In the 18th century, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais wrote: “Calumny, Sir. You don’t realise its effectiveness. I’ve seen the best of men pretty near overwhelmed by it. Believe me, there’s no spiteful stupidity, no horror, no absurd story that one can’t get the idle-minded folk of a great city to swallow if one goes the right way about it – and we have some experts here!”

I shall focus on one particular “absurd story”, very cunningly wielded, that has played (or rather, preyed) upon a general ignorance of theatre business.

I refer to the slander case instituted by activist Pia Zammit against the newspaper It-Torċa.

Allo Allo! is a record-breaking comedy derived from a British television series of the same name.

Among the various characters is Michelle ‘Of the Resistance’ Dubois, a French Resistance fighter who will go to great (and hilarious) lengths to get British airmen who have landed in enemy territory back to England, in order to fight again.

Although the text of the play is very funny, the underlying subtext denounces Nazism through ridicule.

Zammit played the part of Dubois 11 years ago, in 2009. A  photo shows that the costume she wore comprised a trenchcoat with buttons that showed a Nazi swastika. Her various costumes for the part were all worn either in front of an audience or behind the scenes while waiting to appear on stage again.

She never left the theatre wearing any of them.

She never wore them in the street or in other public – or private – places.

The costume, like all theatre costumes, formed an integral part of the performance and that is what it was limited to.

Allo Allo! being a comedy, actors were supposed to make people laugh – and this they did very well. While backstage, a photo was taken of Zammit wearing the costume and holding up the buttons, smiling broadly at the camera.

Theatre people would say that the actress kept up the part even backstage – maintaining the flippant irony of the comedy.

The photo was uploaded on Facebook in 2009 – not by the actress herself – and languished there for over 10 years until someone decided to revive it as a hate post.

Seen in this context, one may conclude that there was nothing controversial about the costume… unless one wanted to insinuate something about the wearer. This is where the sly part comes in.

The photo was uploaded on Facebook in 2009 – not by the actress herself – and languished there for over 10 years until someone decided to revive it as a hate post

Following the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Zammit became an activist denouncing political corruption.

A newspaper that opposed her views took the editorial decision to print a photo that was received on WhatsApp, certainly not doing the rounds with the best of intentions.

The photo was exploited in a clever and cunning way. It was pasted on the newspaper’s front page and a seemingly innocent message stated: “A controversial picture. Pia Zammit explains”.

To anyone familiar with the actress, one glance at the photo, and one look at Pia today, would immediately reveal that the photo was taken some years ago; but not all readers of It-Torċa know Zammit, consequently, they might be led to think this was a recent photo.

The article’s title begs the question: why would an actress have to explain today a photo of a part she played over 11 years before and not at the time it was staged?

In 2009, the newspaper published a criticism of the play, so the photo and the title would have been relevant then but what is their relevance now?

Nowhere in the title is it stated that this is a theatre costume worn during a successful performance. But if that photo is taken out of its theatre context, it obviously becomes “controversial”.

The newspaper was spotlighting an anti-corruption activist and the cleverest way to elicit harsh criticism of her was to show her as tainted – not by grabbing bags of money, as others have done, because most actors cannot boast of financial fortunes – but through the association of the actress with a despicable ideology.

Was the actress or the newspaper being insensitive? Was there not any insinuation behind this clever move?

The newspaper was certainly using its medium very effectively. So effectively, in fact, that it provoked an anonymous “educator” to attack Zammit as upholding an evil ideology – a ‘fair comment’ and a very ‘honest opinion’ if the context is limited to a photo that is not imme­diately shown as belonging to the context of the theatre in general and a funny play in particular.

A blow below the belt to any activist who is not afraid to voice political criticism

However, when considered in its rightful setting, there is nothing fair about the position of the picture and the falsely ‘democratic’ way the actress’s opinion is elicited, completely out of context.

The judgment passed on the case is a blow to the theatre and its world of make-believe, irony and satire. It makes our actors very vulnerable to unfair criticism and attack by extrapolating how they appear or what they do from the theatre context.

It is a blow below the belt to any activist who is not afraid to voice political criticism publicly because it allows an astute editor to use any devious means to discredit the person by using seemingly innocent elements, such as a photo and a title, to generate doubts in people’s minds.

However, given the public outcry that was raised following the judgment, not everyone is taken in by this kind of calumnious trick. The serious harm done by this newspaper with regard to potential contracts lost by a freelance worker is still to be calculated.

Vicki Ann Cremona is an academic and former president of Repubblika.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us