Some conspiracy theories are more equal than others

Opinion polls have consistently confirmed that Joseph Muscat enjoys higher trust ratings... whether he deserves all this confidence is naturally another question

Something decidedly uncanny is taking place deep within the Maltese psyche at the moment. For a long time now, we have been active participants in the global phenomenon of ‘conspiracy theory culture’. Just six months ago, for instance, the Al Afriqiya hijack at Luqa airport was passed off as a ‘hoax’... engineered by the Maltese government to give itself something to coo about for a change.

Interestingly, however, the people who were pushing that utterly idiotic idea around last Christmas, included many of the ones who today vociferously denounce the so-called ‘Russian spy connection’ in the Egrant case. Having themselves bought into such a laughably farcical conspiracy theory only six months ago, they now keel over backwards in uncontrollable laughter at what they have decided – for no apparent reason, and clearly without even looking at the facts of the case – is just another ludicrous flight of fancy.

I guess some conspiracy theories are more equal than others. Or, to be more specific: a ‘conspiracy theory’ only qualifies as a ‘conspiracy theory’ if it can be used to discredit one’s political opponents. At all other times, it is a classic case of Gospel Truth.

Nor is this the only reversal. The same people who now pooh-pooh the Russian interference hypothesis, were themselves giving blanket credence to an almost identical claim that the Russians had intervened in the American election last November. Strange, that these people attributed Donald Trump’s shock victory to  ‘Russian espionage’ and ‘fake news’ at the time... but now dismiss the idea that Russian espionage and fake news might have an equal bearing on local politics. 

Someone else beat me to the question online: but is intellectual consistency really too much to expect these days? How is it even possible to simultaneously occupy two diametrically opposed world views at the same time... without even appearing to notice?

In any case: we may be an endangered minority in this country, but some of us – and I am happy to include one or two other journalists in this category – have this stubborn tendency to approach all unproven allegations using the same yardstick. I will not dismiss or accept theories that the Russian whistle-blower may be a secret agent working to destabilise the Maltese government for some arcane reason. As with the Egrant allegation itself, I will reserve judgment until there is something to actually base a judgment upon.

Until then, however, there is plenty to dig into in this particular case. For instance, the way it has been twisted and manipulated since first coming into the public domain. And again, the same people who have perverted this story to match their own political prejudices, include several of the ones who complain the loudest about ‘dishonesty’ on the part of the present government. 

Let’s start with the obvious: who made the claim? If I were to go on my (overwhelmingly Nationalist) Facebook feed, the answer would be straightforward enough. ‘It wos Joseph Muscat wot dunnit’, they all argue... in a desperate attempt to divert attention from his present, unenviable situation by concocting some cock and bull story about treachery and treason.

Erm... sorry, but that’s not how it happened at all. The claim was actually made on an international website called ‘Intelligence Online’, which appears to be a genuine publication (if not exactly very influential). Muscat was asked to comment about that story at a press conference, and about the only thing his answer added to the picture was that he had been alerted by the local Secret Services to the possibility of Russian reprisals as long ago as last December.

This can be borne out by evidence. There were indeed reports to that effect last December. Naturally, none of this does anything to support or undermine the theory itself: but it remains a fact that what most people think they know about it is actually just a hopeless mishmash of lies, half-truths and misconceptions. 

As for the conspiracy theory itself – well, again, it all points towards an inbuilt political contradiction. People have time and again proved ready and eager to lap up any fanciful notion in the absence of evidence. They are perfectly happy to accept that a Russian employee at a private bank would steal copies of documents incriminating Michelle Muscat over Egrant... even though these documents remain unseen to this day. So why the hell shouldn’t they extend the same levels of gullibility to this particular unsubstantiated claim, too?

The question becomes more pertinent when you consider the weakness of the arguments brought out to ‘disprove’ the Russian hypothesis. NET NEWS numbered ‘six reasons’ why the story is a lie. Tell you what, let’s take a look at all six in order.

1) The whistle-blower arrived in December 2015

Erm... yeah, so what? If we assume (for the sake of argument) that she is a spy, the precise date of her arrival is hardly important. Spies are always not sent out to countries on specific missions, you know. They are normally long-term residents in the country of operation, and may be working on multiple missions at the same time. It is perfectly normal in the espionage world to have an agent permanently based in a country, awaiting instructions on whatever case may arise. Graham Greene wrote a novel about it called ‘Our Man in Havana’... the ‘man’ in question wasn’t sent to Havana for one purpose. He was a multi-purpose spy, to be moved about like a piece on a chess-board depending on the circumstances of the day.

2) The Russian warships arrived in October 2016

Precisely. Makes more sense to have someone you trust already in place, rather than send someone out there only when the need arises (which, let’s face it, would be highly suspicious in its own right). Bottom line: those dates mean nothing really.

3) The documents were taken from the Pilatus safe in March 2016

More pointless dates, but this one raises an additional problem for the counter-conspiracy theory. How do we know that those documents were indeed taken from the safe at the time when the whistle-blower says they were? How do we know they were ever taken from the safe at all... or indeed if they even ever existed? For this, we only have the word of Daphne Caruana Galizia (and whatever evidence was presented before the inquiring magistrate... which we won’t see for some time yet). As already pointed out, I apply exactly the same scepticism to those claims as I do to the Russian hypothesis. I don’t believe it without proof. So to use one unsubstantiated claim to disprove another is – for want of a better word – utterly ridiculous.

4) Egrant wasn’t founded by the Russians, but by Nexia BT in the names of Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi and Michelle Muscat [sic]

I was tempted not to even bother with this one, but it’s too important to ignore. For those who enjoy spotting logical fallacies, this is a classic case of ‘begging the question’. The identity of the ultimate beneficiary owner of Egrant is what the whole inquiry is meant to determine. It is the question everyone is trying to answer. Yet according to this argument, the Russians cannot have had anything to do with it, because it is a ‘fact’ (please note the inverted commas) that Egrant belongs to Michelle Muscat, and not the Russians. 

Sorry, but that is fallacious on two counts. One, it is very far from a ‘fact’ that Michelle Muscat owns Egrant at this stage; and two, Nexia BT opens such companies on behalf of clients of literally all kinds (so long as they have money). I obviously don’t have any reason to suppose that Egrant was set up on behalf of a Russian client – which, by the way, isn’t even what is being alleged by Intelligence Online – but then again... who knows? I certainly don’t, and it is evident that neither does NET News.

5) Joseph Muscat claims that Egrant was concocted by Simon Busuttil and the PN, not the Russians

Oh dear, looks like we are mixing up our allegations again. There are two sets of claims being disputed here. One, that the Egrant allegation was cooked up by Simon Busuttil and the Nationalist Party; two that the Russians were instrumental in securing the ‘evidence’ (so far unseen) on which the previous allegation was based. Those two allegations do not cancel each other out.  Without even going into the veracity of either claim, they can both easily co-exist at the same time.

To put the matter bluntly: if a Russian secret agent (for whatever reason) wanted to destabilise the Maltese government using fake news... he or she would find a willing partner in a Nationalist Party that is hell-bent on unseating Joseph Muscat at all costs. It is to be expected, then, that fake documents would be leaked precisely to the PN and/or Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

6)  Joseph Muscat has lost all credibility

This one’s my favourite, because it reminds me of Cato the Elder’s famous line: ‘Delenda Est Cartago!’[Carthage Must Be Destroyed!]... with which he concluded his every Senate address, regardless of subject-matter. The problem here is that – again, whether true or not – it doesn’t actually address the allegations being made in the first place. Moreover, this ‘reason’ is actually a highly subjective (and obviously biased) statement of opinion, as opposed to fact. And there doesn’t seem to be a great deal to base that opinion on.

This may come as a surprise to the authors of that article, but opinion polls have consistently confirmed that Joseph Muscat enjoys higher trust ratings than Simon Busuttil, even after all the recent allegations. Whether he deserves all this confidence is naturally another question... but to dismiss his credibility in the face of so much evidence – and in relation to an allegation for which no hard evidence has yet emerged – is just a tiny bit delusional, I would say.

But again, to disprove these arguments point by point brings us no closer to the truth or otherwise of the Russian spy hypothesis. I certainly cannot take such a seemingly far-fetched claim seriously... but it must be said that this theory – unsatisfactory though it may be – does at least attempt to address one of the many unanswered questions surrounding this case. Let us (for argument’s sake) dismiss the claim that the whistle-blower is working for the Russian secret services. We are still left with an unanswered question. What is her real motivation, then?

Incredibly, it’s a question no one else has even bothered asking to date. As long as it remains unanswered – and as long as we persist in this dangerous habit of accepting unproven hypotheses as ‘facts’, out of political prejudice – we can only expect that more fanciful conspiracy theories will emerge in future... and that these unsubstantiated claims will automatically be believed and rejected by both halves of this hopelessly divided nation.

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