Joseph Muscat does not like being forced to make choices. The man was prime minister, for crying out loud. That does things to the portion of your brain which is normally open to compromise. The sort of inebriating power he enjoyed atrophies the average intellectual capacity of normal people who live normal lives unable, as is normal, to control circumstances around them.
Consider how Joseph Muscat conceded a TV interview this weekend. It was on something called Smash TV which you only know about because it languishes in the untouched column of free TV stations your local provider puts there to beef up their range. It lies forlornly between God TV and F-HD, undesired mysteries as far removed from the Netflix series you’re following greedily as stewed bat wings are from your favourite restaurant.
There was a time when Joseph Muscat wouldn’t be seen dead on Smash TV. And no wonder. Joseph Muscat’s buttocks squeezed to fill the crack between the TV station he owned – One – and the station he controlled – TVM. His quirky frown and his tinpot crook’s smirk flooded in full HD glory Malta’s most keenly followed TV stations by many a mile. Armies of apparatchiks were paid, almost exclusively from tax payers’ funds, to anticipate his thoughts and report them with frenetic enthusiasm and the breathless loyalty of orphaned lap dogs.
The decision to go to Smash TV was an implicit admission that he no longer commands the army of public-opinion bending assets he once held. It’s like Vladimir Putin attempting to keep up the invasion of Ukraine using home-converted Soviet-era Ladas. He’s obviously out of tanks.
Joseph Muscat was no doubt aware of this unaccustomed vulnerability, and that’s not just because he’s a veteran tactician. He was aware because foremost on his mind when he took to a few dozen screens was the objective of this interview. It was not to catch up with Emmanuel Cuschieri or to do a favour to an old friend.
Joseph Muscat went on TV to threaten anyone who might be tempted to serve him with the consequences of the crimes he knows he is responsible for.
Let us not sit with the gullible who may be impressed by Muscat’s protestations of innocence. People may have given him the benefit of the doubt when he was still in power and defending himself from accusations of wrongdoing. At the time he may have had the impressive argument that he was being accused of falsehoods by people who were politically motivated to topple him and take political power away from him. It wasn’t true but as excuses go it was plausible.
All he has now, lonely, bereft of any form of power or meaningful influence, pathetically squealing his innocence in an ever shriller, ever thinner tone, is persecution mania. I love the line that his critics and accusers “cannot forgive him for taking power away from them and winning it for the Labour Party”. He may have taken power away from others when he won an election, and then another. But he no longer has it. No one chasing power is chasing Joseph Muscat. It would be like chasing an orphan for their parents. Joseph Muscat doesn’t have what people who want power are looking for.
Of all the insults I have tried to conceive to address in the general direction of Joseph Muscat, this might possibly grate the most. He’s sounding increasingly like that over the hill demented coot John Dalli.
Joseph Muscat’s isolation, however, is not altogether complete. The protestations of innocence are balms of comfort for the last people Joseph Muscat can still hope to galvanize to serve as his human shields. Why does he need his people?
Consider Joseph Muscat’s methods when his back was to the wall.
When Joseph Muscat felt the heat of the Egrant inquiry he sought to cover his bases mostly by issuing threats. He threatened Daphne Caruana Galizia by lynching her as the perpetrator of “the greatest lie in Malta’s political history”. He threatened Maria Efimova by suggesting she spied for Russia. He threatened Simon Busuttil with invective, innuendo, and a vicious campaign of hate.
And then he got Saviour Balzan to invite him for a one-on-one on TVM which, of course, he controlled. On that interview he threatened the magistrate conducting the inquiry, Aaron Bugeja, warning him of unspoken consequences should the inquiry prove inconvenient to Joseph Muscat.
Aaron Bugeja may or may not have been affected by the threat. Joseph Muscat meant it to.
What binds these threats together is their underlying nature. They are all threats of the populist knocking on the gates of institutions and seeking to crush them by the sheer force of the popular support they enjoy. It’s a tale as old as Pisistratus of Athens and all tyrants who followed him who sought to overpower the public interest served by the state with the interest their misguided public supporters perceived as theirs.
When Joseph Muscat branded Daphne a liar and Maria Efimova a spy and Simon Busuttil a power-hungry leviathan he unleashed the wrath of his supporters on them. He didn’t baldly say these evil figureheads sought to supplant him and take power from him. He couched that thought in the charge that Daphne and others sought to take away from voters of the Labour Party their right to have their party in government.
It was easy to mobilise the anger of Labour supporters then. Like lambs to the slaughter, they cheerfully followed wherever One TV and TVM pointed them to. Joseph Muscat was variously described as god-king and any suggestion from anyone that he was not fit for that status was also denying the right of his supporters to follow and worship him.
On Smash TV Joseph Muscat, rather pathetically, sought to repeat the spectacle of browbeating a magistrate from the TV screen. He knows better than anyone that it’s a cold bluff. As much as he can no longer arrange a booking with Saviour Balzan or with any pocket-sized sycophant pretending to be an interviewer on One TV, Joseph Muscat couldn’t command the sort of support he remembers with bitter nostalgia to save his life.
He’s hoping the people he’s threatening do not know that. He’s hoping Repubblika, who have pursued the institutions to investigate him, would overestimate his ability to hurt them. He’s hoping the attorney general is scared of him. He’s hoping that any police inspector who might get an order to arrest him would refuse to do so out of fear that he might send crowds outside their house to lynch their family. He’s hoping the magistrate who conducted the inquiry might change her conclusions to avoid putting him out. He’s hoping that if she doesn’t, some judge takes the case away from her and gives it to someone more accommodating.
Joseph Muscat is hoping to continue to benefit from the edifice of fear and intimidation he erected when he was prime minister. He’s desperate for it to work. So desperate he was prepared to damage the bluff by going on the most ridiculously provincial backwater of a TV station that exists, to be interviewed by the patron saint of Soviet style flunkies, so slavishly bootlicking he is an embarrassment to the boot he licks. That’s Emmanuel Cuschieri if you need me to put a name to a picture.
Joseph Muscat knows that unless he stops the train of events he’s on it will take him right to prison. There’s not much he can do to stop it except to derail it by scaring the train crew with promises of retribution. He’s hoping they don’t pick up just how hollow his threats might be.