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Against the Cardona garnishee. But always in favour of the truth
Journalism’s first obligation is towards the truth. Those who cannot stick by that rule are taking us down the wrong kind of ‘democracy’
8 February 2017, 11:11pm
Solidarity was not forthcoming from the journalists’ lobby. Neither the government – which was partially implicated – nor from the Labour opposition, which was always keen to curry favourable relations with big business anyway. End of story.
So it’s with the same zeal that I can say that Chris Cardona’s decision to garnish his libel action against Daphne Caruana Galizia’s as yet unsubstantiated ‘brothel’ allegation, with a precautionary warrant freezing some €46,000 in potential damages, is simply… unacceptable.
And the reason is clear to see. Whether you think she is a one-woman Wikileaks or a one-woman Breitbart, the precautionary warrant serves to create a chilling effect on what any critical voice writes; and given the unacceptable length of time defamation cases take to be resolved in our courts, it endangers somebody’s livelihood. The result: an unhealthy democracy for all with the powerful employing their resources to bend those who cannot fight back (with money usually…).
The solution is simple. If we believe in protecting journalists, we must also protect them from such stultifying and extreme measures, as well as abolish criminal defamation, and offer a mediational alternative to court action that is more effective and rapid for both plaintiff and journalists.
And to me the Cardona story is important. A minister who potentially enjoys the kind of recreation that opens him to blackmail is not fit to be in politics. Cardona’s poor defence in the court of public opinion, has done him little favour.
I have been a keen observer of the deleterious effects of what poison-pen blogging, toxic commentary, and party propaganda has done to my trade. In my book, allegations such as those concerning Cardona’s choice of R&R, require some form of verification that can at the very least prevent the journalist from publishing something untrue, or that would bring people into disrepute incorrectly.
In short, our trade is all about the truth.
Don’t take it from me. Verification before dissemination: “It means holding off on that hot bit of news to make an extra phone call or bit of checking before sending it out. It’s the core of what we do. Too often we are enticed by the glory promised by dissemination.”
Or better still, here’s journalism’s ‘10 commandments’ from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel: “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth… a practical and functional form of truth,” which involves a professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts – before publication. Net News sought proof from ‘sources’ after dissemination.
Today we know, that even if Cardona was never inside FKK Acapulco, the seductive ‘lie’ will always be better than the truth. Everyone loves a philanderer being caught out. But let’s suspend prejudices for a thought exercise: is Caruana Galizia’s allegation factually robust enough to stand up in a court challenge? Because journalism is there for a purpose, to provide verifiable facts that make such legal action unsuccessful to begin with.
And I take comfort from this time-tested discipline. My currency is trust, and the question my ‘weapon’. To abandon those in favour of a reckless story that “may or may not be true, depending on what type of person you are writing about” (for that’s how Beppe Fenech Adami made his mind up about who was saying the truth) is dangerous for democracy as well.
I wish I could smile wryly here. I witnessed how Caruana Galizia’s gratuitous non-stories and malicious and unverified allegations, brought great anxiety to colleagues, unable to bring themselves to face a day of work; it made private individuals anxious by thrusting them into a public spotlight they neither asked nor yearned for, simply by guilt of association with an intended target; family relatives and children not associated with any act of public policy, were rubbished intentionally as the quickest way of getting at the intended target.
You would think that going to work with some serenity was something you could take for granted. Chilling effect? It doesn’t cost a cent to make people so anxious that they are forced to shut themselves down as the admonishing power of the Internet and social media takes over. It grinds people down and disenfranchises them, because prejudice can be irresistible to the gawping onlookers.
And if that’s what you think the press’s freedom should be used for; if you think that those who lack the stamina, time, and resources to fight long and testing defamation battles in court against unfounded and vexatious allegations, are to be discounted, then I fear we are on the wrong side of democracy.
I want to tell Minister Chris Cardona his action is reprehensible, and that his libel action can speak for itself. As a journalist, I am in full solidarity with Caruana Galizia.
But as a human being? I have little compassion.
Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.
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