Sunday 09 August 2020

What not to say (or write)

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Well, the New Year seems to be bringing us the same old, same old.

No matter how much time passes there are some things which never change: we keep on eating too much over the festive season, despite knowing the seams of our clothes are going to groan in protest; we vow not to spend so much time on our phones and FB, yet we are drawn to them like coke addicts craving their next hit….and politicians and party exponents are sure to come up with some statement or other guaranteed to make social media erupt with spluttering outrage.

Chris Fearne started it all with his “RIPN” comment, telling his audience that as long as he is alive he will ensure that the Nationalist Party will never be in power. He quipped that on his gravestone rather than RIP, they should write RIPN. He was, of course, pandering shamelessly to a home crowd, at a Labour Party activity in his campaign to be elected leader, where the remark was met with approval and laughter.

But even shorn of this context, was that remark really necessary? Many who were rooting for the mild-mannered Dr Fearne, seeing him as a much-needed ray of light in what seems like a sea of darkness for disillusioned Labour supporters, were plunged back into their mood of dismay. Nationalist supporters, very understandably, were not at all amused and simply hardened their anti-Labour stance. The Opposition Leader, Adrian Delia grabbed on to it like a lifeline, probably grateful for once that it was not him making a gaffe.

Predictably, all hell broke loose, and because the story was published on New Year’s Eve, it seemed like an omen, and a sign of things to come.

Fearne eventually made a half-hearted apology, claiming that his jibe was made tongue-in-cheek, but “if someone was offended, then I apologise” he added, rather relucantly. Now he is not a stupid man, so I could not understand why he was handling this, his first slip-up, in this way and I kept wondering what he was up to, until the penny finally dropped. In order to survive the upcoming vote and be elected PL leader, Fearne needs the backing of the core Labour voters who, from what I know, are not very keen on those politicians who come across as too moderate and pacifying.

At a time when the PL is licking its wounds because of the events which have unfolded over the last month, he probably deduced that some fighting talk was necessary to bolster morale and reassure supporters that while the party may have taken a bruising, it was not beaten. Because of the dark shadow which has been cast on the Government, and the gloating from certain quarters that, “you see, Labour always screws things up”, many PL supporters were made to feel whipped and defeated. But now that the Muscat era is almost over, new allegiances and alliances are quickly being drawn up and it is the delegates and card-carrying party members who will be deciding on Labour’s next chapter. Fearne’s remark, tongue-in-cheek or not, did the trick and his popularity among the diehards shot up. As petty and childish as the remark was, it’s all part of this game called politics, where saying the right thing to the right crowd is sometimes all it takes to suddenly become “their man”.

There’s only one slight but very significant hitch to this reasoning: if he is elected, the minute he becomes the new PL leader, Chris Fearne will also automatically become the country’s new Prime Minister. So how is he going to reconcile the militancy with which he has spoken to Labour supporters with the more inclusive approach he will have to adopt as PM? That video will be there forever, and the Internet is unforgiving. In the same way that Gonzi will forever be remembered as having used the word “yuck” in reference to the Labour Party, Charles Mangion for his “they all have the same DNA” comment about PN supporters and Simon for his infamous “you have the face of a Nationalist” when addressing Deborah Schembri, so too will Fearne’s comments continue to haunt him.

Party supporters on both sides of the fence tend to have long memories especially when it comes to being slighted by their political adversaries, and those who want to hold on to a partisan grudge will find any excuse to do so. With his remark, Fearne simply continued to entrench those who never really leave the trenches (nor do they particularly want to, it seems).

Meanwhile, the swathe of voters who are not blind party supporters are once again left floundering in the middle, failing to be impressed by any of this posturing.

Then, just when you thought things were settling down…

…along comes Jason Micallef to put his foot in it all over again.

It all started when Alexandra Alden, one of the judges on XFactor Malta (a PBS production) announced she would be performing at the ‘Concert against Corruption” being held on Sunday afternoon.

Mr Micallef responded to this with “Malta’s “Lady Gaga” wannabe expected to wow the crowds at anti corruption mini concert!”. Now, in the grand scheme of things and coming from anyone else, this would have been an innocuous, albeit silly, comment. But, for the umpteenth time, like many of those who hold public posts, Micallef has failed to realise that as head of the Valletta Cultural Agency, a state entity, he should not be writing these things. Once again, I have to repeat that if it needs be spelled out as to WHY he should not be writing these things, then that, inherently, is the problem: such things should not have to be explained. People who are appointed to such posts should instinctively know how to behave, especially on social media. If they want to be free to express every single thought which pops into their brain, then they should resign their Government-appointed post which is paid from our taxes and go into the private sector.

Right on cue, Micallef’s comment stirred up a hornet’s nest among those who are only too ready to lash out at Ms Alden for other reasons, including the fact that she is English-speaking (seriously, will we ever get over this hang-up?). Then came the predictable calls for her to be removed from the PBS show and here is where the more serious implications of Micallef’s criticism can really be gauged. If we are going to ‘punish’ people for their activism or political involvement then we are in a sorrier state than ever. Freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to protest are unalienable basic rights. She is free to add her voice and support to the protests in the same way as people in the public eye all over the world, including celebrities, voice their political beliefs. (Of course, this also means she has to be ready for the flak which sticking your neck out brings with it).

What I don’t agree with is that other singers and fellow performers are being criticised for not being equally vocal in their support of Ms Alden and of the protests – for that is their right too. Not everyone is comfortable with getting embroiled in Malta’s hotbed of partisan politics. You cannot claim to advocate for freedom of expression and of association while simultaneously deriding others for their choices. But it seems even that needs to be explained too.

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