Saturday 04 April 2020

Public sentiment does not grow in a vacuum

This column first appeared in Malta Today

One of my favourite news stories this year concerned the notorious Katie Hopkins who was duped into accepting a fake award in an ingenious and elaborate prank. She fell for it hook, line and sinker and you can see the whole thing in a YouTube video where she travels to Prague to accept the “Campaign to Unify the Nation Trophy”.  The joke lies in the acronym of the name of that award.

For those who don’t know who she is, Hopkins’ Wikipedia entry describes her as a “British media personality,  columnist and former businesswoman”. She came into the limelight after appearing on The Apprentice, and eventually starting writing for The Sun and the Daily Mail as well as hosting her own TV and radio shows and appearing in reality shows.

I describe her as ‘notorious’ because she thrived (and gained a lot of popularity) by saying the most outrageous things on a wide variety of issues from politics to social class, immigrants and race. Most of what she says is considered politically incorrect, highly offensive and inflammatory, and she simply loves the attention.  The more outraged people became, the more she upped the ante with her remarks until finally, her Twitter account was suspended for violating their anti-hate policy.  

The wickedly funny prank concocted by Josh Pieters described above was one man’s way of using brilliant satire to ridicule someone who had caused so much misery to others with her remarks.

You know where I’m going with this.  As far as notoriety goes, Daphne Caruana Galizia was Malta’s version of Katie Hopkins, at least when it came to social class. For all the attempts being made to gloss things over, those who really followed her blog know very well that it was equal parts investigative journalism and outrageous sensationalism, using a variety of shock tactics to get tongues wagging.  When discussion of her writing comes up, those who are level-headed will often agree that she could have made the same valid points without resorting to the lengths she often went to which ranged from attempts at satire, to irrelevant gossip, to tabloid-style salaciousness to downright nastiness (especially unnecessary when it concerned people who were not in the public eye). It is not difficult to guess which aspect of her writing really drove the traffic.  When in 2014 she posted the sexy photos of a female escort who advertised her wares online, (whose partner happened to be the son of a former Labour Minister) she openly gloated that the post was shared 17,400 times on FB.   

To each his own, of course, it was her blog and she had absolute freedom to do what she liked, which she did. But the fact that she had no filter or editorial restraints (as one does when one writes for a media organisation) meant that she kept pushing the envelope, and those who read her and commented (mostly anonymously) kept egging her on. 

I am saying all this knowing full well that in the climate which has prevailed since her horrific murder, it is difficult to write about Daphne with even a hint of criticism. But this is not criticism; I am simply stating facts which can easily be verified because the blog posts are all there.  I felt I had to point all this out again for another reason as well, because one cannot just look at the love-hate relationship of the Maltese public towards Daphne in a vacuum.  

The ongoing public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, which seems to be placing anyone who remotely criticised or disagreed with her under suspicion,  is leaving out this crucial aspect of the national atmosphere which had built up over the years due to the infamous blog. 

The terms of reference are to determine whether the authorities could have prevented the murder. In Friday’s sitting, former OPM official (now Labour MP) Glenn Bedingfield volunteered to testify because of what he described as the lies being told about him, which were implying that he was somehow involved in the plot to kill the journalist because of the blog he was running which, among other things, mocked and ridiculed Daphne, using her same style.

Now I have always maintained that Bedingfield should not have been running the blog because of his position within the Government. My argument was that if he wanted to do this, he should have resigned his official post and blogged as an ordinary citizen.  That was his biggest mistake, although he still does not seem to grasp why it was so ill-advised and just not done.  Journalists are there to speak truth to power, but those in power should never use their position to ridicule a journalist. Simple as that.  

In contrast, when actor Alan Montanaro created his wickedly accurate parody of Daphne, which laid bare all her elitist snobbery, it was a hit. Of course it also helped that Alan and Daphne came from the same social circle, which probably explains why she did not hit back.  It is for this same reason that the above prank on Katie Hopkins worked so brilliantly – Josh Pieters comes from her same background and she was absolutely thrilled at the prospect of being given an award because it spoke to her vanity, which made the whole thing even funnier. 

But back to the content of Glenn’s blog posts and their context.  Although I never agreed that a tit-for-tat approach was the right way to ‘handle’ Daphne’s often cruel jibes, I can also understand why many Labour supporters felt that finally they had a way of expressing their pent-up frustration at being derided by someone who considered herself their superior, simply because of social class.  And while in his testimony, Glenn did not particularly articulate this point very well, that is really the crux of the matter which explains the wall of resentment towards Daphne among so many people, who still cannot allow themselves to ever forgive her, even though she was killed in such an atrocious, cold-blooded way.  

Up until the day she was murdered, it truly rankled among a large chunk of the population that, “she can say whatever she likes about Labour supporters, post our FB photos, ridicule and mock us, and we cannot say anything back”.  Others were simply terrorised into silence, never commenting online to reveal their voting preferences, and afraid to appear in a photo at some party posing with Labour politicians or known sympathisers lest it finds itself on ‘the blog’.  This is the true reality behind most of the “anti-Daphne” sentiment and it is as far removed from Konrad, Keith and the Panama Papers as you can get. 

No one enjoys being made to feel like some kind of inferior sub-human species.

No one enjoys being looked at with disdain, scorn and outright contempt simply because of their politics. 

No one takes pleasure in constantly being called a never-ending string of names and insulted purely because of how they vote. 

Ordinary people (as opposed to politicians or those active within the party) were genuinely bewildered by what they could only describe as hate directed personally towards them with every stinging word.  Did they hate her back?  Yes many did, because unfortunately hate breeds hate.

I also think that Daphne seemed to forget that (perhaps unlike the past) many Maltese families have married into other families with different political beliefs.  Social circles have also merged and some of the lines which were so clear-cut around 30 years ago have become blurred. The working class of my generation was upwardly mobile and their children are now among the professional classes. Did she really expect people to sneer at those who were closest to them and cut them out of their lives because they were not “one of them”?

When Daphne would be blogging non-stop in one of her rants against Labour supporters, I remember left-wing voters who were rather lukewarm towards Muscat telling me that she made them feel like going out in the street, shouting Viva l-Labour and waving the Torċa flag.  Because that is the thing with hurtful, spiteful comments which are directed at an entire segment of the population – they tend to put your back up and make you close ranks.  It really is not rocket science to understand why the more she tried to vilify half the nation for their political beliefs, the stronger the Labour Party grew.  

As for the public inquiry, yes it is important to establish whether the authorities failed in some way to prevent such an unthinkable murder.  Yes, we need to ensure that those who were behind it were not enabled because of a prevailing culture of impunity.  But we also cannot be expected to walk on eggshells or be afraid to speak frankly about the good, the bad and the ugly behind Malta’s most famous blog, for fear of being labelled as ‘complicit’.   

Powered by