The other day I was at dinner sitting next to a very old friend of mine, a woman in her seventies. Our conversation ranged from the friendship of our parents to how Malta had changed in our lifetime. She took the opportunity to tell me frankly that she did not like what I wrote in this column as “I did not attack the government enough”.
There was inevitably an element of nostalgia in our conversation. Modern society is complex and bewildering. Regret for the loss of a more familiar past is a potent theme in politics, but also a natural human response to the rapid changes now happening in Malta.
A new poll for the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation in Germany has found that a large majority of public opinion in European Union countries is nostalgic for earlier eras. Some 67 per cent of respondents believed the world used to be a better place. This instinct, which is especially pronounced among older people, is understandable.
Nostalgia exerts a powerful pull but it underestimates the achievements of modernity. The modern era in Malta – starting with Malta’s accession to the European Union, but accelerated under this government – is one of genuine social and material improvement and, especially, educational advance. There is no reason to be fearful of the future, and many grounds on which to be optimistic about the fate of Malta’s future generations.
Despite some rough edges, I am proud to form a part of it at this time. There has never been a better time for constitutional democracies in the 21st century – specifically in Malta – for sexual equality, personal autonomy, financial well-being, educational and social advances and the dramatic elevation of those who, in my (and this lady’s) childhood, were poor, underprivileged and unentitled.
Our conversation got me thinking about my task as a regular columnist of this newspaper and how best to carry it out. As an independent commentator, it is certainly not my role to please my friends – much as I might wish to do so.
It is my duty to try to give my readers a view that is as widely informative and politically stimulating as possible, even if they don’t agree with it – perhaps especially if they don’t agree with it.
An independent columnist is not in the business of scoring political points. His task is to provide informed and constructive criticism, commentary and opinion. The overriding objective is to influence people’s views and opinions as responsibly as possible. My audience are those with a mind of their own, the ‘switchers’ in today’s polarised Maltese politics.
Naturally, independent columnists have their own politics. In British politics, where I spent all my working life, I am what is known as a ‘One Nation’ Tory, a John Major supporter and, when the Conservatives swung sharply to the right, a ‘Blairite’. Politically, my heart beats on the centre-left.
Readers may disagree with what I say, but unlike real journalists on this newspaper whose focus inevitably stops at the factual accuracy and research for which it is renowned, my currency is on expressing an opinion – my own – based on facts, evidence and research.
I shall persist in writing for my readers with the object of raising public awareness about issues of the day
It explains why over the last few years I have taken such a strong line in condemning the numerous conspiracy theories that have been bandied about and sought always to look for solid evidence before condemning corruption or maladministration.
I disdain with a passion the group-think that afflicts so many committed party political followers of a certain age, and the religious bigots trapped in an unquestioning mind-set that harks back to the old politics of negativity of the 1980s, or the religious intolerance of the 1950s. These people speak only to themselves in their echo-chamber.
They only feel comfortable if their ideas and sense of entitlement are not challenged. Thank goodness, Malta has grown up in the last 30 years.
All my training over the years has been devoted to achieving evidence-based objectivity and suppressing prejudice. As a columnist it is my job to expose how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion (for example on abortion, IVF, same-sex marriage), and the corrosion of language (in hate speech, racism and xenophobia) are diminishing the very value of truth.
The liberating democratisation of information made possible by Twitter and the web not only has spurred breathtaking innovation, it has also led to a cascade of misinformation and relativism. Casting doubt is the product, since it is seen by those who practise it as the best means of competing with and undermining the body of fact that exists in the minds of an intelligent reading public.
A columnist reflects a cast of mind. He is counsel for the prosecution or the defence of an idea, or party, or politician. A columnist adopts a brief, elbows doubt and ambiguity aside, and goes for it with passion and conviction. A columnist embraces a plan or project, hugs a set of principles and does not dwell upon complications, drawbacks or ambiguities.
A columnist is there to use the power of words, as simply and incisively expressed as possible, to make his case. He learns early the usefulness of an easily grasped argument. He understands who the audience are and how to anticipate their responses.
Our labours and minds as columnists incline to the short focus of the week’s deadline: the immediate impression we will make, the sense of command of the argument we can muster and display. We are, of course, a one-man band. You can’t write well by committee. A committee cannot catch from the wind a hunch or an idea. Thrashing things out with other people blunts ideas, killing freshness and individuality.
I shall persist in writing for my readers with the object of raising public awareness about issues of the day, stimulating public debate and informing public opinion as objectively as possible, not simply for sectoral interests, or even to please my friends, within this sadly polarised country.
If an independent columnist is not capable of being constructive and open-minded, if he or she is not committed to seeking solutions that are just – and of course, prepared to have people disagree with him – they have no business trying to shape public opinion.