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This isn’t ‘Crime Scene Investigation’... | Saviour Formosa

Criminologist Saviour Formosa warns against the culture of ‘instant gratification’ that fuels demand for details about criminal investigations... and also about the changing nature of crime itself, which is about to get ‘virtual

Raphael Vassallo
10 December 2017, 8:30am
For the past two months, Malta has been convulsed by the brutal murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia: a crime which has been discussed and debated on a wide variety of levels... not just in Malta, but also in the international press. It has, in fact, been described as a ‘murder like no other’: but how true is that assessment, from a strictly criminology perspective?

I always use the word ‘cycles’ to describe the phenomenon of crime in Malta. Going back in time, you will find sustained periods of our history that were characterised by crimes involving bombs... these will have been related to sociological factors of the time. Society is made up of a lot of things: the economy, politics, religion, education... what is different today, however, is that unlike the other periods of the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, etc, there is the additional factor of social media.

A lot of people, especially the younger generation, now mainly live in a virtual world. The impact this has on any crime that is reported is that, apart from the traditional media, you will also have those 100,000... let’s say, ‘journalists’... I use the word in parenthesis, naturally. But everyone has suddenly become a journalist, it seems.  There are trained journalists, some of whom have a very thorough background in their profession; and then, there are those 100,000 people who comment on everything, and always manage to solve all the cases. In reality, criminology doesn’t work that way. In reality, you need long months of investigation. Journalists need to do research before arriving at the facts.

Yet under every article, even if it took a week of work to produce... you get all these comments giving different interpretations of events. And the irony is that, in today’s society most people no longer read the article at all. They all read the headline, and then scroll down to the comments. As a result, the crime itself becomes indistinguishable from the public reaction to it. We need to decouple these issues. Maybe I’m a bit drastic; but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t allow the input of comments. But that is modern society for you: all too often, people base their opinions on these comments, not on the basis of facts and research.

"Parochialism: To picture Malta as a crime haven, when it is one of the safest countries in the EU... to me, that’s inexcusable"
From the point of view of a criminal investigator, does this constant spread of (often speculative) information have any effect on the investigation itself?

It’s an issue that affects criminology, yes. If a politician says, ‘We need to arrest this or that person’... people will follow their political instincts, and not necessarily the facts of the case. The reality, however, is that a criminologist has to work on the basis of facts. And facts do not materialise overnight. It takes time. This is true everywhere, not just in Malta. Let me put it another way: criminology was at first a subset of sociological research, way back when. But what is sociology?

At the end of the day, it is the study of relationships. This doesn’t mean that like-minded people will always become criminals, or, conversely, policemen fighting crime. A ‘relationship’ could also exist between the victim and the criminal. And relationships tend to be very complex. Society, as a whole, is a mass of such relationships. How we interpret those relationships is where the problem lies. Even more so, when you find yourself confronted by a great cloud of commentary, with everyone firing off all sorts of interpretations of their own. It irritates me a lot... because it takes us away from the reality.

Instead, we are getting bogged down by the fantasy of all those comments.

This raises a dilemma often faced by journalists, especially when trying to report on crime issues. The media is duty-bound to meet a public demand for information. The public in turn has a right to know, at least insofar as public interest matters are concerned. Where, however, does one draw the line between servicing that public need, and publishing details that might conceivably prejudice a criminal investigation?

All I can say is, I myself do not believe any detail unless it comes from a factual source. And the only reliable source is what is said in court. Everything else is just speculation. This should be obvious, but we seem to have reached a stage when even the obvious has to be spelt out. The media tends to quote ‘sources’ – sometimes within the police, sometimes not. But what are these sources? You cannot hide behind sources which cannot be identified.

To me, the only factual statements are those said under oath as testimony in court, where the witness can be cross-examined. It is, however, ironic that the public need for information – which acts like an injection: one detail creates an appetite for more – can drive certain newspapers to publish details that are actually fictitious.  They might be true, but they might also be false...

One example of direct relevance to the ongoing murder investigation was the detail - ultimately inaccurate - that the explosive used was Semtex: a possibility that fuelled all sorts of public speculation...

Let me put it this way: at the University, the criminology department gets a lot of students. They apply in droves. They probably see me as a bit of a downer, because the first thing I tell new students is: ‘Listen, this isn’t CSI. We’re getting there... we have technologies that other countries don’t have; we have a methodology that we are building up ourselves. But we’re not there yet’. I do this because a lot of people come to us with very high hopes, that they will get a degree in criminology... and then be able to look at a chair, and tell you who sat on it, when, and in what specific position, etc. There is this need to fuel oneself with instant insight.

But insight cannot be instant. It can only come through a lot of research.  The reality is that there are a lot of different scientific disciplines involved; criminal detection cannot be the work of just one person. Meanwhile, however, we are increasingly living in a world of instant information. Whether this information is correct or not is another story. But the issue is ‘instant gratification’. Information (or misinformation) can spread like wildfire across the world, at the click of a mouse. It is fuelled by this constant need to know something new. In a sense, things have become easier... but they have also become infinitely difficult.

The moment a new detail emerges, people rush to the internet to find out more... and often make links between unrelated issues. The internet is a network of information, yes... but 99% of it is rubbish. There is, however, that 1% which constitutes ‘the truth’. People will ideally be looking for that 1% of truth, but they cannot filter it out from all the junk.

Certainly, a lot of details have emerged (whether true or not remains unclear) regarding this murder case: mostly in foreign media. We were given details about SMSs sent by the suspects, which appear to shed light on the investigation that led to those arrests. Can any of this information jeopardise the investigation?

I see such details as unnecessary myself. One, I don’t think these details should come out at all; two, it is unnecessary to fuel the public need for information with issues that may or may not be true. I can’t comment specifically about this case; but in more general terms, it has become almost inevitable that unnecessary details are splashed out in the media. Let’s face it: crime is sexy. The sort of details that emerge from a crime story excite people’s imagination.

And they can be misleading. To give an example, there was once a case where a murder was committed over a plate of chips. It happened in Bugibba: a man murdered another man, for stealing a chip from his plate. In a separate case, a man from Zejtun killed another man with a shotgun, because he had given him a dirty look. These are real cases.

But when you sift through the background stories, you will find that in the first instance, it was a random invasion of private space. The two men didn’t know each other at all. In the second case, those two had been fighting for 60 years. That look was the last straw that broke the camel’s back...

This murder case in particular also has clear political overtones. Isn’t there a danger that the resulting pressure could possibly distort the nature of the investigation itself? After all, politicians tend to have ulterior motives that might go beyond solving a murder...

It’s a good point. We are living in a country which is still parochial in nature. Ours is a parochial system, not a political system. At times we approach the concept of statesmanship... but to gain brownie points, we always fall back on parochialism.

And we tend to use ‘criminality’ to attack one party or the other: it’s something we saw in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s... the decades changed, but the overall aim remained the same. What angers me most, however, is not when this happens at the local level – though that angers me too. But I can understand a Maltese politician behaving like that... because Maltese politics is, as I said, parochial. It’s always the same story: we need to show that the others are devils, and that we are angels. It irritates me much more when the same thing happens at European level. The fact that we take our local parochialism to another, higher level - where people do not know the local situation - is something out of this world.

"Speculation: It is ironic that the public need for information – which acts like an injection: one detail creates an appetite for more – can drive certain newspapers to publish details that are actually fictitious"
To picture Malta as a crime haven, when it is one of the safest countries in the EU... to me, that’s inexcusable.  This is not a criminal country. If it were, nobody would come here: not to invest in the economy, not even as tourists. The fact that we go out there, and feed other politicians – who are also parochial; we have seen this recently – so that we cause a review of our own country, when there is no necessity... it will take us another 20 years to come back on par with where we were five years ago. That gets to me a lot...

One other striking aspect of this case was the speed with which arrests were made – only five weeks after the murder. It is widely understood that this was made possible thanks to the involvement of foreign specialist agencies, including the FBI. At the risk of being unfair to the local police, isn’t this also a reflection that our own law enforcement capability, on its own, is powerless when faced with criminality of a certain level?

Let’s talk about the strategy of the police force. Our Police Corps has been 200 years in the making: we still have the same police corps as 200 years ago. Two years ago, we [the Criminology Department] attended a meeting of parliament’s social affairs committee, where we issued the first high-level strategy document to reform the Corps. It will take time.

The legal amendments have been affected, but the changes still have to be implemented.   What we need is a long-term strategy to identify the lacunae, and also the strengths. One thing to bear in mind is that the Maltese police corps has areas of specialisation that don’t exist in other countries, and vice versa.

We’re too small to have six specialists in one area. In fact, we’re too small to have any specialists at all on certain topics. It’s always good to have people interested in a certain line... but there’s no point specialising in a particular area, if you’re only ever going to get one case in 20 years. In Malta, there isn’t the threshold of incidence; and – I have to be careful how to say this - there isn’t the need for certain expertise, either. Expertise is always needed, don’t get me wrong. But, for example, we don’t need local specialists in detecting certain chemicals in the air, when we don’t have local industries that produce that chemical. One advantage we do have, however, is that we are members of Europol. This gives us access to all Europe’s specialists when it comes to certain types of crime... just as other Europol members have access to Malta’s areas of specialisation, too. I see our police force as part of a bigger structure. We still need to have our own structure, but where we don’t have the skills and knowledge, we can tap into them from abroad.

And I’m pleasantly surprised at how these things come together... in the sense that the process of coming together, in this case, was divulged to the public. These processes are, however, continuous. There are often cases where the local police might consult experts from Germany, or some other European country, and vice versa. Still, this doesn’t mean there is no need for a reform of the police force.  The process has already been kick-started; what remains to be done is a proper implementation strategy. Meanwhile, we also have to prepare for the future. In the next five years, society will move towards a virtual reality/augmented reality structure. In Malta, as yet we do not have a specialist in augmented reality, and its relation to crime. What does this mean? Very soon, we will be experiencing new realities that are other-worldly: you could be walking in Valletta, wearing a headset, and apart from everyday reality, there will also be other superimposed images: virtual, but indistinguishable from reality.

You could see, for instance, the Great Siege happening before your eyes... and you’d able to actually touch what you’re seeing. That level of tangibility is already possible; we may think it’s something that’s 20 years in the future, but it’s already here. This also means that tomorrow, we will have a new type of crime. You could witness a crime and think it’s a case of augmented reality... or vice versa. We need to prepare for this from now: start a discussion on ‘virtual police stations’, and ‘online police’ in conjunction with the real police. It sounds weird, I know. But this is where we are going...