Saturday 02 July 2022

Free speech vs crossing the line

This blog post first appeared on Malta Today.

There are two separate, albeit connected, issues, in the story of how Farsons came to drop rock band Brikkuni from the beer festival.

It all started with a Facebook status on Brikkuni front man Mario Vella’s profile page where he was derogatory towards Michelle Muscat and her charity swim. He was, to put it mildly, scathing, about what he sees as a self-promotional stunt. Were his choice of words unnecessarily nasty and vulgar? Undoubtedly, yes. In his trademark “style” which he is openly quite proud of, Mario once again crossed the line.

Mario Vella often uses such savage anti-establishment humour to upset what he sees as an overly sanitized version of Maltese political and public life. Some enjoy it, others find it unacceptable and that’s OK, it’s a free country. Switch him off, don’t read him, don’t let him into your consciousness and even object loudly (but you have no right to get him temporarily banned from FB because you don’t like what he writes).

What followed next, however, concerns a wider issue, because political blogger Glenn Bedingfield drew the attention of Farsons and asked whether they were OK with the fact that one of their performers at the upcoming beer festival had written in this offensive way about the Prime Minister’s wife. One TV (owned by the Labour party) asked the company the same questions.

Farsons promptly dropped Brikkuni from the line-up.

The two things may be completely unrelated – for all we know Farsons took the decision themselves with no prompting from Glenn because they wished to disassociate themselves from the comments which had spread like wildfire and were met by appalled outrage. “We took the necessary steps to safeguard our company’s position,” a company spokesperson said when questioned by One TV. I find that completely understandable and justified when one considers that the beer festival is a business venture which relies on a good turnout by the general public. Unrepentant, Mario Vella retorted by telling Farsons to kiss his behind.

But, that is the way the cookie crumbles in the real world, when you go too far with your comments, you have to expect certain consequences.

However, the crux of the matter is one rather important nugget of detail: Glenn actually works at the Office of the Prime Minister as his communications aide. It does not take a genius to realize that the perception is very much that, ‘if you are nasty about Michelle Muscat, we will make sure you, as an artist, cannot work”. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but many have read the incident as Farsons caving in to subtle and not so subtle political pressure. And in politics, perception is everything.

Glenn should not have dragged Farsons into it at all and let public opinion take its course. And Glenn should distance himself from OPM.

The fact that every time he blogs about someone who criticizes the Labour Government, Glenn is doing so as an employee at OPM is what colours his blog in a way which (if they really want to listen) is causing a lot of damage to the PL Government itself. It is coming across as totalitarian, ready to censor anyone who does not agree, which is completely the opposite image they have tried to give with their loosening of censorship laws.

Glenn needs to step away from his post to sever the ties, and then blog away to his heart’s content. But to be a political blogger while in the employ of Castille is just not done. It would be like having one of Barack Obama’s communications staffers, who is employed within the White House, running a political blog in which he slams and “exposes” any one who criticizes the President (or the First Lady). To me the reasons “why not” are pretty obvious but maybe they need to be spelled out.

In a democracy, the Government and public figures, especially on the public payroll, are open to criticism. We should be free to voice our objections and (though many people would disagree), yes, even free to be insulting and offensive towards them. Just take a look at all the names and insults being hurled at Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and David Cameron as the fallout from Brexit continues. When Cameron was running for office, he was regularly portrayed as wearing a condom over his head by cartoonists while his encounter with a pig in his college days has provided fodder for endless obscene jokes.

But if you have a government aide singling you out on a blog for that criticism (even when the criticism is harsh and vulgar), then you are stepping into Big Brother territory.

What I always notice is that people will object or defend, the right to offend public figures depending on how they feel about that public figure. My rule of thumb is that it is either always OK, or never OK. Michelle Muscat, as I have written before, has been the target of ridicule and offensive comments like no other previous PM’s wife. So those applauding Mario Vella’s comments in the name of free speech must realize that any other PM’s wife after this will equally be a sitting target for similar comments and they will just have to lump it.

And those who are (understandably) appalled and aghast now need to understand that a similar attack on a PN politician or spouse cannot suddenly become acceptable because you know, tit for tat.

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