If you can’t handle the heat… don’t turn it up to maximum

Delia might avail of the opportunity to actually learn a couple of things about the profession he was so quick – and, by the looks of it, so unprepared – to adopt in 2017, like for instance, the difference between ‘libel’ and ‘fair comment’

Manuel Delia addressed protestors outside Castille
Manuel Delia addressed protestors outside Castille

Funny, isn’t it, how the same old pattern just seems to keep repeating itself - over and over and over again – and yet, we always end up somehow falling for it, every single time?

But in case you’re unfamiliar with this pattern, it goes something like this:

Step one: Someone, somewhere, makes a grand, defiant (and/or attention-seeking) statement, which – intentionally or otherwise – sparks a social media furore;

Step two: Everyone rushes blindly to react to that statement… needless to say, without ever waiting to find out if there is any more to the picture than meets the eye…

Step three: Inevitably, a previously-unknown piece of the jigsaw puzzle suddenly emerges out of nowhere, to offer a whole new (ahem) ‘perspective’ on the situation…

Step four: And just like that, we’re all firmly entrenched back in our original positions… (until, of course, Step One happens again; whereupon, the entire pattern just starts over from scratch).

Starting to sound familiar? Well, that’s hardly surprising: seeing as it’s happened around a giga-zillion times in my own living memory… and especially after such a glaring example surfaced this very week.

Oh, Ok: I may as well admit it: that ‘pattern’ I outlined above was tailor-made to fit one specific case – you know, the one that goes:

Step One: Manuel Delia announces his imminent departure from these islands, out of ‘fears for his personal safety’;

Step Two: Everyone rushes to comment – and I mean literally everyone: even the Prime Minister (!) took time out of his schedule to condemn the alleged (and so far, it must be said, unspecified) threats – without, of course, having a clue what may have been lurking in the background;

Step three: Inevitably, Shift journalist Caroline Muscat blows his cover, by revealing that he was actually going on a six-month paid sojourn in an undisclosed European city… (a safe-house programme offered by the ECPMF).

And as for Step Four, it can almost be reproduced here verbatim. The only real consequence of all this brouhaha, it seems, is that those who all along sympathized with Manuel Delia, now have that much more to be sympathetic about; while those who mistrust (or despise) him, can now do so with even greater gusto and relish than before.

In all other aspects, however: the ‘show’ – as Delia himself so aptly described it on his blog – ‘goes on’, just the same as ever. So yes: make no mistake, it remains a textbook example of precisely the syndrome I described above; but still, I have decided not to comment on it any further… or at least, not to comment in a way that many of you might be expecting… for a number of reasons.

Stating with this one. All things considered, it is my studied conclusion that most of the questions now being raised regarding Manuel Delia’s motives – both for wanting to leave Malta in the first place; and also, for the apparently ‘misleading way’ he announced his decision – are, quite frankly, irrelevant.

Regardless whether or not he received any direct, credible threat to his own, or his family’s, safety… there is no doubt in my mind – none whatsoever – that Manuel Delia himself was genuinely unnerved (‘spooked’ would probably be a better word) by certain recent events.

Not that I have any personal experience of being ‘hacked’, myself – not yet, at any rate – but I have received my fair share of aggressive, creepy, or just downright ‘weird’ phone-calls in my time. And though none of them could realistically be described as ‘threatening’ – you can’t exactly report someone to the police for phoning you up at 6am, every Sunday, to ask if you had any ‘tuna for sale’, can you? – I can still confirm that the effect (until you get used to it, at any rate) can indeed be disconcerting.

Enough, perhaps, to make you look over your own shoulder a good deal more often than usual… or even question whether you really feel like writing that follow-up article after all…

Besides: it would certainly come as a shock, to wake up one morning and find that your identity has been stolen by anonymous hackers… and is being used – in ways that you can’t either predict, or even properly fight – to publicly discredit you, damage your reputation, and God-knows what else besides...

So even if Manuel Delia wasn’t the sole target of this particularly unpleasant strategy – in fact, it remains a mystery to me why more importance was attached to his own case, than that of, say, Prime Minister Robert Abela (who, after all, claimed to be victim of the exact same crime) – it is still the sort of experience that puts a whole different perspective on things.

You know: that sudden ‘chill down the spine’, that jolts you out of your previous complacency… so that the next random phone-call you receive (even if it’s from your own mother, enquiring why you’re late to dinner) makes you ‘jump out of your skin’…

Naturally, however, it is also tempting to point out that parts of the above – minus the identity theft, of course – is equally applicable to some of what Manuel Delia himself has written about others (not least, me), in the course of his own career in journalism.

There are, after all, other ways to misrepresent someone’s character – and discredit them, damage their reputations, and all the rest of it – which do not involve actually hacking into their home mainframe computer, and stealing their personal data…

But still: it doesn’t change the fact that the general atmosphere, in this country, has indeed become a little ‘too hot to handle’, of late. And closing an eye at the paradox whereby Delia himself has so consistently turned up the heat himself… to me, it is highly indicative that the temperature is now too high for even the likes of Manuel Delia: so recently described (by Giovanni Bonello, no less) as “a dauntless journalist” with “the withering writing skills, the resilience, the passion, and, overall, the unflinching daring to tread the minefield…”

Hmm. Now, I freely admit that may well come across as a rather unkind satirical dig, on my own part – though whether aimed at Delia, or Bonello, is up to you to decide – but trust me, it isn’t (or at least: not entirely).

This is, in fact, the single overriding reason why I was initially reluctant to even write about this matter at all. And it’s not exactly easy to explain, either…

But here goes anyway. My own experience – as someone who, like it or not, has written articles for public consumption for a fairly long time – has taught me to at least try and distinguish between two, very different things:

1), the person who’s doing the actual writing, and;

2) the fictitious ‘persona’ they adopt for that purpose.

To offer myself up as an example: my own writing career has led me to develop a very thick skin – far thicker than I would even like, to be perfectly honest – but also, the sort of temperament that traditionally goes with that sort of protective outer layering.

A bit like a rhinoceros, really: thick-skinned, bad-tempered… and ready to charge at any moment.

Now: there was a time – because all such transformations, by definition, require a transitional period – where I wasn’t actually all that comfortable in either of my incarnations. But… and this is the really difficult part to describe… there is also a level at which you don’t really have any control over the metamorphosis itself.

To put it as simply as I can: sometimes, the ‘bad-tempered rhino’ gets the upper… um… ‘hoof’; but sometimes, it’s the mild-mannered – but, oh! hopelessly defenceless – ‘little old me’ that comes out on top instead.

But it’s not a decision I ever consciously take; it’s something that just… well… happens. (And I can’t even say whether it is a good or bad thing, either… because there’s usually a perfectly valid reason why that rhino comes charging in when least expected… sometimes you do need to have a thicker-than-average skin; and sometimes, having a ‘horn’ with which to ‘gore’ people can come in useful, too…)

Now: exactly where Manuel Delia would plot himself on that particular transformative spectrum – after his grand total of four years in journalism – I honestly don’t know; and I will not presume to guess, either.

But going only on the basis of his own, stated concerns – i.e., that he had “undergone weeks of cyber-intimidation, email and website spoofing, text harassment and anonymous phone calls” – I think we can all see the precise moment when he realised that… erm… you know what? Maybe it’s not such a good idea to take another step on that minefield, after all. Maybe it’s a time for a little break, away from all the heat…

And well… who can really blame him for that? Daphne Caruana Galizia used to take occasional breaks too, you know (though I don’t exactly recall her ever making such a song and dance about it, myself). And in any case: why is that such a bad thing, anyway? It’s beneficial to take a holiday, from time to time. It helps to recharge those batteries… refresh your perspective (and no offence: but that’s kind of needed, in Manuel Delia’s case)…

And who knows? Maybe it will even help him become a better journalist. Maybe he will avail of the opportunity to actually learn a couple of things about the profession he was so quick – and, by the looks of it, so unprepared – to adopt in 2017…

… like for instance, the difference between ‘libel’ and ‘fair comment’… or how much ‘heat’ he himself can actually handle, before turning the dial all the way up to maximum…