It is not, I think, legitimate to write a column about the Egrant matter and not state one’s position. My tentative belief – and I say later why it is just that – is that Egrant did not belong to either Michelle or Joseph Muscat, and that the story was a fabrication. As to who mongered it and why I have no idea, but I hope they get what they deserve.
End of story it isn’t. On the contrary, the matter raises a number of questions that concern truth, politics and institutions.
To paraphrase the report (Dostoyevsky, actually), a hundred facts do not make a truth. There are two points to be made here. First, there’s a difference between what we might call an accountant’s truth, which is made up of facts added up, and political truth, which is something else entirely. In politics, as in religion among other things, truth is a frightfully complicated business.
Take Uri Geller, who rose to world fame thanks to his ability to bend spoons without actually bending them. Geller was once exposed on television when it turned out that he could only work with spoons that came from his personal cutlery stable. This was a fact that should have ended his career on the spot. Instead it nourished it, because very many people reasoned that if trickery was involved, it would work every time. Madly enough, the fact that the television spoons didn’t bend ended up fuelling the truth that Geller was a spoon bender.
I see a similar kind of truth at work when it comes to, say, the curative properties of water from Lourdes. Nor am I about to rubbish that truth, simply because it’s a different one to that of facts added up. Which is why so many people were left not quite knowing what to believe after last Sunday’s press conference.
It’s also why Karl Stagno Navarra has murdered his summer holidays to give us special editions of Pjazza. That might seem like a Labour hack making the most of the truth, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s Labour working overtime to produce a political truth, simply because it isn’t quite there.
The second point is that the Egrant story was in a sense an accessory to a bigger question, namely whether or not there are people at the very top who are corrupt. A truthful answer to that requires us to take into account the bigger picture, and that includes the earlier Panama issue with Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and the only person who was in a position to do anything about it.
There’s another thing. The dogma of Papal infallibility must be one of the least easily digestible teachings of the Church, even to otherwise committed Catholics. There seem to be no such problems with the dogma of magisterial infallibility.
Partly the problem is a slippage of thought which confuses individual fallibility with systemic collapse. By this sleight, to question the findings of an inquiry is to doubt the justice system and, by inference, to defy the rule of law.
Which doesn’t follow, because it is quite possible to question and be critical of the specific case while upholding the system generally. Thus, for example, while I have full faith in medical practice and Western medicine generally, I would certainly not rule out that even the best doctors can make mistakes.
I am not suggesting that the conclusions of the Bugeja inquiry are wrong. I am, however, saying that we should not be expected to accept them without discussion – indeed, without even having seen the rest of the report.
Which is where good journalism matters. So far, the only thing the press have done is to assume an infallible truth and take sides, according to formal or tacit affiliation. I am not aware that any journalists or news organisation have bothered with their own investigations.
Which leaves us, the public, in a very difficult position. We can blindly accept the findings and the conclusions of the Bugeja inquiry, or we can stumble about in the dark. The absence of competing facts and truths leaves us stuck with infallibility, or with the tentative beliefs of my first paragraph.
My third point would normally be disconnected, only in this case it is brought into play by events. It concerns the consequences of facts and truths.
It is never a good idea for a party leader to lay into a predecessor, whatever that predecessor may have done. When Joseph Muscat said farewell to Mintoff with a warm ‘ejj’oqgħod’ at the front door of the Labour headquarters in 2009, he effectively took back Alfred Sant’s 1998 ‘traditur ta’ Malta’. While Sant may have had every reason to be furious at Mintoff, it was Muscat who did the wise thing. In fact, that ejj’oqghod was a defining moment in Muscat’s regrouping of the party post the 2008 defeat.
There are two reasons why this is so. First, for a leader to connect with former ones, in whichever way (and Muscat-Mintoff was purely symbolic), is effectively to embed themself into the long-term history of the party. Which matters no end, because parties thrive on a sense of collective continuity. Delia might wish to heed his own maxim that no one person is greater than the party – which in this sense means that the successful leader is the one who stands for the party, horizontally (broadly) as well as vertically (historically).
Second, because former leaders are not any members of the party. In Malta, the two party leaders are the closest it gets to A-list celebrities. Just over a year ago, Simon Busuttil could hardly leave the house without being mobbed for selfies, autographs and such. People invest trust and, more importantly, emotions in the leader of their party. They do not like to suddenly be told that it was all foolishness on their part.
Was Delia therefore wrong to fire Busuttil? Whatever his reasoning may have been, he was certainly politically insensitive. He was even more misguided, however, when he appointed Busuttil to the shadow cabinet in the first place. It follows from what I’ve just said that former leaders ought to be treated rather like the former wives in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle: with reverence and heaps of praise, but very much in eternal cold storage.
Muscat has an uncanny ability to capture the mood of the nation. He did it again last Sunday around the end of the press conference. The tears were not meant to happen, he told us. Never mind, because the circumstances of Egrant give us every reason to join him.
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