This column first appeared in Malta Today
The Chairman of the National Book Council, Mark Camilleri, found himself in hot water this week after a spat with a lawyer defending Yorgen Fenech escalated when he used a few choice expletives. It must be said that this was a private chat which he decided to make public himself for reasons I will go into later (to read the whole exchange go to www.markcamilleri.org).
As with every incident in which people proclaim their right to ‘free speech’, context is everything. It is true that Camilleri’s choice of language was harsh and in normal circumstances I would agree that it was unprofessional and uncalled for, considering his role in the education sector. However, the background of it all goes beyond him sending the lawyer flying in colourful terms.
As he explained on his FB profile, his job has been on the line for a while. “(Former Education Minister) Owen Bonnici, had already decided to fire me with the 31st December of this year set as my last day in the job. I could not communicate this news publicly because I feared financial challenges. I have some bank loans and I feared that if they would cut me off instantly, I may have had a problem paying off my loans….”
When Justyne Caruana took over as Education Minister, she reconfirmed him in his post, so the possibility of losing his job was averted. However, when the swearing episode occurred, Frank Fabri, the permanent secretary at the Minister of Education immediately called for Camilleri’s resignation, forcing Camilleri to go public on what has been happening behind the scenes. He has since apologised to Minister Caruana for his public use of foul language and has bound himself to refrain from using it in the future.
But, as often happens, we are at risk of getting lost on the superficial issues, rather than getting to the root cause of this national malaise, which has plagued this country for far too long. This is not really about Camilleri telling the lawyer to “kiss my glorious brown Marxist ass” (which was one of his milder remarks).
I do not think it is a coincidence that Camilleri’s job as Chairman was dangling by a fine thread when he just happens to be a very vocal critic of the Government’s attempt to curtail how long the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder should take. The reason I believe his explanation for why he lost his cool is simple: I have seen this happen too many times before, both now under a Labour administration and before under a PN administration, and for as far back as I can remember.
The tacit agreement when one is given a plum role under any Government in power is to placate the person who has been taken on board into a comfortable silence: basically, “we would like you to take this job but then we do not want to hear another peep out of you”. None of this is ever spoken out loud of course, it is just mutually understood; a tale as old as Maltese politics time. You do not bite the hand that feeds you, and you do not criticise the Government that has given you this post. Obviously, there are those who are quite happy to play along with this time-honoured practice. It’s no skin off their nose to stay mum; they just close their eyes and think of their paycheque. Let me hasten to add that I am sure there are many who accept top posts because they genuinely want to contribute to make the country better and who provide constructive criticism from within when necessary. Others simply see it as a given that one should always be unquestioning and loyal to the administration which has appointed you, much in the same way that one is loyal to your employer in private enterprise. Of course, few seem to mention the fact that you are actually being paid out of taxpayers’ money, so if you are beholden to anyone it is to your fellow citizens who are the ones really paying your salary, and not to the party which happened to win the election.
In any case, that is how the cookie crumbles, and top posts have often been doled out to those who were previously a thorn in a party’s side, in order to keep them agreeable and mercifully silent. A quid pro quo if you like, a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ unwritten pact with both sides usually quite willing to go with the flow. The equally unwritten rule is that if you become a trouble maker and criticise the Government in public then you can kiss your cushy post goodbye. Those who rock the boat are not looked at too benevolently but are expected to toe the line no matter what.
The only difference I see between this administration and previous ones (and yes I am looking at you too, PN), is that the latter did things much more stealthily. It was never in your face, outright confrontation against its harshest critics, but a more underhanded sneaky type of sidelining when you are suddenly presented with a fait accompli, accompanied by a charming smile, as they shrug helplessly and act as if it had nothing to do with them. It was much more difficult to pinpoint and usually impossible to prove.
In any case, no matter who is in power, this is how I have always known it. If you cannot keep quiet when you see things that make you physically ill, you can either resign, thus freeing yourself from any obligation, or you can stick your neck out anyway, which is what Mark Camilleri did.
Now the fact that he published the fiery exchange himself may be seen as his own undoing, but I think he took that risk because he wanted to expose the fact that Yorgen Fenech’s lawyer had the temerity to contact him privately to tell him he was “saying stupid things” about the public inquiry. When he told her off using a few expletives she told him he should be fired. First of all, is this even ethical practice by a lawyer defending a murder suspect? Don’t we all have the right to question anything and everything the Government does, especially in the light of what the public inquiry is about in the first place, without the fear that a lawyer involved in the case will contact us?
It is also beyond ironic that the same Government which championed the removal of censorship seems to be clutching its pearls about a few swear words, written by the very person who was at the forefront of the anti-censorship campaign. In fact, right now because he has been forbidden from further foul language, it is sheer entertainment to read comments on Mark Camilleri’s wall where his friends and acquaintances are cheerfully expressing themselves in foul language on his behalf in a hilarious act of expletive-ridden solidarity.
Of course, what makes this whole episode sound even more like a tragicomedy, is that this is the same administration which was so reticent about firing officials such as Mario Azzopardi, Tony Zarb and Glenn Bedingfield when they let rip with coarse language, claiming their right to free speech.
And, just in case you have forgotten, let me refresh your memory about why context is important. Mario Azzopardi was the artistic director of Valletta18 when he called an activist “a bitch” and Tony Zarb was a consultant to then Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi when he called other activists “whores”. Both of them used social media to publicly insult private citizens for no reason, while occupying an official role. When MP Glenn Bedingfield started swearing in Parliament as a reaction to Simon Busuttil’s speech, he was rightly asked to leave and made to apologise because it was an affront to the institution of the House of Representatives.
We have had Ministers who caused considerable damage (and metaphorically screwed) the country with their unethical behaviour who were kept on, creating a political crisis which ultimately brought down a Prime Minister, and yet suddenly this Government becomes all puritanical over a few swear words.
And while I usually agree with the argument that when occupying an official role one has to exercise decorum when replying to comments, in the Mark Camilleri episode where his livelihood was being threatened, I believe there are times when only swear words will do.