This is a transcript of the Freedom Lecture delivered Monday in honour of Daphne Caruana Galizia by Carlo Bonini:
It is a privilege being here today to honour the memory of Daphne. And I do think that, in days like the ones we are going through, she would agree in remembering tonight the young life of Hevrin Khalaf, the Kurdish activist brutally murdered while travelling on the Turkish-Syrian border. Havrin, who was 35, had the fault of being a woman challenging the lies of a regime and paid the price for this with her own life. She didn’t back off as well as the Kurdish people and the hundreds of Turkish journalists, bloggers, who have been intimidated and detained because they dared to challenge the war propaganda machine of Erdogan’s regime.
“Witches ceased to exist when we stopped burning them,” wrote Voltaire.
That’s not the way things went on Malta. Witches there, if you stop to think about it, had never really ceased to exist. And it had happened again that February night, eight months before Daphne was burned to death in Bidnija. It had happened at Fort St. Angelo, at the far end of the point on which the city of Vittoriosa is perched, across the water from Valletta. Along the ramparts of the sixteenth-century fortress entrusted in perpetual concession to the Order of the Knights of St. John. A quadrilateral of towers with very basic shapes, built on the ruins of a Phoenician place of worship and consecrated to the apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked here in the year A.D. 60 while he was being transported by sea to imperial Rome to await trial.
It happened in the Grand Farce, known in Maltese as “Il-Qarċilla,” “Arcilla,” the Carnival of Malta, which was set in the fort for that one night. That’s right, the Arcilla, the cavalcade of satire and mockery, in oration and costume, which since 1760 has faithfully told the people of Malta things they already know, or at least believe, but which they struggle or are ashamed to say out loud. A self-awareness declaimed in the tones and forms of the grotesque on the stage of a theatre, a tradition forgotten for decades but revived in 2014, staged in accordance with a pagan liturgy, rigidly and invariably cleaving to a single tradition, in which a man dressed as a notary reads aloud a marriage contract in the presence of a young engaged couple, reeling out rhymed verses intentionally stuffed with heavy-handed allusions to sexual topics.
That night, the script called for a budding engagement between the female transposition of the bride-to-be in the person of Ann Fenech, president of the executive council of the Nationalist Party, and the male counterpart of the would-be groom as Konrad Mizzi, Labour cabinet minister. And to serve as the ceremonious backdrop to the young couple was a giant blowup of the immense natural gas tanker, or LNG carrier, then anchored in the bay of Marsaxlokk, a symbol of the pact of steel between the Labour government and the Azeri regime of the Aliyev clan, a wedding in the name of natural gas, to the tune of the national anthem of Panama, an offshore tax haven for the shell companies of the cabinet ministers of the Labour government. But, first and foremost, that night the script called for a surprise guest, a character in that farcical wedding, none other than Daphne herself.
The skit put before the mocking view of the audience a figure purporting to be her, dressed in a multicolored Carioca costume that was meant to portray an overabundant obesity. With an outsized ostrich plume at the centre of her forehead, to render her face even more grotesque, upon which a hooked papier-mâché nose made it clear to one and all just what that mask was meant to depict: “Daphne the Witch.”
Paul had grown up hearing people call his mother that name. And he knew the deep roots of the silent psychological lynch-mob instinct.
“I think one of the longest running ones was The Witch […] one of the oldest misogynistic insults, and it is something our mother was subjected to since she started writing at twenty-two or whatever. And it was a permanent, permanent thing she had to deal with. It was relentless. They persist with it even now. There were others, but I think most of them, if not all of them, were really again misogynistic, they were more about expressing disgust and contempt for a woman who had the audacity to write and speak out, particularly about men, almost invariably about men; and they were really ugly, they were really aggressive. And to think that all this energy and anger and hatred was directed at the end of the day against a journalist is frightening, and it is easy to forget that this just shouldn’t happen, you know. A journalist is doing their job when they criticise politicians, a journalist is doing their job when they reveal something about a politician’s private life that has a real and direct effect on their public duty. It is in no way a government official’s or politician’s job to criticise a journalist or sue them or attack them openly. It is just unacceptable. […]. It would be incorrect to say she was never afraid. Towards the end of her life, she, she told me that—she said, they are trying to fry me alive. She knew that she was facing this sustained attack on her on all fronts, on her financial independence, on her mental well-being, on her friends, on her colleagues, on her family as well.”
In an incessant form of water torture, that poison had dug its way into Daphne’s life, polluting it. And it wound up changing her habits. Andrew remembered that very clearly.
“I mean, as children we were insulated from it. We… we grew up with it, I mean, for us it was completely normal and we took it in stride, it didn’t really affect us. It meant that we had to be careful about our own behaviour because it would be used against our mother. That was something implicit, that was always there, so we always had to act extremely correctly in everything we did, otherwise this would give, again, the leading party ammunition to use against our mother, and they weren’t shy to use it. But it became… it became… the levels became toxic towards the end of [her] life, in the last few years where it began to affect her health, it began to affect her lifestyle. She stopped going out, she stopped meeting friends in public. When I used to meet her in Valetta for example, people used to stare at us, scowl at her, and that began to affect her. She was also harassed physically by people, and that became something that she couldn’t ignore. It wasn’t, you know, online, it wasn’t […] cyber bullying; this was physical, it was affecting her daily life. But she rarely used to complain about it.”
They knew exactly how much Daphne hated having her picture taken. And precisely for that reason they had started tormenting her by posting stolen images of her online. On the street, in shops, in restaurants. Glenn Bedingfield, adviser to the prime minister, Joseph Muscat, as well as a former member of the European parliament and a member of the National Executive of the Maltese Labour Party, had publicly called on islanders to take photographs of Daphne wherever they chanced to cross paths with her. And Bedingfield had posted hundreds of those photographs on his blog, setting them up as targets for all manner of mockery and ridicule.
Distinguished by that misogynistic and psychologically cruel trait that marked an ongoing assault that had been dragging out for thirty years now—and that had also been marked by moments of physical violence, such as the one in 1995, when a mob egged on by a local politician had tried to lynch her, and in 2006, when someone had cut her dog’s throat in the night and set fire to the front door of her house—as she had written again on her blog, on June 20, 2017, in a diatribe against a sexist headline published that day by the liberal newspaper, Malta Today:
“The use of the word ‘scorned’ here shows an embedded, internalised misogyny that is probably going to be impossible to eradicate on this southern Mediterranean isolated culture where women we don’t like are witches and women who don’t get in line and keep their place are crazy. Note the way this embedded misogyny has even conditioned Maltese women politicians, almost all of whom seem unable to leave the house without a ton of make-up, carefully crafted hairstyles, curated outfits and then are extremely careful to smile and be non-threatening when they speak, even in parliament. And that’s on both sides of the house. Not one of the men in parliament behaves like this, nor the male politicians outside parliament. They don’t feel they have to. […] In the 17th century, misogyny was the normal state of affairs. Women were still burned at the stake as witches or hanged for adultery. They had no rights and all the ills of society were visited on them. If there was a plague, then a woman must have started it. It is completely obscene that in 2017, a Maltese newspaper that considers itself to take a liberal editorial line would be using 17th-century misogyny in a headline. […]. It is time serious note is taken of the deeply embedded misogyny with which Maltese women must contend, to the point where it has conditioned our behaviour.”
Mikela Fenech Pace, granddaughter of the former president Ċensu Tabone, one of the men who shaped Malta’s political history, first met Daphne at university. They were only a few years apart in age, but their lives made the age difference into something more like a generational gap. When they first met, Mikela was a young student in the department of English language and literature. Daphne was already a mother of three boys and was taking courses in anthropology, eking out a little time for herself from the demands of work and family. And embedded in the profound sense of friendship that had sprung up between these two women and that would remain a lasting bond between them until the afternoon of October 16th, there was the substance of the intolerable challenge that Daphne had constituted for Malta, its people, and its culture.
“Daphne was a woman. First and foremost a woman. Who grew up with her sisters in a family of mostly women, and if you fail to keep that front of mind, everything that happened and that happened to her would run the risk of proving incomprehensible.”
Daphne and Mikela shared a basically Calvinist education. Both of them had been raised in families that, for differing reasons, nurtured the cult of “responsibility” in the public sphere and, to an even greater extent, in the private sphere, because one was thought to be a reflection of the other. A shocking deviation from the larger framework of the amoral familism that has long permeated Maltese culture and still does. A subversion of the natural order of things, in accordance with which the scope of the collective welfare and the interests of the state are inevitably destined to succumb, or in any case, place itself in a “subordinate” condition with respect to the central role played by the family, its blood ties, and its material interests. To the point of annihilating the very concept of any separation of public and private interests, in an unnatural juxtaposition that makes concepts such as conflict of interest or transparency the idle conceits of intellectuals.
Andrew and his brothers had learned the degree to which Daphne’s family legacy weighed upon her as they grew up on the tracks of an educational model that wasn’t really much different.
“She never micro-managed us, like many mothers do, she didn’t really interfere in details of our lives, she set clear lines. We knew where those lines were and we knew that we could never step past these lines, so we had a very liberal childhood growing up where our mother wasn’t really trying to manage our upbringing or our careers, and that was extremely effective. And it also meant that us children growing up, we were able to almost… we were able to take decisions for ourselves, and that meant that our mother was always free to dedicate her time, instead of interfering, to doing the work she did. Most people who know her would say that she was calm and in many ways an introvert. She wasn’t… she didn’t really fit in to this Malta stereotype of a sort of obnoxious personality. She was an observer, and it was almost like she looked at Malta society from the outside. So, this gave her a very critical eye, and it also meant that she wasn’t sucked into a lot of these compromise situations that Maltese people get themselves into. We were brought up in that way, to always hold strongly to what we thought was right and not get sucked into thinking things aren’t so bad or things are acceptable, which in many ways people start doing to simply exist in Malta because it is such a small society and everyone is in contact with each other all the time. We learn how to compartmentalise people’s behaviour, so you say someone may have been involved in some corrupt activity, but you know, they are nice guys otherwise. So that was for our mother—and something she passed on to us—a position you [should not] take and you should [not] be proud of. […] I think her strength came […] from her parents, this lack of attachment to material things, so certain values were always more important than say avoiding pain, avoiding conflict, avoiding difficulty, avoiding even financial problems. So, these values were always given priority above those, and that meant that for her, the choice was very clear: stick to my values or not. For her it was easy. She wasn’t confused by the destructions that affect many people. She had contempt for people who didn’t share those values, she had this contempt for ministers or even business men who prioritised material wealth or worldly power, and that contempt came out in a way that didn’t fear them. She didn’t fear them because she knew that her values made her stronger than them.”
In the challenge that Daphne constituted for her island, as much as and even more than to the powers that ruled it, there was in a certain sense a tetragonal dimension that required her to choose which side she was on. And who she was allied with. A radical approach where what was at stake, according to Mikela Fenech, presented no room for ambiguity. No room for cunning corner-cutting or intellectual opportunism.
“Daphne had cut to the heart of Malta, she had grasped and floodlit its original sin. The island’s familism, its omertà, its refusal to live up to the principle of reality, its misogyny, unmistakable even down to the syntax of its language, Maltese, which offers a very unpleasant declension of an epithet if it’s directed against a person of the female gender. And she had been able to do so precisely because of the fact that she was a woman and that she lived in that condition but had not resigned herself to it. From that point of view, the day-to-day narrative that she offered of the country, based often on little personal stories, made her intolerable to most people. It was like having someone tapping you constantly on the shoulder. Reminding you or forcing you to think about who you are, or who you’ve become. Daphne was the overabundant mouthpiece of a public conscience that Malta has lost. But perhaps we should really say, a public conscience that Malta has bartered for its attainment of a level of material welfare that was unkown to the generations that came before us.”
In that epithet—“The Witch”—then, we can glimpse the fury of those who were trying hard not to see. The unmistakable symptom of a state of denial. Which mistook the ferocity of the scrutiny to which Daphne subjected those in power for a malevolent propensity to intrude recklessly in the lives of others.
“It’s true. She was capable of stopping at nothing. And in all likelihood, on more than one occasion, she had also ruined the lives of certain people she’d written about. But the people Daphne wrote about, to whom she accorded her verification of their ‘responsibilities,’ never were and never would be people devoid of a position or function that gave them power.”
As if in a stark and final proof of self-consistency, on June 5, 2017, four months before her murder, Daphne had given the readers of “Running Commentary” a sample of her inner torment and, to a certain extent, a perception of the emptiness of the challenge she faced. Two days earlier, on June 3rd, Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party had made a clean sweep in the political elections against the Nationalist Party, with a lead of almost twelve percentage points (55.04 to 43.68), the biggest majority ever recorded in the island’s political history.
“I wouldn’t ordinarily put up a post explaining my absence when I’m going to be away from this site, or on it only intermittently, for any length of time. But in the present circumstances, I believe I should—particularly because I have received many messages by phone, WhatsApp and email. No, I haven’t gone anywhere (though a holiday would be nice). I’m actually working to a deadline on something that has been delayed rather longer than it should have been, because of all the distracting action in the last couple of weeks. So as soon as that’s done, which will take a couple of days, I’ll be back.
“I know—you don’t have to tell me; it’s the reason I do it—that this website has over the last four years become a gathering-post or rallying-point for decent people who feel frightened and threatened at the rise, growth and spread of amorality (not by any means the same thing as immorality). I know why you come here, because lots of you tell me—but I knew it instinctively, even before you did.
“You come here to feel normal in a sea of insanity where the crowd cheers the Commissioner of Police for failing to take action against a corrupt cabinet minister and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff; where supporters of the party in power celebrate and have their picture taken on the steps of a bank which launders money for Azerbaijan’s ruling elite, because it is linked to the politicians they support; where even educated people who have had all the advantages in life vote a corrupt political party into power for the narrow reason that they’re renting out flats to buyers of Maltese citizenship who never set foot in them.
“The electoral result shocked you (not me, for reasons that I will explain in another post on another day when I have more time) not because you see general elections as football matches in which the prize is unadulterated power for five years for ‘your’ team, but because it makes you feel like the only sane person in the asylum. Now you’re hunting around for other sane people, temporarily blinded to the fact that 45 percent of the population made the same choice that you did, though 55 percent did not.
“You want reassurance that it is not you who is in the wrong because you think people who do serious wrong should not be in government. No, you are not wrong because you think the police should act. No, you are not wrong to feel sick when the mob cheers a corrupt police officer. Of course you are not. You are right. Four years ago, I wrote a piece calling out the incoming Nationalist Party leader for beginning a speech with ‘30,000 people can’t be wrong’. Of course they can be, I wrote. A million people can be wrong. The rightness or wrongness of a fact, action or opinion is not established by the number of people who believe it, do it or hold it.
“Of course it is wrong to vote for corruption. Of course it is wrong to vote so as to put corrupt politicians into power. It is very wrong. And to do it for your own personal benefit, rather than simply to ‘back your team’ (which is bad enough), is worse than wrong. Winning and losing are not factors in deciding what is right and what is wrong. Winning and losing are about the power to prevent wrongdoing or the power to perpetrate it.
“You would be surprised that the forces of darkness and corruption think themselves the decent ones, despite their necessarily intimate knowledge of what they themselves do. This self-delusion is a coping mechanism, nothing fancier than that. And part of that coping mechanism is using the media machines and other means at their disposal to go after their critics by portraying them as bad and evil, enemies of the people, who wish to harm the heroes of public largesse.
“Why doesn’t it get you down, somebody asked me the other day. How can you cope with an entire Labour Party machine going at you day and night, assaulting you from all angles? How do you deal with it?
“My answer was what it always is: that the Labour Party, in all its different shapes and forms and under its different leaders, has hounded me irascibly since I was in my 20s. Yes, for a quarter of a century. The extent of it only became visible to the public with the internet. But it was there beforehand.
“I can cope not only because I had the good example of my parents to follow, who had to contend with so much that was terrible in the years 1971 to 1987, and who always did so with dignity, correctly and without moral compromise, but also because I read widely and know that this is a standard, textbook fascist method that powerful people use for the public destruction of their critics, particularly when their critics stand alone.
“Others have been there before me, in situations which require far more bravery and moral courage than has been required of me over the years in Malta. Others are there still, in horrendous situations as they are in Baku, Azerbaijan. What I am put through by the plots, conspiracies and machinations of Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri, Glenn Bedingfield, Kurt Farrugia, their television station and radio, their internet trolls and the rest of them, is as nothing compared to the hellish nightmare that those brave people must endure in their far more dangerous battles.
“The fight against corruption and the decimation of the rule of law must continue. The temptation now will be for people to see no way out of this horrible mess and to leap on the bandwagon with the cry that if you can’t beat them, then you might as well join them. It happened four years ago and has been happening systematically all along, which is why Muscat’s party got the result it did (but more about this, again, when there is time).
“The temptation, too, will be to round on the Nationalist Party and blame it for failing to deliver a victory that was well nigh impossible in the prevailing circumstances. Instead of holding the government to scrutiny as it ploughs on, railroading our already fragile democracy and collapsing institutions, we shall occupy ourselves ripping to shreds the party that was our only hope of deliverance.
“And in doing so, we shall miss the point as we generally do: that it is people who vote for political parties, and not political parties which put themselves into power. Would Muscat’s party have been returned to power in any other European Union member state outside Italy? That is the question we have got to address. And even in Italy, corrupt politicians resign, are subjected to due process, or have coins thrown at them by angry crowds.
“The problem that has to be addressed is the widespread and ever-increasing amorality among a sizeable percentage of the Maltese population of Malta (not all of Malta’s population is Maltese; tens of thousands are not). It spans the entire socio-economic spectrum and has nothing at all to do with social class, privilege or the lack of it. Thirty, forty years ago, this amorality could have been excused on the grounds of illiteracy and ignorance, of Malta’s isolation from the world in a tightly controlled and insular environment.
“Now, there is no such excuse and we have to face the brutal fact of what we are, and examine how it has come about and whether there are any solutions. I happen to think, right now, that there are probably none, because amoral familism, the root cause of it, is the result of centuries of social programming. But it may be possible.
“One thing is certain: you are not going to change amoral familism by pandering to it, or by making its practitioners believe they are right. That simply perpetuates the situation, and the Nationalist Party has been guilty of this too, because the mentality is endemic.
“Nobody can seek to understand Maltese politics or Maltese society without first understanding amoral familism, which shapes and drives both—and which, it has to be said, has ruined both too.
“Malta is in a dangerous place, and now we can no longer say that it is corrupt politicians who have brought it to this point, for it can no longer be denied that those corrupt politicians are a reflection of society.
“There is something else I should say before I go: when people taunt you or criticise you for being “negative” or for failing to go with their flow, for not adopting an attitude of benign tolerance to their excesses, bear in mind always that they, and not you, are the ones who are in the wrong.”
In the brutal sincerity of the invective, in the resignation with which she takes into account the existence of an anthropological taboo—anthropological, and therefore pre-political—in the society and on the island of which she was a legitimate daughter, Daphne showed that she had stepped over her own shadow line. As if her perception of the abyss into which her country had plunged must necessarily and inevitably lead to the utter abandonment of any lingering details of fair play. Be that at the cost of a definitive process of isolation and even self-induced ostracism. A psychological condition that, according to Andrew’s memories, had foreshadowed her death by several months, and had taken on a certain aspect of a point of no return.
“Before she was killed, […] she had become convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that she was up against a web. She was fighting a web, and that’s why it was so difficult for her to affect any change because you can’t fight a web, you need help, you need people to help you pull it apart, you need people from outside to get you out of the web. And this web was extremely, extremely entrenched in Maltese society, across business, liberal professionals, across all our institutions. How do you fight that? And before she was killed, I think it had dawned on her more than ever before in her life what she was up against. In the last words our mother wrote on her blog, she said, ‘There are crooks everywhere you look now, the situation is desperate.’ She had realized that no one was safe. There were no pockets of integrity in Maltese society.”
On October 6, 2017, ten days before her death, Daphne had once again sat down to tell the story of the price and the reasons for her solitude to Marilyn Clark, a professor and researcher at the University of Malta who had been assigned by the Council of Europe to study threatened journalists in the countries of the European Union. Daphne had sat down in front of a tape recorder for an hour and a half and had put together a messy, stream of consciousness account, uninhibited by any filters, that she certainly never imagined would constitute her last testament.
“I feel it’s a very primitive situation […], and this is where the primitivity of Malta really comes out, I don’t feel I’m living in a European country. You know, I used to have these arguments with people where they used to tell me, ‘But the Labour party is so much more liberal than the Nationalist party. You know, gay rights and divorce and whatever.’ And I used to tell them, ‘The true test of how liberal a society is, or a person is, is not divorce and gay rights, it’s their attitude, toleration of other people’s opinions… You know? They have divorce in Russia. It doesn’t make it a liberal society, you know? And what’s the point, I mean what does it tell you if Malta has gay rights and gay marriage but then tries to literally decimate anybody with a different political opinion, you know?’”
In that adjective—primitive—we find once again her rebellion against gender discrimination, or in any case, against a sexist trait of the setting, which to Daphne constituted an intolerable condition of life there. An aspect that Marilyn Clark had encouraged her to speak about.
“That’s why I said it brings to bear a lot of the primitive factors of Maltese society. So, I don’t know, I’m quite sure women journalists are more harassed in more advanced European societies than in ours too. But, in Malta it extends, the form of harassment is really, really primitive. It’s always what you look like, how fat you are, how overweight you are and whatever, and I remember that one of the very first columns I had written, I’m talking about the early nineties. I said, ‘I really can’t accept the way a man can go into battle with dandruff on his shoulders, shabby suit, ugly hair and whatever and nobody even mentions the fact that he looks like an unmade bed or he’s really ugly or really messy, and why doesn’t he wash his hair? Nobody! Because a man has a right to look like he’s been dragged through a hedge backwards.’ Because men are meant to look like that but then if a woman is going to be less than perfect, she’s going to get trashed. And look at the efforts being made by the women in public life in Malta. I mean, look at them! I look at them and I think, ‘Why do you feel, you have to fall out of bed in the morning at 6 a.m. and put on two inches of makeup on your face. Look at the men around you. Some of them haven’t even washed their face.’”
The adjective “primitive” summoned another: “medieval.”
“It’s medieval. Look at what they call me most, a witch. I mean, when were women called witches? Pre-the age of enlightenment, you know? That’s all—woman, witch, you know? And very openly. Witch! You know? Literally, witch! I mean, […] if I were a man, would they call me a witch? No! And then, ‘Għax dik is-saħħara għandha l-power.’ And then you get someone passing a sarcastic comment on the internet saying, ‘What are we in medieval times, with the witch casting spells on people?’ Mamma mia! Terrible!”
Clark had interrupted her.
“Generally, how would you say the climate is in terms of freedom of expression in Malta?”
“I think it’s actually pretty bad. We seem to have very good freedom of expression. And in fact, when there are studies, you know, these routine tick-the-box-studies, how many newspapers, how many… It looks like, wow, we have a real free society. In reality, we don’t because people are all the time auto-censoring, constantly.”
“Journalists themselves are self-censoring?”
“Even, yes. Journalists and not just journalists, anybody who is required to speak openly.”
“Okay. So, people are afraid. So, the climate is one, I think, one of fear?”
“It’s a climate of fear. People are afraid of consequences. For example, even when people send me information, [they say,] ‘Don’t quote me.’ And, sometimes I feel like laughing. I say, ‘Don’t quote me?’ [They say,] ‘Keep me anonymous.’ I say, ‘Keep you anonymous? All you’ve done is sent me a photo from Facebook, I mean, keep you anonymous? It’s not like you’re giving me a state secret.’ It’s become very, very difficult. If you’re writing an article talking about the banking sector and there are serious problems there, your article will be so much more powerful and more convincing if you could quote Mr. X, chairman of X bank, not ‘sources in the banking industry’ and you know it’s the chairman, but he doesn’t want to be quoted. Your readers need to know it’s the chairman, you know? […] I’m speaking for myself personally, but I think this is really important for what you mentioned, […] to teach people what’s normal. Now, luckily, I am hyper-aware of what’s normal because I grew up reading British newspapers, British magazines, so I know what the standard is of what’s normal and what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable […]. So, that changed my forma mentis. I don’t think like other people who would say, ‘Oh my! You wrote that?’ I [would say], ‘Yes, I wrote that. So, what? […] That is a perfectly normal thing to write outside this little rock.’ ‘But you’re living on this little rock.’ I [would say], ‘Yes, it doesn’t mean that this little rock is a special place and we have to be weird and we have to be different. We’re calling ourselves European. We’re a European Union member state, so you can’t say ah, you can write that in England, you can write it in Rome, but you can’t write it in Valletta.’ I [would say], ‘If you can write it in Rome and you can write it in London, you can write it in Valletta.’ And they just don’t get this. So, I think it’s really important to remind people that just because Malta is a rock, seventeen miles by nine, with a weird [situation], it doesn’t mean that the weirdness is either normal or acceptable.”
The micro-insular dimension was undoubtedly a factor. Clark decided to insist on this point.
“Even the fact that it’s so small, people see your face, they know you. So, that’s going to have an impact. Would you say that you’ve ever experienced prejudice on the basis of your gender, or language, religion, class?”
“Well, that’s why I said in the beginning that, I mean, talking about Maltese society, I always say that it’s like living in the play ‘The Crucible.’ I don’t know if you ever watched the play or the film. This witch hunt in seventeenth-century Salem. And you watch it and you think, Madonna, this is like Malta but with different clothes. You know what I mean? It’s like living like that. Okay, they’re not going to hang anyone for adultery but the kind of oppressiveness of the society […], and the narrow-mindedness… It’s exactly the same. And it all comes from growing up, living your whole life, from the cradle to the grave, surrounded by the exact same people. And in fact, it’s quite a unique situation and that’s why it’s like Salem in the seventeenth century, because people stayed in the same village. So, if you were in Britain or in Italy, you would never see your school friends again. You’d move out of town, you might go once every fifteen years for a reunion, and you don’t live in the same town, you know, you move away, you make your own life. Here, you’re forced into constant contact for your whole life which means many things, including the fact that you have to rub along with them. So, any offence you caused when you were twenty years old is still going to be freaking this other person out when you’re both seventy years old, you know? And it’s going to be dogging you and following you, so nobody does anything to upset anybody else.”
“So, it creates a very uncritical environment?”
“Yes, completely uncritical. […] Everybody knows everybody else. Either they’re related or they’ve been to school together or they grew up in the same village. Or they don’t want to be ostracised from the cliques, so they won’t upset one member or whatever. Or they want to go to that party or that wedding. It’s like that Maltese saying, you don’t know who you’ll need—Ma tafx min ikollok bżonn.”
Clark had come to the point.
“So, you don’t want to upset anyone. But you upset people. I’m going to be a little bit hekk. You upset people, and how do you manage to continue living in our society and doing this?”
“Because, well ideally, I wouldn’t have liked to live in our society, let’s start from there. So, it’s not like I made the decision, [like] I wanted to live in Malta. That was because of the times we lived in and I couldn’t leave. And then when I finally could leave, then, it was too late, you know I [had] the children and whatever. So, I took that decision. So, I’m not one of those, ‘Ah Malta is paradise.’ And all of this shit that people talk about constantly. So, I’m starting off from there. And, I’ve always seen, because I never really like it, or I never really felt I fitted in and I always wanted to go off in search of somewhere where I did fit in, I always had this perspective of somebody on the outside looking in, which is what they say the classic thing is in anthropology, the outsider looking in. So, that has helped me a lot in my work and also made me not care because, well I obviously care about what’s happening, but I don’t really, I’m not vested in what people think of me because I’ve said anything, you see? […] But you asked a question earlier about, I don’t know what, about language, class, and all this kind of thing, and I think that a lot of the factors that really, really created an antipathy towards me was the fact that I was a woman and… I wouldn’t stay in my place. And obviously a lot of the people I was criticising, because of the way it was, people with a public life were men, hardly any women. So, you know, what do you mean, a woman criticising a man? And the men react really badly! And even till today, twenty-seven years later, they react viciously! Viciously! Viciously! They react viciously! With hatred and with anger and you know what I say when I get this kind of reaction? Because people [ask] me, ‘What do you think about them?’ I say, ‘He’s an abuser at home.’ ‘How would you know?’ I say, ‘I can tell by their reaction to me.’ […] Look, I could have criticised Lawrence Gonzi till the cows come home, he’d still smile at me and shake my hand the next time we met and ask me, ‘Kif inhuma t-tfal?’ and whatever. I said but when I get a vicious reaction like I get from Chris Cardona, or from Adrian Delia, you know what, my gut clenches and I think, imsieken in-nisa. I say, that is probably the reaction their wives get in the kitchen at home. You know, you can really, really tell.”
Marilyn paused, as if organising her thoughts.
“Okay. Are you okay, just a few more questions…”
“Yes, don’t worry, go ahead. I’m not in a rush.”
“Okay, we’re also interested in seeing, what are the high points and perhaps the low points in journalistic careers? So, for you personally, what would you describe as your high points in your career and then low points?”
“I consider myself lucky to have been able to make a career out of it and a living out of it, well not an amazing living, but I make a living out of it, […] against all the odds. Bearing in mind that when I started there was nothing. I mean, I always enjoyed writing and my intention was to leave Malta to be able to get a job in journalism, either with a newspaper or with a magazine because I was never really into television or broadcast journalism or anything like that. But I don’t know how I managed, and it was a miracle I managed, when I think about it, and probably if I had to start today at this age, I’d be so aware of the pitfalls that I wouldn’t even have done it. So, it was tort tal-injoranza, you know what I mean, I managed to break through. And it was, literally, a situation that was desperate. There were no magazines. The newspapers were these two, really dry, turgid, literally ‘man knocked down by car’ kind of newspaper coverage and I used to read them, I obviously used to read the British papers, and I used to read The Times of Malta and say, how don’t they have any columnists? Or, you know I’d get a lot of news outside, like people talking, you go to a party, and you hear, ‘You hear that? You heard that?’ I’d open the newspaper, and there’d be nothing about it because it wasn’t a fact that they could report, like an incident or whatever. Now news reporting has changed completely. And, I said, okay, I’m going to write a column and I wrote a column […]. And I sent it in—I sent it in to the editor of The Sunday Times of Malta and [thought], okay if he publishes it, I don’t care if I don’t get paid, it was fun doing it. And he rang up and said, ‘Can you do me one every Sunday and I’ll pay you?’ And I […] bought a typewriter, you know what I mean. Typewriter! [laughter]”
It worked for a while. That is, until Daphne realised that there was just one way to avoid comprising with the consensus, with the voice of common sense that, after all, the mainstream press gave voice to: and that was to become her own publisher. That marked the beginning of “Running Commentary,” a blog that, because of certain aspects, convinced many that her journalism was “driven by a personal agenda.”
“So, then obviously, they don’t look at somebody like me and say, what’s the big deal? She’s just writing a newspaper column or she’s just writing a blog. They see me as somebody personally attacking others, you know? And yesterday I had this right in my face, when I wrote about that guy with an illegal zoo, Anton Rea Cutajar, who had his zoo sanctioned yesterday.”
“The one that burnt down?” Clark asked in some amusement.
“No, no. Yesterday, it was another. So many illegal zoos. He’s been operating with impunity for years. The Prime Minister, Chris Cardona, Michelle Muscat [have been]. Totally illegal zoo. And then if you build an illegal pond, jiġu jaqbżu fuqek. You know, lions, tigers. The only thing that he doesn’t have is an elephant. […] And there was the hearing at the Planning Authority to see whether to sanction it or not. They sanctioned it, of course. Anyway, I wrote about it. He rang me because we had spoken before and he had my number, ‘Għalfejn qed tagħmilli hekk?!’ ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ So, they take it personally. But he thought, he saw it like a personal attack. I got up this morning and I said, let me attack Anton Cutajar and his zoo, you know. So, we had this surreal conversation where I’m trying to explain to him that, it’s obviously a news item because he’s been operating this illegal zoo, has lions, tigers, it was all over Facebook, has politicians visiting. And today it’s especially newsworthy because they’re […] deciding on whether to sanction it or not. You know?”
“So, definitely, media literacy is important and general education here on Malta.”
“Okay. I think we’re there basically. I’m just going to ask you, you’ve already told me how old you are?”
“Fifty-three, I’ve already told you.”
“Main journalistic activity, what would we say, I mean investigative?”
“Well, newspaper column and news and commentator and blogger.”
“And main topic reported on?”
“Politics and society.”
“You’re a freelancer, right?”
“Brilliant. Thank you so much.”
Marilyn Clark turned off her tape recorder. Daphne said goodbye.
She had ten days left to live.