Tuesday 07 April 2020

All I want for Christmas is…no more spin

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Yes, I know it is a tall order.  And it is probably a very idealistic wish, which will never happen, but oh how I yearn to be given just the bare, straightforward facts and less spin. 

Take the Egrant inquiry report which is interminable, full of lengthy, distracting footnotes and bulging with minutiae and details. To say that Magistrate Aaron Bugeja was painstakingly thorough would be the year’s understatement. I find it difficult to believe that many of those commenting really read through the entire 1,500 pages.  And yet, despite its sheer volume, I was impressed at just how quickly some managed to quickly zero in on precisely those bits which suit their purpose.  This snapchat approach to news is not helped by the public’s impatient demand for the information now, as quickly as possible, conditioned by the instant gratification mindset where we want everything presented to us in easily-digested sound bites and Twitter-sized summary of major news events.   

In the current evolving political crisis, the already strained-to-the-limit resources of newsrooms were further stretched by the arrival of this mega report.  Pick any news portal at random and the headline will immediately indicate what they consider to be the most significant aspects of this ongoing national saga:

“Manipulation of the Egrant inquiry” – Shift News

“This is hilarious” – what Michelle Muscat told the Egrant inquiry” – Times of Malta 

“Egrant inquiry raised red flag on money laundering by Azeri rulers inside Pilatus” – Malta Today

“Egrant report: Keith Schembri. Told Magistrate  ‘Daphne Crossed The Limit When She Wrote About My Health Problems’ –  Lovin’ Malta

“Muscat compares the publication of Egrant to a stone in his shoe” – Newsbook 

“Publication of the Egrant report shows the extent of the lies about me and my family” – PM”  – TVM News

There are more headlines to choose from, of course, but you get the picture.  Each newsroom always takes an angle as it sees fit, to capture the reader’s attention and draw them in.  But what does the hapless reader do with all this conflicting information coming at him from all sides?  How can the average person sift through this deluge of news,  giving him different versions of the same voluminous report?   Usually, (and this happens all over the world), most people seek solace in the newspaper, website or TV station which confirms the views they already firmly hold. This is understandable; after all there is a certain comfort and security in having your own opinion being reflected back at you.  In contrast, when your value or belief system is challenged, it can not only be annoying, but tends to make you feel uncomfortable, disturbed and uneasy – if not downright angry. We want our minds to be soothed and our emotions to be clear-cut because that makes life so much easer.  But that is not going to happen when one reads the same news story from different sources – on the contrary, the more divergent views you are exposed to, the more you are apt to end up with an entire cocktail of mixed feelings and emotions, not knowing what to think or who to believe.

(And here I am deliberately not even referring to Net News and One News because these propaganda stations have done immeasurable harm to the nation’s ability to think for itself).

What has been immediately evident is that the much-awaited publication of the Egrant report has not resolved anything but has simply given rise to more questions, and more reasons to squabble over who was right.  It seems to me that both sides have simply become more entrenched in their views: those who believe the PM and Mrs Muscat were the innocent victims of an audacious and blatant lie, and those who are still utterly convinced that Egrant belongs to them, even though the excruciatingly detailed report did not find any evidence to support this claim.  However, against all odds, there is also a growing faction which can see everything more holistically and with a level head, shorn of any blinkers. The latter might not have all the answers and may still be unable to come to any definite conclusions, but they are wisely reserving judgement, holding their tongues until the true, full picture comes out.  

There is one thing I trust we can all agree on however: the need for Police investigations as recommended by Magistrate Bugeja into those who had allegedly committed perjury, the allegations of money-laundering by Pilatus Bank and the setting up of a Malta-China offshore partnership. When questioned why these recommendations had not been included in the conclusions published in July 2018, the Attorney General said it was to “limit the invasion of privacy of third parties mentioned incidentally in the report and the need to protect other related investigations”. Meanwhile the Police issued a statement that, “all the recommendations and conclusions in the inquiry are still being actively investigated by the Police authorities or together with other Inquiring Magistrates or other competent authorities.”

This brings me to a point I wish to make about the Police murder investigation: a lot of disparaging comments have been dumped on the Police, but if you think about it rationally, if the investigation had not been proceeding as it should have been and the Police (and Europol) were dragging their feet or being downright incompetent, how does one explain the detailed, precise information which is emerging in Court?  Maybe it’s because I watch a lot of crime and courtroom dramas but it seems obvious to me that one cannot arrest someone and make the charges stick without a watertight case in which all evidence is rock solid and everything leading up to the arrest and the trial has been done by the book, with no chance of any defence lawyer finding a legal loophole. Cases have been thrown out because of technicalities, even murderers have got off scot free because prosecutors have been sloppy and careless (just remember what happened in the OJ Simpson case).  For convictions to happen, it takes time and careful diligence, because despite how it sometimes feels, this is not a Netflix series in which everything is wrapped up in ten episodes. 

But herein lies the crunch: a large portion of the public does not have faith in anything any more.  This is completely understandable. When there has been such an erosion of trust in our institutions, when suspicious eyes have been cast on the highest authorities from OPM to the FIAU, the Police Commissioner, the AG and even the judiciary itself –  all those branches which are meant to serve and protect us, rather than themselves  – how can we ever take anything at face value, ever again?  To make matters worse on Friday we learnt that Times of Malta journalist Ivan Camilleri was sacked by the paper after he was allegedly named for having tipped off mastermind suspect Yorgen Fenech.  If even a member of the Fourth Estate, which is meant to be the public’s watchdog, is allegedly embroiled in all this, who can blame the public for its growing mistrust?  Credibility and knowing who to believe during a political crisis is everything and yet with each passing day, credibility has been dealt a major blow.  

No wonder so many are flocking with their families to the fairytale atmosphere created at the Triton fountain with its Ferris wheel and twinkling lights, if only to escape the whirlwind of revelations which continue to chip away at what we thought was solid ground. It is also a much-needed reprieve from the toxic, hostile atmosphere of social media. I don’t blame people either for resorting to banter, jokes and memes with every twist and turn of this ‘nightmare before Christmas’. How else can our brains cope with such absurd claims like that made by Keith Schembri that he had lost his mobile, which even had the most loyal of Labour supporters laughing in disbelief?   We need to deal with all this somehow, if only to remain sane, and if that means we need to resort to silly, almost childish humour then so be it.

Ultimately, even though we may laugh to get some respite, everyone is still keenly aware that this is an extremely serious turning point for our country.  I am still of the opinion that the whole truth must and will come out because the lid has come off now and you cannot stem the flow.  At one point, self-preservation will kick in and more people who have information about what really happened will start talking.

That is the thing with lies and spin…inevitably, one day you will make a mistake and you will get caught out. 

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