Joseph Muscat is facing the inquiry he himself set up to look into the state’s role in the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia. But the man still walks around fully expecting to be the centre of gravity. He sought from the outset to turn the tables on the inquiry, putting the trial on trial as it were.
He read out a prepared statement which was less concerned with what he must have expected the inquiry would be interested in and more about what he said he expected from the inquiry and didn’t get.
His intention was clear: to discredit and delegitimise the process and the judges conducting it; to ensure his audience — not anyone in that room, but the future historians he is speaking to — dismisses any conclusions the inquiry might draw from his testimony unless those conclusions accepts what he says wholesale.
And then he spoke and spoke and spoke and spoke, comfortable when performing to a silent audience as if this was a parliament and he was filibustering. The only moments of visible discomfort came when he was being asked questions by the inquiry. He sucked in his cheeks, furrowed his brow, pouted his lips, flared his nostrils and when his head flushed in red patches he lifted his chin as if to cool himself down.
But Joseph Muscat performed for history today, crafting a way to add another chapter to lift the tone of the dark drama that had ended with his ignoble resignation. At one point he quoted Napoleon and you could see where he was coming from. This was a draft of his long letter from St Helena. When he referred to the book he still intended to publish he gave that game away.
He was not going to let the judges interrupt his sermon on the mount. ‘You’re trying to find out if Daphne had been right,’ he accused the inquiry telling them it was never their job to do that. Though there can hardly be a better way of establishing whether there had been the sort of impunity that led to Daphne’s killing, than ruling out once and for all the slander that Joseph Muscat had screamed from the steps of Castille in June 2017 that Daphne Caruana Galizia was perpetrating the biggest lie in Maltese political history.
That would be the crux of this morning: whether there had been a line of consequence, a chain of events that originated in decisions taken by Joseph Muscat and ended with that car bomb explosion in October 2017; whether there had been a domino effect.
Joseph Muscat absolutely needed to ensure that any inquiry that might reach the conclusion that there had been such a domino effect did not enjoy the respect and credence of the public.
‘You didn’t investigate what happened before 2013,’ he accused the inquiry, implying this proved a partisan bias. That line would support the notion of a domino effect, except that the circumstances that caused Daphne’s death started before he had come to power. But then, ‘you didn’t investigate the conduct of the opposition,’ he charged, resorting for the first in a series of times to the alibi of Adrian Delia. “I never called Daphne a biċċa blogger,” he said, now attacking the notion of a domino effect and suggesting Daphne was killed because of what happened in the last few months of her life when she became “politically irrelevant” as he called her, after distancing herself from the PN.
“Daphne was the Opposition,” he said. He didn’t mean to say that she was an independent journalist that held government to account. He meant it to cast, once again, Daphne as a political rival of his, licensing him and those around him to treat her the way they did.
This was after all how they hung Daphne for the lynching of Labour Party supporters. Without acknowledging the consequences, Joseph Muscat was launching the lynching of Daphne Caruana Galizia all over again, three years after her death.
And then he reminded the inquiry that he was the one to appoint them and the one to draw up their terms of reference. He was thus best placed to judge whether the judges were doing the job they were hired to do. And his judgement was that they weren’t, particularly because they were allowing Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family to determine the agenda of the inquiry. He accused the state attorney’s office of allowing themselves to be intimidated into silence. And he accused the judges of reading from a script written for them by Daphne’s family.
He again cast Daphne as a party, a single side of two, in a dispute with him and his government; suggesting, it seems, that Daphne herself should be cross-examined and scrutinised by an inquiry ostensibly set up to scrutinise the state.
It’s impossible to say whether this has had any impact on the judgement the judges will be making when they draw up their report. They did not indulge Joseph Muscat in a debate after he charged them of a bias that disqualifies them from credibly fulfilling their duties. That’s not surprising. What perhaps was surprising was that it seemed, to me at least, that the judges were subsequently meek, allowing Joseph Muscat to spin a yarn, often irrelevant, often contradictory, often disingenuous without interruption and with little challenge.
Perhaps they felt they didn’t want to confirm the false impression Joseph Muscat wanted to create that the process was unfairly prejudiced against him: interruptions and contradictions and angry exchanges with him would have allowed his fans to think that this was indeed a one-sided trial. Perhaps.
When questions started, the titanic struggle between inquiry board and witness was over cause and effect. Joseph Muscat can no longer defend his decision to retain Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi after the Panama Papers in the way he used to. He can no longer say it was the right thing to do, though of course he isn’t going to start saying he was wrong.
He has developed, in the year he’s had since his resignation to think about it, a new narrative. That since he had, as he says, been falsely accused of involvement with Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi’s wrongdoing, and since, he says, no one knows better than him that the accusations about him had been false, he reasonably, he says, assumed the accusations about Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi were also false.
The argument is puerile. The evidence about his two associates was in the public domain which he was in a position to verify for himself. He had every motivation to do so precisely because he was being accused – falsely, as he claims – of being in with the other two. If he ditched them, no one could really accuse Joseph Muscat (without evidence that had not yet come to light and which if he is being truthful about his innocence never would have) of being their accomplice. It’s the fact that he did not ditch them that fed the impression that he had been involved.
That is the credibility test of his testimony. Because Joseph Muscat today accepted that he should have acted “more strongly” at the time. He said the evidence trickled out and was not all in hand when the Panama Papers broke. That’s true. Even between the time Daphne first broke the story and the ICIJ published the documents, initial impressions or doubts could and should have been clarified. But Joseph Muscat does not acknowledge that he did nothing with the clarified information and the accumulated evidence.
The board presented Joseph Muscat with the idea that retaining Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri could have given “certain people” airs, thinking they enjoyed impunity, and going as far as killing Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Joseph Muscat was prepared for that one as well and once again he applied pressure on the inquiry to abandon this central thesis. He pointed out that if the board sustained the theory that his decisions post-Panama Papers started a domino effect that was followed by the plot to kill Daphne Caruana Galizia to cover up the 17 Black and Electrogas scandal, the board would also by implication be presuming the guilt of Yorgen Fenech.
You could see here which hymn book Yorgen Fenech’s apologists are singing from.
That is why, he said, he never meant for the inquiry to be conducted at such an early stage when Yorgen Fenech was still presumed innocent.
He used the phrase “you must assume your responsibilities” in a way that reminded me of something similar he had said when Aaron Bugeja, then a Magistrate, was starting the Egrant inquiry. It’s a warning. A chilling warning.
The tug of war about whether there had been a domino effect went on through the thick fog of his story telling. If there had been a consequence of the judgement call he had made to retain Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, Joseph Muscat said today, it was on him.
Listen to this: “I am the victim of my own political judgement,” he said. In saying that he refuted that Daphne Caruana Galizia had been a victim of the consequences of his decision to retain Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi. He acknowledged that Keith Schembri could have avoided the Panama affair “from day one”. He described his political factotum as a political infant who did not take appropriate ‘political advice’ on whether it was ok to set himself up in Panama. He blamed Keith Schembri for his resignation.
But Joseph Muscat portrayed himself as the victim of Keith Schembri’s wrongdoing. Not Daphne Caruana Galizia.