After the cheese counter crusade

This was the week where the Maltese indulged in their love for melodrama. Every single utterance by politicians, was picked upon, pored over and then hyped up beyond recognition. First we had Simon Busuttil asking Nationalist supporters to stick up for the government if they overheard criticism of the PN at the grocer.

The reactions to the parliamentary process are so over-the-top they’re beyond belief
- Claire Bonello

This was a routine call to arms, a rallying cry for the party faithful to go and get out the vote and to try and convince apathetic voters as to the merits of the party. However, Busuttil’s ‘grocer’ comment quickly came to be seen as the launch of the cheese counter crusades with Nationalists being urged to cross carrier bags with fans of Joseph Muscat over the salami counter.

Then as soon as Franco Debono did what he had been promising to do for so long and a few over-enthusiastic Labour Party supporters tooted their horns (perhaps it had nothing to do with the Budget vote but simply irate motorists hooting at Arriva buses blocking the way), both the official and unofficial PN spin machine cranked into action.

Nationalist Party president Marthese Portelli took to the airwaves, shocked at the utter perfidy of the Labour Opposition and its total lack of responsibility in not supporting the government. No doubt she may have held a different opinion back in 1998.

Online, we started reading the scare stories about Labour harridans girded in blood-red Torċa scarves going out to paint the town red and probably about to launch into frenzied attacks on innocent citizens who refuse to give up their stockpiled supply of Mars bars.

The reactions to the parliamentary process are so over-the-top they’re beyond belief. The fact is that the Gonzi Government has served practically its full term in office and was on its last legs. The Prime Minister’s hemming and hawing and putting off the inevitable did little to improve his party’s standing.

The slightly premature end of this legislature was preferable than death by 1,000 cuts and the Government limping on. Now everybody should forgo the hysterics and the melodrama and figure out who can represent them in Parliament next time round.

• Some four years ago, Freddie Fenech, the founder of the Association for Abandoned Animals, was charged with misappropriation of the association’s funds. The man who was considered to be a latter-day St Francis of Assisi is being prosecuted for pocketing money intended for the animals in the sanctuary. The case against him is still being heard and some weeks ago two volunteers who worked at the sanctuary testified as to what really went on at the sanctuary.

It was a horrific account. One witness said the dogs were so hungry they would turn on and eat each other. Another witness re­called Fenech carrying a wounded dog around to try and tug at people’s heart strings and prompt them to donate money to the sanctuary. The dog was so badly hurt that its bones were exposed. Eventually it had to be put down.

Then there was testimony about Fenech’s reluctance to hand over receipts for purchases he had allegedly made for the sanctuary and the disappearance of food, medicine, dog leads and tools.

What struck me most about the whole sorry affair is not only the awful nature of the accusations, but the way people absolutely refused to contemplate the possibility of the charges turning out to be true. A good number of people commenting online about the report of proceedings dismissed the accusations out of hand. Some insisted that the volunteers who testified against Fenech were only doing so to take over the sanctuary.

It was as if people couldn’t bear to find out that their animal-loving hero had feet of clay. They couldn’t reconcile the image of Freddie the friend of all four-legged creatures with that of a man who seemed to be nearly allergic to proper accounts-keeping and who became increasingly hostile when questioned about receipts and record-keeping.

I remember the same kind of reaction cropping up a couple of years back when it was reported that Mr Fenech had no accounts to show for the €32,611 raised by Winter Moods to help him settle an outstanding water bill of €7,686. Apparently the bill remained unpaid and where exactly the money went is anyone’s guess.

Such an incident should have got alarm bells ringing. Instead, readers ripped off enraged letters to the papers accusing the journalists who covered the incident of basing their reports on malicious rumours and speculation.

Others bent over backwards trying to justify the lack of an audit trail. Fenech – they maintained – was so taken up saving little puppies – that he just didn’t have the time or expertise to keep records.

I’ve often wondered what makes people resolutely ignore all the pointers indicating that something fishy is going on in these supposedly philanthropic organisations. It’s as if being involved in charity automatically confers immunity from scrutiny or even the possibility of people being able to ask questions about your set-up.

Raising money for charity gets you a halo coupled with the cloak of invisibility. No wonder it took so long for volunteers to pluck up courage to report Fenech to the authorities – they knew they would have to face this level of scepticism about their claims.

It was the same thing with the ghastly child molester Jimmy Savile. His fund-raising efforts for charity provided him with the perfect cover of respectability for his preying on children.

Similarly, people found it very hard to believe that the same Lance Armstrong who set up the successful Livestrong cancer charity could be a doping cheat.

The goodwill generated by charitable ventures blinds many to the deceptive practices that may be going on behind the philantropic facade. That is why people refuse to look more closely at the Freddy Fenech case and others like it.

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