A lot has been said about Joseph Muscat’s appearance before the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry and his pleading that a hundred pieces of evidence should not amount to a single suspicion that it was his cronies who put the ‘gang’ into the country’s gangrene.
One claim, however, deserves detailed scrutiny. His statement that Caruana Galizia “was the opposition” was no throwaway remark.
I’m aware it draws attention away from all the other answers that just don’t add up. But it also hides a puzzle whose answer goes to the heart of the inquiry.
Remember, the inquiry is not a whodunnit. It is a howdunnit – not how the assassins themselves murdered her but how their work may have been made easier, wittingly or not, by the state and its institutions.
Here is the puzzle. Throughout her career, Caruana Galizia actively resisted being pigeonholed as the voice of the Nationalist Party or even as a reliable cheerleader. She did everything to dispel the notion. She publicly identified with the PN’s historic adversary (the Constitutional Party). She was dismissive of every PN leader prior to Eddie Fenech Adami. From the early 1990s, her columns included scathing criticisms of various prominent figures associated with the PN.
Despite all this, something strange happened after 2008. She became identified with its voice.
Up until then, the idea would have been laughable. Her early 1990s interviews with Nationalist ministers were often critical. A segment of PN supporters couldn’t stand her. She wrote columns denouncing a close adviser to Fenech Adami as well as the then deputy prime minister, Guido de Marco. In 2004, she criticised Fenech Adami himself for accepting the presidency.
Post-2008, she criticised certain dissenting PN backbenchers as well as how the leader, Lawrence Gonzi, was handling them, which only created more trouble for Gonzi. She also criticised Gonzi’s position on divorce, both before and after the referendum, and Gonzi’s strategy in the Libyan crisis.
Post-2013, she criticised the PN (now in opposition) on its communication strategy. On civil liberty positions, where the PN fudged, she was clear. She created fresh problems for the new leader, Simon Busuttil, when she harshly criticised one of his deputies, Mario de Marco.
On any cool-headed assessment, this record would be evidence of an independent journalist. Political independence doesn’t mean neutrality; it means being free to be publicly critical of the very party you support. She was evidently not voicing the PN’s talking points.
Up till 2008, her independence was clear. After 2008, it changed. Why?
It partly had to do with developments within the PN. Gonzi’s second cabinet was small, reducing the wide range of voices associated with the government. Moreover, the departure of senior politicians like Louis Galea and the former secretary-general, Joe Saliba, made one particular kind of voice – sensitive to social, centre-left concerns – more difficult to hear.
Muscat engineered a situation where it was easier for her deadly enemies to think that an isolated journalist, with powerful enemies all round, detested by many, could be killed with impunity- Ranier Fsadni
The party media were also weaker. There was dissent on the PN backbenches but, obviously, the party glided over these in embarrassed silence.
As the party’s voice got weaker, Caruana Galizia’s got louder. She now had her blog and her voice was unconstrained by the imperatives of party management.
She thought the dissenters were self-serving narcissists and said so. The dissenters wanted Gonzi to get her to stop. He refused to interfere with the work of an independent journalist. So the dissenters’ message became that Caruana Galizia was Gonzi’s media bully, beating up on pluralism in the party.
If it was plausible, it was because people were then so unused to a PN with hardly any distinctive voice that they filled the vacuum with hers.
But her voice also expressed her take on culture, social status, upbringing and language. Her mockery and satire of the aspiring classes now became associated with the PN, despite its history as the party whose policies favoured the upwardly mobile.
Labour under Muscat was part of this game. Gonzi was repeatedly goaded to ‘condemn’ Caruana Galizia. He refused, understanding the authoritarian implications, in a democracy, of a political leader condemning a journalist, not to mention that condemnation would expose her to vendettas by hotheads.
It was Labour’s electoral strategy that depicted Caruana Galizia as ‘the true voice’ of the PN. It paid great dividends in 2013. After that election, Labour’s portrayal changed. From being the bully of the PN leadership, she was now depicted as the real leader of the opposition.
That weakened the new PN leader, Simon Busuttil and alienated working class PN voters who had stayed with the party in 2013.
Above all, it helped neutralise Caruana Galizia’s investigative scoops. Her revelations were now described as ‘her agenda’, as though driven by her prejudices, instead of an anti-corruption agenda driven by documented facts. Insistent publicity given by Labour to her purely social views meant it was easier to depict her main writing as gossip and snobbery.
It was Muscat who created the conditions that made her seem like ‘the only opposition’. He then used his own propaganda to justify treating a lone individual as though she were a political party, using the immense resources at his disposal against her.
It was a clever, conjuring trick. Her criticism of the PN was depicted to mean not independence but, first, thuggery, and then an attempt to dictate to a political party. The free-speaking journalist was made to seem a repressor of free speech.
The refusal of two PN leaders to condemn her was portrayed as a sign that they were weak. Then a PN leader, Adrian Delia, did bow to pressure to condemn her. Now, Muscat, who insisted on condemnation, has the cheek to tell the inquiry that, at least, he never went as far as Delia and called her a “two-bit blogger”.
Of course, the point of the pressure to condemn her was to isolate her, while dividing up the PN from within. It was a clever stratagem with clever execution.
But it was also grossly irresponsible. Muscat today calls the assassins stupid. But if they did miscalculate, it’s because Muscat engineered a situation where it was easier for her deadly enemies to think that an isolated journalist, with powerful enemies all round, detested by many, could be killed with impunity.
Gonzi and Busuttil showed judgement when they refused to condemn her. Muscat’s power games illustrate how you can be both cunning and out of your depth. It was his own stupidity that brought him down.
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