Press charges: Malta wartime reporters invented ‘Italian coward’ myth

How they reported the war: Martin G. Debattista’s ‘The Front Page on the Front Line – The Maltese Newspapers and the Second World War’

Martin Debattista’s ‘The Front Page on the Front Line’
Martin Debattista’s ‘The Front Page on the Front Line’

Italian World War II airmen were cowardly custards who dropped their bombs at sea, flew either too high to avoid anti-aircraft guns, or tailed tail at the sight of RAF fighters scrambling from Malta.

But this oft-repeated wartime myths from the generations that witnessed the war in Malta was largely an invention of wartime propaganda promoted by the Maltese newspapers of the time, especially the Maltese-language il-Berqa, a sister newspapers of The Times.

This is just one of several discoveries presented by Martin G. Debattista in his new book The Front Page on the Front Line – The Maltese Newspapers and the Second World War, an analysis of the active role of the Maltese newspapers during the most devastating war in history.

“On the other hand, the local newspapers did not create the myth of the three obsolete Gladiator fighters ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’ defending Malta in June 1940 against impossible odds,” Debattista, a veteran journalist and wartime researcher, says.

Though exhaustive research and books on Malta and the Second World War have already been published from a military or social point of view, the role of Maltese newspapers has been largely overlooked throughout the years.

“My research fills a void in the history of Maltese media and journalism,” Debattista says.

“The book is a testament to the resilience, the ingenuity and devotion to duty of the newspaper staff. Mabel Strickland, the editor of the Times of Malta, described the experience as if ‘we had the frontline at the front door and on the front page’. The lack of newsprint and ink led to some newspapers having to close down or miss several issues,” Debattista says.

His book also debunks other long-held myths, demonstrating how the Times of Malta was not the only newspaper to be published daily in wartime without missing a single edition.

Debattista also describes in detail the influence and power of the Stricklands, specifically how Mabel Strickland managed to get British governor General William Dobbie replaced by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in May 1942.

“Despite it being wartime, the newspapers did not spare their criticism towards the availability of air raid shelters, the quality of food provided by the Victory Kitchens, or where it was due. The government had its own Information Office, with regular publications distributed free of charge.

“The period also saw the end of the local press in the Italian language caused by the internment and later deportation to Uganda of the local pro-Italian sympathiser, and the rise of the new left-wing press.”

Martin Debattista’s ‘The Front Page on the Front Line’ is available at a special discounted launch price from the publisher’s website and from leading book-sellers.