Tuesday 07 February 2023

Controversial in life, controversial in death

This article first appeared on Malta Today

Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder was the final blow to stop her from revealing what she was probably about to reveal – a heinous act which has chilled Malta to the bone. Five days after the event, as I am writing this, the magnitude of it all still hasn’t sunk in and I sometimes wonder whether it really happened. Then I see another headline and it shocks me into reality yet again.

After all, not since Karin Grech was killed by a letter bomb 40 years ago has our country witnessed such a deliberate act to eliminate someone (and in that case, a young girl was killed instead of the real target, her father Prof Edwin Grech). To date, that murder has remained unsolved and remains an open wound which scars the country. I think one thing which everyone can agree on is that having yet another unsolved murder simply cannot keep happening. What we cannot seem to agree on, however, is the legacy of Daphne herself.

When controversial figures die, they divide a nation. It happened with Mintoff, and in the UK, it happened with Thatcher.

When that controversial figure is brutally murdered in a cold-blooded, targeted assassination as happened with Daphne Caruana Galizia, then the controversy becomes mired in a tangled web of even more mixed emotions. Any attempts to discuss the person who has been killed in an objective way, and indeed the horrific implications of the murder itself, become weighed down as a result of any negative interactions one would have had with the deceased.

I freely admit that I have struggled to come to this point where I can write about Daphne dispassionately, while leaving my own feelings about her as a person, out of it. But in the face of such a macabre death and the motives behind it, everything else pales into trivial insignificance. There are those who argue that she did not respect those she hated, even in death (her infamous post about Mintoff is often brought up as an example), but with that argument, if one did not agree with that side of her, what good can come out of emulating it?

Those who did not like her, and there is a large percentage of the population which didn’t for reasons I will go into later, need to rise above it and be the better people at this moment in time, for otherwise this type of senseless lashing out will simply be perpetuated. I think, for the wellbeing of the national psyche, we need to find a way to discuss this highly controversial journalist rationally and maturely, but at the same time without glossing over or whitewashing anything. She was no saint and she, of all people, certainly would have agreed with that assessment.

On the other hand, I am not advocating hypocrisy – the people I have most admired in all this are those who stayed silent, not because, as some have outrageously and unfairly stated, they condone what happened (how can anyone in their right mind condone it?) but because as my Dad used to say, ‘if you cannot say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” After all, staying silent out of respect is much better than mealy-mouthed platitudes which do not come from the heart and which are only uttered or written to go along with the crowd out of fear of what others might say.

I can also understand why those who championed and admired Daphne at every turn for her investigative journalism are enraged at the lack of national mourning. Why isn’t everyone in the streets in an outpouring of anger and grief, they demand? Why shouldn’t there be a national day of mourning, flags flying at half-mast and many other symbols of nation-wide sorrow at the loss of this journalist?

They mistakenly attribute this indifference to the fact that Labour supporters disliked her for being a relentless thorn in “their” Government’s side and the political damage she was causing to their beloved Joseph. But while it is true that there are PL supporters who hated her for daring to expose the corruption and wrongdoings of the Labour Government, for a large swathe of people it goes beyond that. What I think Daphne time and again failed to grasp is that when she shifted her focus from the Labour Party and began to insult and mock the supporters themselves, using photos lifted from their profiles and generally invading their privacy, turning them into figures for public ridicule for her readers to (anonymously) tear to shreds, she crossed an important line. Her blog no longer remained just a way of keeping the Government in check through factual reporting and thoughtful commentary, but turned into a sideshow for the amusement of her faithful audience who greedily gulped up the entertainment while sipping their morning coffee.

Those who pooh-pooh the effect this had on Labour supporters do so because they have never been at the receiving end of such behaviour. But just ask anyone who woke up one morning to see their private photos, taken in moments of harmless fun, splashed across the Internet for everyone to gawk at. In fact it was only when (now Opposition Leader) Adrian Delia himself was meted similar treatment that PN supporters started to comprehend how it feels. Now, it is easy to minimize it, to wave it away and say come on, what’s the big deal? But one must understand that this has been going on for years, and the constant portrayal of PL sympathizers as being “less than”, of being white trash, having a low IQ and any other derogatory adjective under the sun, took its toll. The flames of class hatred were being constantly and continuously stoked until this discourse eventually leaked onto the social media where it became mainstream. I would often see the same Daphne-style phrases and descriptions being used as the ultimate put-down as people argued with one another over politics.

It is this, primarily, rather than the politics, which swayed Labour supporters so fiercely against her; the fact that she openly sneered at them in contempt for their working class roots. What I could never fathom, however, is why they seemed to relish sharing and quoting her blog posts, even as she insulted them, thereby giving her more publicity. It was like they enjoyed working themselves up into a frenzy against her, “You see? you see what she wrote?”

Likewise, what always puzzled me about Daphne is why she thought that her public scorn of Labour supporters (or even someone who is moderately left-wing) would help the PN in any way to gain much-needed support. Surely, if you want the pendulum to swing the either way, you need to make a political party appear that its doors are open to all, rather than insulting a certain demographic and then telling them, oh and by the way, we need your vote? Viewed from the other side of the political spectrum, of course, Daphne became wildly popular for voicing what a segment of PN supporters probably think but would never dare say in polite company.

Similarly, her criticism of Labour politicians (and very recently even PN politicians) could never quite remain on just what they said or did, but somehow always had to veer into E! Entertainment tabloid gossip territory: their fashion sense, whether they had had plastic surgery and thinly-veiled insinuations about their love life. Again, readership was split between those who were disgusted and those who got a thrill out of these juicy revelations. (None of this was by chance of course, for Daphne knew human nature and its love of gossip very well).

While all this may seem irrelevant and even trite in the tragic circumstances, it needs to be said in order to explain how the same person can be viewed through such diametrically contrasting standpoints. Despite the atrocity of her murder, she remains a controversial figure which can split a country down the middle between those who lauded her and those who despised her. And if we truly uphold freedom of speech, we have to be able to say these things truthfully rather than try to camouflage public sentiment about someone whose writings were the epitome of controversy.

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