After the Tories’ bad result in Thursday’s election, no one is asking Theresa May whether she thinks her party should dissociate itself from the Daily Mail, the reactionary newspaper that may have helped push the youth vote towards Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.
So why are Malta’s post-election wedding halls full of people muttering that the Nationalist Party should ‘dissociate’ itself from Daphne Caruana Galizia?
You can understand Glenn Bedingfield hammering the point many times – but he’s a spinner. This newspaper is not; it was speaking for its readers when it raised the Daphne question while interviewing the PN’s outgoing president of the executive committee, Ann Fenech.
Is Caruana Galizia a special case? Or are we peculiar?
We won’t get anywhere unless we recognise that Caruana Galizia’s blog has two separate pillars, which tend to generate two very different reactions in the same people.
First, there is the reporting function. Her blog has repeatedly broken major news stories. Panamagate was only the most spectacular in a long string. Her financial reporting on Maltese affairs is the best for a general readership.
On major stories, she’s been proven right enough times. Hence why her readers are prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt even when she makes extraordinary claims based on a single unnamed source.
Then there are the pure opinions and gossip. She opines, with the unassailable conviction of Miss Jean Brodie, on the Italians, Maltese etymology, dress codes, sex and psychology, when to eat long pasta, the pathology of Maltese everyday life...
As far as truth goes, the opinions range from the interesting and insightful to the dotty and plain ignorant. No one can write so much, so fast, so frequently, without slip-ups.
But even when Caruana Galizia is getting it wrong, she’s getting it right. Exaggeration, even unbelievable exaggeration, is to blogs what stunts, even unbelievable stunts, are to Bond films. It’s what keeps her readers coming back for more even when they hate her guts.
That said, the clear distinction between the reporting and opinion pillars of her blog is what accounts for the ambivalence with which the greater part of her readership views her. They read her to find out what’s going on in the country; but tend to find her over the top when discussing (let alone gossiping about) public figures she dislikes.
The distinction between the pillars, as well as the ambivalence, are important. Labour has sought to confuse the pillars and manipulate the ambivalence.
Wouldn’t it help if the PN ‘condemned’ or ‘dissociated’ itself from Caruana Galizia? No. It would undermine its claim to want an open society
Watch them confuse the pillars. Labour tries to dismiss her reporting by referring to her virulently anti-Labour bias. So fact-based reports, documented, are to be dismissed because her pure opinions on other matters are tendentious and exaggerated.
Watch them manipulate the ambivalence. When they call her a ‘hate blogger’ (actually, it’s not hate but ridicule, contempt and invective) they are trying to make the reporting seem an accidental feature of her blog and ‘hate’ its essence. Convenient, if you’re saying Panamagate was a lucky break but that nothing else is true.
It’s more than convenient. It enables Labour to make inroads with a certain kind of Nationalist voter.
Whatever you make of Caruana Galizia’s view of social status in Maltese society, the fact is that the PN has always espoused a different, more inclusive view. No surprise, given its dependence on the votes of the upwardly mobile, who themselves depend on social acceptance for their aspirations to be fulfilled.
Moreover, a segment of PN voters have never hidden their dislike of Caruana Galizia precisely because they thought of her as a snob who would always look down on them.
In 1993, Georg Sapiano wrote Penne all’Arrabbiata, an interview whose presentation poked fun at her, for the PN’s Sunday newspaper, Il-Mument. For two Sundays after that, the letters pages were dominated by readers enjoying what they clearly thought was her comeuppance.
I write from memory but I don’t think those letters differed much in sentiment (though without the vulgarity) from those that appear on Bedingfield’s blog. What happens to such voters if they’re told that their favoured political party now espouses social views similar to hers?
Yes, exactly. But is it true?
Objectively, the evidence is that there is no coordination with the PN when it comes to Caruana Galizia’s opinions.
Pre-2013, she strongly differed from Lawrence Gonzi’s handling of Libya, divorce and the troublemakers in his parliamentary group. Aside from the economic crisis, those were the three major problems Gonzi had to handle. On each, she criticised him.
Post-2013, no evidence of coordination on matters of opinion, either. It cannot have been helpful for Simon Busuttil to have her blast away at his communications strategy and his deputy leader, or to venture into matters of the private life of Labour MPs or appointees, when some of his own MPs were also vulnerable to exposure.
So the facts show that her opinions were usually inconvenient to the PN. And no evidence has ever been offered that her social views betray the secret views of the party. Labour simply said it was so.
What about coordination on matters of reporting?
If by this we mean that the PN sometimes shared information with her, then it’s probably true. But it wouldn’t be different from what the PN does with other newspapers and journalists. Labour does it too. So do all political parties elsewhere. They would be failing as parties if they didn’t.
And the claim that Caruana Galizia dictated the PN’s agenda?
If by that we mean the stories she broke on Vitals Global Healthcare, Panama, Keith Schembri’s offshore companies, the FIAU report cover-ups and Egrant, then the fact is she dictated the country’s agenda, not just the PN’s. The stories she broke dominated the news cycle.
But it is Labour spin to say they were ‘her agenda’. Anti-corruption is a national agenda.
She may have broken the stories. But Panamagate, the FIAU reports and yes, even Egrant, became stories pursued by other news organisations, who made their own investigations.
OK, it may be spin but why does it stick?
Because of a different real PN weakness. It failed to communicate its social-economic vision effectively. When your own vision fails to get across, it is easier for your adversary to fill in the blanks to his advantage.
Also, since your positive agenda is not getting across, it is easier to be depicted as only following the lead of the breaking news.
The solution to that real problem is to acquire a stronger voice: better articulation of the vision, more repetition, a better organised social network. Cultivate your own voice and it will never be mistaken for anyone else’s.
Wouldn’t it help if the PN ‘condemned’ or ‘dissociated’ itself from Caruana Galizia? No. It would undermine its claim to want an open society.
It’s one thing to answer direct questions on whether you agree with this or that blog post. But the moment a political party – especially a government in waiting – begins to condemn journalists, it begins to have a chilling effect on what journalists can say.
That’s the irony of the demand that a political party issues a blanket disapproval of a journalist (operating within the law). It’s demanded in the name of a more decent society. It actually serves to make society less decent.
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