Friday

23rd Apr 2021

Investigation

Blood from stone: What did British PR firm do for Malta?

  • Staircase in Valletta building: The Chelgate PR firm's contract with Malta is shrouded in secrecy (Photo: K.H.Reichert)

Chelgate, a British public relations firm, recently defended the Maltese government in a UK enquiry into fake news.

It also worked for Malta on Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese journalist who was murdered in 2017, according to three well-placed sources who spoke to EUobserver.

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  • Daphne Caruana Galizia's photo in European Parliament (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The firm declined to give details, citing a gag clause in its Maltese contract. The Maltese government also declined.

But Chelgate's Malta job meant Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat was paying lobbyists to defend his image in EU capitals during the murder investigation.

And that puts the British PR firm in a subplot of the biggest political crisis in the micro-state's modern times.

Crisis management

Chelgate employs about 12 people in its London HQ and two others in its Brussels office, its records say.

It has made as much as £1.5m (€1.8m) a year in good years.

And it specialises in "crisis management", its website says - a premium service which falls "under the personal supervision of Chelgate's chairman, Terence Fane-Saunders".

Its biggest client in Brussels is US chemicals firm Lubrizol, which recently had a fire at its plant in France.

It has also worked for Harley Facades, a British firm which supplied the cladding in the Grenfell Tower blaze in London in 2017, helping cause 72 deaths.

But for all that, Fane-Saunders' "philosophy" is to "not support any ... enterprise which is engaged in deliberate wrong-doing" and to "never knowingly lie or mislead".

"Quite simply, this would be bad business," he said in Chelgate's online blurb.

"If ever the truth came out, all trust and credibility would be lost," he said.

The fact Chelgate worked for the Maltese government might never have come out if the British parliament had not mentioned it in passing in a report on fake news in February.

The House of Commons' culture committee had accused Muscat's Labour Party of hiring Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), a controversial British firm linked to election meddling.

But Chelgate wrote a letter to British MPs defending the Maltese leader.

"The Chelgate PR company wrote to the committee, denying statements in the interim report that the Malta Labour Party had had dealings with the SCL group", the British fake news enquiry said.

Chelgate's full letter to the House of Commons committee might disclose the nature of its relationship with Muscat, but the firm asked for the document to be confidential.

The company later confirmed to EUobserver it had worked for the Maltese government, but declined to give details of what it did.

Muscat's government had been its client until sometime "last year", Chelgate's Robert Winstanley said in July.

"They're not a client [now] and we have signed a non-disclosure agreement with them ... they're no longer a client," he said.

But he declined to comment further.

Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Maltese job

For his part, the Maltese high commissioner in the UK, Joseph Cole, also wrote a letter, seen by EUobserver, to the House of Commons committee back in February.

"Malta ... is deeply disappointed" that British MPs had listened to "unnamed sources" on Muscat and SCL, Cole's complaint said.

But for their part, three other sources, who also asked not to be named, told EUobserver that Chelgate's Maltese job extended beyond its defence of Muscat in the British fake news probe.

Chelgate gave briefings on Caruana Galizia to targeted European media, one journalist said.

It also hired a private intelligence firm in Luxembourg called Sandstone to do a report on Caruana Galizia's killing, two people who worked on the project said.

Recent police breakthroughs in Malta have pointed the finger at a Maltese oligarch, Yorgen Fenech, and at Muscat's chief-of-staff and lifelong friend, Keith Schembri, as the masterminds of the crime.

But excerpts of Sandstone's research, seen by EUobserver, pointed away from Muscat to exotic theories that Russian president Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev had conspired to murder Caruana Galizia, using a Chechen assassin.

"It [the content] is just mad," Caruana Galizia's son, Matthew, who also saw excerpts of the research, said.

Chelgate boss Fane-Saunders did not reply to EUobserver's email, which asked if he had hired Sandstone to work on Caruana Galizia.

Sandstone managing partner Frank Schneider, who used to be head of operations in the Grand duchy's intelligence service, the Service de Renseignement de l'État Luxembourgeois, did reply to EUobserver.

"I am not aware of any report prepared by my company which would match the description you have given," he told this website.

But Chelgate and Sandstone do, in any case, share correspondence about the late journalist with each other.

When Schneider received EUobserver's email on 25 November, which asked about the Caruana Galizia case, he forwarded it to a London IP address registered to Chelgate, according to open source email tracking software.

And when Fane-Saunders got EUobserver's email on 2 December, he forwarded it to an IP address in Luxembourg, which might well have been Sandstone.

Lighthouse in Valletta harbour (Photo: Neil Howard)

Philosophy

The wilful opacity on Chelgate comes amid almost daily revelations in Malta that top members of Muscat's government had "engaged in deliberate wrong-doing".

EUobserver's investigation asked the question: Did Muscat also use the British PR firm to promulgate exotic theories on who killed Caruana Galizia?

But whatever Chelgate really did, the Maltese government, just like the firm, prefers people not to know.

Malta's EU embassy in Brussels declined to comment when asked by this website in July.

Muscat's office in Valletta also declined to give a straight answer to a freedom of information request by Manuel Delia, a Maltese pro-transparency blogger, in September.

The prime minister's office said only that it had not hired Chelgate, but did not say which Maltese entity had done so.

"That could very well mean that anyone of several hundred departments or agencies could have been used to do so and they won't feel obliged to answer the question until I guess which one, if then. They call it freedom of information," Delia told EUobserver.

And Muscat fobbed off parliamentary questions on the subject by Karol Aquilina, an opposition MP, in November.

Aquilina was told to ask the foreign minister instead.

The foreign ministry then told the MP that "a reply will be given at a later date", but by early December the reply had not yet transpired.

The Caruana Galizia police investigation has continued to gather pace in the meantime.

But the victim's family, as well as EU politicians, fear Muscat will try to orchestrate a cover-up if he stays in power.

"They expect people to believe this shit," Matthew Caruana Galizia recently said on government spin that Muscat's friend, Schembri, was innocent.

"Rule of law under pressure, impunity for crimes, widespread corruption, journalists intimidated" was what Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld saw in Malta on a recent European Parliament (EP) fact-finding mission to the micro-republic.

"We stand by the people of Malta, who deserve clean government," she said on Wednesday (6 December).

The EU's "reaction to the massive problems in Malta" has been "far too weak," a German Green MEP, Sven Giegold, who also went on the EP mission, said.

But despite the EU appeals, as well as Maltese street protests, calling for Muscat to come clean, "getting information from this government ... is [still] like drawing blood from a stone," Delia, the Maltese blogger, said.

Opinion

Does Malta's Labour Party now belong in S&D?

The Maltese Labour Party is a curious creature. No minister, MEP, MP, president, or former president has yet criticised Joseph Muscat publicly and outright over the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Pressure mounts to grill Malta's Muscat at EU summit

The Dutch prime minister and figures from the European Parliament are both piling on pressure for leaders at the EU summit to discuss the rule of law in Malta, as the presence of the island-nation's prime minister draws protests.

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