When Panamagate broke last year, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri invented a new journalistic standard. Ethics, they said, required that journalists hand over all the Panama documentation that mentioned them, so they could know the basis of press questions. Schembri even said the law protecting personal data gave him the right to make that demand.

Interestingly, they never tried that little trick with the international press examining their Panama companies. But it seems they thought they could bluff their way in Malta.

Last year, they couldn’t. But the Panama gang is trying the same trick in the wake of Pilatusleaks. Their new invented standard is that journalists should provide cast-iron, court-grade proof for their allegations.

Isn’t it amazing how a government that has consistently lowered the bar for its own ethical behaviour should raise it dramatically for others?

So, what is the actual standard? Almost exactly 22 years ago, The Guardian claimed that a Conservative cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, had broken the ministerial code of ethics by accepting to have his stay at the Paris Ritz, one and a half years earlier, paid by a Saudi prince.

The Guardian actually had a copy of the bill and of who paid it (courtesy of the owner of the Ritz, Mohammed al-Fayed, who bore a grudge against the Tories). But the newspaper did not publish the evidence.

Aitken called a press conference, accused the newspaper of “twisted journalism” and promised to put an end to the malice with the “sword of truth”. (Sound familiar?)

He sued and, indeed, almost won the case – except that at the eleventh hour new, separate proof emerged that proved Aitken had lied under oath.

His case collapsed and, disgraced, he went to jail.

In court, evidence was necessary. In print, The Guardian could rest on its credibility. At the same time as the Ritz allegations were made, other national broadsheets levelled other charges of impropriety against Aitken. At no point were the newspapers expected to provide court-grade proof for their allegations.

Indeed, the appeal at the time – ignored by Aitken with the support of his prime minister, John Major – was that Aitken should resign and let an investigation take place that could clear his name.

Note the actual standard. First, the newspapers make claims, without publishing their evidence, but staking their reputation on having a well-sourced story. Second, the claims trigger an official investigation by the proper authorities, functioning independently of the government.

Third, Aitken was expected to resign. Not because it was assumed that he was guilty. But because of his duty as a public servant: the more senior and more sensitive your post, the more you are expected to make sure that no shadow is cast on the institution you serve.

(Aitken was accused of impropriety while serving as minister for defence procurement; when the allegations were made, he had the second most senior finance post.)

The fact that his prime minister did not oblige Aitken to resign shows there is room for argument about the application of the standard. But on the standard itself there are no arguments.

Nor is the standard old-fashioned. The Guardian and its partners, together with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have followed the same standard with the Panama Papers.

Access to the Panama Papers is bound by very strict confidentiality clauses. Although e-mails concerning Mizzi and Schembri were quoted extensively by, say, Australia’s financial journalist, Neil Chenoweth, he didn’t publish copies of the e-mails themselves. So much so, Schembri’s accusations against Chenoweth were made because he didn’t know all the information Chenoweth could read in those same e-mails.

Oh, and Schembri accused Chenoweth of being part of a trial by media. Somehow, the press (not to mention the European Parliament’s  Pana Committee) always falls short of the Panama gang’s ethical standard.

The world took the Panama Papers seriously because we had the word of many award-winning journalists and media houses. On the basis of that word, legal and political action was taken around the world. Though not in Malta.

Why does this standard exist? Partly, to permit investigative journalism to survive. If journalists had to divulge confidential information every time they made a case, investigative journalism would lose many would-be informants ready to come forward.

The standard is what it is not to give journalists a break from rigour but to protect a watchdog on which democracy depends.

The public is the beneficiary of the standard, not journalists. Should the latter abuse the standard by making wild accusations, punishment will be swift: in the court of public opinion, in the marketplace and in the law courts.

But that’s not all. Aitken was expected to resign because he was a senior public servant in a sensitive position, not because it was assumed he was guilty (although, no doubt, the information the newspapers had in hand helped unite the left-wing and right-wing press in their calls for him to step aside).

There are two relevant standards of proof, not one. I don’t mean that the standards are relative and subject to the whim of personal or partisan opinion.

It’s because cases like Aitken’s or Pilatusleaks raise two questions, not one. Is the accused guilty of criminal action? Is the accused still trustworthy enough to carry out his job?

Only a court can decide criminal guilt. But an employer can decide an employee has discredited himself to the point he can no longer be trusted. For this, it’s credibility that matters, not court-level proof.

Suppose you discover an electrician in a part of your house that he has no business being in. All he can offer are evasive answers, shifting excuses, and an incredible set of coincidences. Even if he has nothing that belongs to you on him, would you trust him enough to let him work in your house?

I don’t know about you but I would ask him to leave at once.

Politicians, including prime ministers and their chiefs of staff, are public servants. They work for us. Their credibility with us is essential. Indeed, their credibility is essential even for the smooth running of the economy, which depends on confidence in the institutions the regulate it.

What the court of public opinion needs to decide on Pilatusleaks is this: how credible is Joseph Muscat? Not whether he’s guilty. But whether he can be trusted to go on in his job. Whether he can even perform his job well given how confidence in our economic and enforcement institutions has been shaken, internationally as well as nationally, by Panamagate and Pilatusleaks.

To find him credible, you need to accept his shiftiness on whether having a Panama company is all right or not.

You need to find he’s right not to give any importance to the evasions, misleading answers and amazing coincidences in Mizzi’s and Schembri’s stories.

You need to pay no attention to the amazing institutional coincidences over the past year: the resignation of the financial intelligence unit director; the Pilatus Bank owner’s late night visit to his own bank; his own procrastination in calling for an investigation.

If, however, you are troubled by all that, remember this: you’re one of the employers of this government, not its judge. All you need to judge is proof enough to convince you whether you can trust it to serve you well.



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