does not have the right reputation to do it.

Posed with the question of whether the clubs themselves appointed Muscat because they felt that they needed someone of stature to negotiate for sport commercialisation laws to start working properly, Bencini said that Muscat still isn’t the right person for the job because of his baggage.

“Joseph Muscat isn’t the right person for this.  What experience does he have to negotiate? Because he calls himself an economist? There are so many professionals who have no baggage and are not controversial who would have been in a better position to negotiate with the MFA,” Bencini said.

Bencini – who was a football player and has represented Malta at international level – does agree that a push is needed to make sports more financial sustainable, adding that the sports commercialisation laws is a significant means to do that and that it would be, if the PN was in government, something he would be working on.

Financial sustainability isn’t something which only football clubs aim to achieve however: all sporting disciplines would like to advance further, but many times it is money which is a limitation to this.

Asked about the attention – or lack thereof – which sports which aren’t football sometimes get, Bencini says that while he has supported personally other sporting disciplines, such as the Paralympics, wheelchair basketball, and martial arts, making these sports sustainable will always be a challenge.

“We are a very small island, so even attendance-wise it is difficult,” he says, as he cites an example from a recent Special Olympics swimming event where he says he and his family were the only people who weren’t parents or officials in attendance.

“That’s a big shame for me.  We need to support these sports… these athletes are putting in effort and when you see the smile on their faces it’s incredible. If we start getting attendances up, then we can start creating revenues and we can start speaking about commercialisation for these sports as well,” he says.

However – he points out – the reality is that government funding is always going to be needed, and that Malta’s realities are what they are.

“It has to be a mixture of realistic commercial models and government funding,” he says.

Asked where the school curriculum ties into all of this, Bencini says that it is very important – both to increase interest in the sport and to combat Malta’s high obesity rates.

He points towards a World Obesity Federation study, which projected that by 2030 over a third of the Maltese population will be obese – something which will no doubt have a negative effect on the health of the population.

He says that tying school curriculum to sports programmes – and not programmes which necessarily lead to competitive sports – will ultimately lead to helping in the fight against obesity.

An idea which he floats goes back to when he was still at school himself.

“When I was still a student at Stella Maris, the national football team used to run a programme where they would go around schools and run training sessions at those schools… I remember them well and obviously they were quite a big deal,” he explains.

Since then however, these programmes have largely stopped – something he describes as a pity: “Imagine we have all the sports alternating at different schools… you will automatically encourage more people to take up an active lifestyle.”

Public Accounts Committee

Bencini is also a member of the Public Accounts Committee – a Parliamentary committee which has come to the fore in recent years as it investigates, particularly, the controversial Electrogas power station contract.

Discussions in the previous legislature were characterised by disagreements and arguments between the members of the two sides, and the friction into this legislature has continued.

“Let me make it clear… it is the government members who are causing this friction,” Bencini begins when asked about being part of the committee.

“They will say otherwise, but people can see the recordings of the meetings and draw their own conclusions,” he says.

The first point of friction was the list of witnesses which the PN members wanted to summon – the first list which included Lara Boffa, who was the only Enemalta board member who voted against the Electrogas contract, and Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa.

The PL members objected to both, saying that in Boffa’s case the whole board should be summoned and not just her – something which Bencini finds ironic given that the PL members themselves had said that they wanted to be efficient in working on this case, and that in Gafa’s case because there was no investigation into the contract then it was pointless summoning him.

“At one point, [PL MP] Alex Muscat quoted The Malta Independent saying that the police had confirmed that they are not investigating the contract.  I googled that article at that moment and I realised he had been lying… the headline was that Gafa had confirmed that no Electrogas directors were being investigated for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.  It’s totally different, but that’s how they try to mislead and misdirect,” he says.

He says that the Opposition members on the PAC – who are himself, Darren Carabott and David Agius – want to get the truth out.

“The people do not appreciate that the government administers public funds; they are not government funds.  When you and I pay taxes, the government is merely administering our funds.  Therefore it is our obligation and duty towards the public, to make sure that the massive millions spent in public funds on this contract, which was shady enough to have drawn the NAO to investigate it, were spent correctly,” he says.

“The government does not want this,” he adds.

“We want to be efficient but we want to get to the bottom of this… but we are in Opposition, so we have three members and they have four, so whatever we propose, they will oppose.  But we are still determined,” he concludes.

Latest PN dissent: Air your views within the party, not on social media - Bencini

It hasn’t taken too long in this legislature, but this past week has already thrown up the first instances of dissent and division within the Nationalist Party, as – at the time this interview was conducted – some PN MPs clamoured for a free vote on an IVF Bill even though the party position had already been decided.

This interview was conducted on Tuesday, before Parliament voted on the IVF Bill when it began to emerge that some MPs wanted a free vote on the matter.

The whole situation hasn’t - as always – put the PN in a particularly positive light, leading to the question: why does the PN always seem to find itself in a situation where there is dissent?

“We have to appreciate that the PN has always been made up of various people from various walks of life who air their views, and I have no problems with that.  Maybe other parties don’t like it when their people air their views.  Some parties maybe control what their MPs say, but we are different,” Bencini says.

“However, I don’t agree that those views are sometimes aired on social media rather than within the party structures,” he adds.

He says that the PN has various fora for one to air their views, and there is the full opportunity and liberty to do so there. He mentions, for instance, how the parliamentary group discussed the proposed IVF law for 10 hours before coming to a final position.

“I don’t really like commenting about it because these are ultimately my friends and colleagues, but yes there are some who are calling for a free vote now… but they had all the chance to do so beforehand,” he says.

“I don’t want to be controversial because again these are my friends, but my appeal is that this type of discussion should be held internally,” he adds.

“What we are doing by taking to social media is appeasing our opponents, because they then play on it and use it to try and drive a wedge between us, and I don’t think that we are being fair with our colleagues in general when speaking out publicly like that.”

Three MPs – former leader Adrian Delia, Alex Borg, and Ivan Bartolo – ultimately went against the party line and voted against the Bill.  Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici has also said he would have voted against, but he did not attend Parliament owing to being positive for Covid-19.

 

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