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Raphael Vassallo

Publish and be damned, sue and be damned... either way, you’re damned

Removing the garnishee order – even in its totality – will not even begin to address the Pandora’s Box that Chris Cardona's case has flung wide open

Raphael Vassallo
14 February 2017, 7:37am
I think we can all safely agree that Chris Cardona is within his rights to at least sue for libel, so the bone of contention is clearly the garnishee order, not the libel suit
I think we can all safely agree that Chris Cardona is within his rights to at least sue for libel, so the bone of contention is clearly the garnishee order, not the libel suit
It occurred to me long ago that when people use the expression ‘I believe’, they don’t always necessarily have the same definition in mind. 

Take arguments about the existence of God, for instance. Not to actually start one here... can’t offhand think of anything more pointless than that, to be honest – but I have often noticed a tendency to argue along the lines that: ‘God HAS to exist, otherwise life would be meaningless’.

Without re-booting the actual argument, I feel that the viewpoint alone tells us something about the nature of belief. When I say ‘I believe in [something]’, it is short for: ‘on the basis of the available evidence, I have come to the conclusion that [something] is true’. Other people, on the other hand, use to mean simply: ‘I WANT [something] to be true’. Sometimes, they never get past that single, solitary point of departure.

Naturally, the same pattern applies as much to politics as religion (hardly surprising, seeing as people here have a doctrinal devotion to the political parties they support).  At present, for instance, a giant chunk of this country seems predisposed to simply ‘believe’ an allegation that was published without a jot of evidence to support it. Yes, I refer to the allegation that Chris Cardona was spotted in a German brothel last week, and identified by his Che Guevara tattoo. 

OK, I’ll admit that the initial impact made a pleasant change from the usual scandals... if nothing else, it gave birth to some priceless jokes and memes. But there is something frighteningly sinister about the way this entirely unsubstantiated bit of gossip suddenly became Gospel Truth to an army of religiously-inspired devotees. I lost count of arguments along the lines of: ‘well, that’s the sort of thing he would do anyway’, or, even more bizarrely: ‘I don’t think Daphne would be crazy enough to concoct something like that for no reason...’

Inherent in every variation of that motif is a subliminal desire for the allegation to be true: because it fits in neatly with the believer’s own political prejudice... because there is a part of human nature which exults in the smuttiest revelations about people we don’t like... or simply because they can’t be arsed to actually look at the ‘evidence’ and draw their own conclusions (note: in this instance there isn’t very much to look at... at least, not at the timing of writing.)

Not an iota of that makes the allegations even the tiniest bit truer. It is exactly the same as believing in God simply because it helps you make sense of the incomprehensible. It tells us nothing about ‘the truth’... but quite a lot about the psychology of the believer.

Of course, none of it disproves the allegations, either. There is a converse to my own definition of ‘belief’. When I say ‘I do not believe’... it does not mean that ‘I exclude the possibility under any or all circumstances’. It just means: ‘I have gone over the available evidence, and find that it does not add up to convincing proof that [something] is true’. 

It is in this sense that I ‘do not believe’ Daphne Caruana Galizia’s allegations about Chris Cardona. For all I know, they might be true (which, by the way, can also be said about absolutely any possibility you care to think of)... but they have not as yet been proven – far from it – and much more damningly, they lack even the barest of minimal due diligence to be warranted for publication in the first place.

I could almost stop there, because the first basic rule of journalism has already been violated. A single source is not enough to go ahead with a decision to publish in a case like this. It has to be independently corroborated by at least one other source. Even then, the decision to publish is circumscribed by discretionary considerations. If the allegations are highly libellous – as they certainly were in this case – the journalist may decide to withhold publication until a stronger preventive case can be built up. Or to go ahead and publish, but stress that it is as yet an ‘unconfirmed report’. 

These are among the very basic ingredients that go into anything that can call itself ‘journalism’. Take them away, and what are you left with? Just idle, unreliable village gossip, that’s all.

Yet look how many people proved perfectly willing to dispense with such basic principles, in their eagerness to ‘believe’ something that matches their own preconceived notions. To tell you the truth, I find it almost terrifying.

It is this sort of blind faith that can, in fact, seriously threaten the foundations of democracy in any country. It is the same global tendency that provides such fertile ground for ‘fake news’: more so in this case, because both the decision to publish and the (equally flawed) decision to ‘believe’ are clearly motivated only by political prejudice.  

This automatically makes the allegations harder, not easier, to believe (at least, by my definition of the word). Daphne has time and again demonstrated that she will stop at nothing to hit out at anything remotely connected with Labour in any conceivable way. In her zeal to do so, she has often got things wrong. The most laughable of these mishaps was when she mistook one ‘Lara Boffa’ for another who happened to be a teenage fashion blogger. 

It may seem a silly example, but it isn’t. A simple phone-call would have determined the truth immediately. Was even this most entry-level of verification procedures carried out before publication? Heck no! If something can be used as ammunition, it WILL be used as ammunition. Whether it’s true or not is clearly something to be established later, if at all...

This brings me to the more recent twist in the saga: i.e. the fact that Chris Cardona has frozen Daphne Caruana Galizia’s banks account by slapping a 43,000 euro garnishee order, along with a criminal libel suit. Now: I think we can all safely agree that Cardona is within his rights to at least sue for libel (though we may argue over the choice between civil and criminal jurisdictions). So the bone of contention is clearly the garnishee order, not the libel suit.

I shall have to admit that this scenario presents an extreme dilemma for me. I cannot support an initiative which is wrong on so many fronts (I’ll explain why in a sec)... but at the same time I cannot – will not – defend Daphne’s or anyone else’s self-appointed ‘right’ to simply publish the first unsubstantiated rumour to reach their ears, without doing a jot of journalistic work to verify it. To be honest, it is preposterous to expect any journalist to do so... still less for the entire body of Maltese journalism to be ‘called to arms’ in what is ultimately a private and ultra-personal battle against the Labour government, declared by someone with glaring vested interests.

Not to mention the implications for journalism itself. To defend that blog-entry is subliminally also to justify the future publication of any number of equally unsubstantiated allegations about anyone at all. Who knows? It could be you. Who’s to say some private enemy of yours won’t one day pass on a baseless accusation that you are a child-molester or serial rapist, and that some eager-beaver ‘journalist’ won’t just print that claim as ‘fact’, in a blog ‘believed’ by thousands of devotees? What will protect your reputation then?

No, sorry, but that is not a road I want to see Maltese journalism go down. It is, of course, too late to stop it now. My gut feeling tells me many will soon rue the day when they thought this sort of thing was actually worth defending.

But of course, there is a converse to this too. I can fully understand Cardona’s desire to hit out with everything the law places at his disposal. Legally speaking, he has a right to do so. BUT (and it’s a very big BUT that a lot of people here seem just don’t seem to ever get)... a purely legal right does not automatically extend to an ethical justification for any given action.

In the case of the garnishee order, it can be interpreted the clean other way round. Cardona has a right to use it, but to do so would be a clear-cut case of abuse of power. Shakespeare puts it better than I can, in (appropriately enough) ‘Measure for Measure’: ‘It is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant’.

What makes it ‘tyrannous’ is partly that a garnishee order, in this scenario, violates the principle of innocence until proven guilty. The trial has not yet begun, still less reached a guilty verdict. Regardless what you make of the defendant’s case, to ‘punish’ someone who has yet to be judged can only be described as a perversion of the natural course of justice. (Note: This is doubly true when you also consider that the purpose of a garnishee order is not that at all: it is mostly to prevent assets from being liquidated before they can be used to settle existing debts – emphasis on ‘existing’.)

And there: you have both sides of the dilemma. Not an easy one to resolve, either. Chris Cardona is still in time to reverse his hasty decision, but to expect him to do so is also to overlook the very grievous nature of the injury inflicted. He can ‘do the right thing’ and withdraw the sequestration (or whatever the correct term is)... but he may also reason that the maximum 11,000 euros he stands to win would be poor compensation, especially given that the case will almost certainly drag on until after the next election. 

Another thing I can’t understand is: why is all the pressure ‘to do the right thing’ heaped only on Cardona – the injured party in this case, as far as I can see – and none at all on the person who published inflammatory accusations without proof? More to the point: why are journalists being encouraged – nay, pressured – to lend support to the one side in this argument that is clearly more at fault?

Please note, incidentally, that those questions will remain standing even in the event that the allegations are proven true at some point in the future. I am talking about the decision to publish here, not the allegations themselves. At the point when that decision was taken, there was no evidence or even substantiation, beyond a single, uncorroborated eyewitness account. How or why any journalist is even supposed to defend that is quite frankly beyond me.

Simply put: this is not a blanket ‘one side is right’ scenario. I for one will certainly not support anyone’s right to simply blurt out whatever comes into their head at any given moment, and to hell with the consequences. The very idea that I am expected to is completely and utterly absurd. But nor can I realistically condone the use of a tactic that was once threatened, with dire effect, against MaltaToday over my own articles.

Ultimately, however, removing the garnishee order – even in its totality – will not even begin to address the Pandora’s Box that this case has flung wide open. Seeing is believing, and something tells me the effects of our national journalistic nosedive will be visible to everyone before the year is up.

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