The ‘universe Daphne created’

We must acknowledge that Daphne Caruana Galizia's writing increasingly came to echo an underlying malaise we all know to be true, yet rarely confront: our national culture of mutual enmity and mistrust

Daphne Caruana Galizia
Daphne Caruana Galizia

Joseph Muscat said in parliament that he 'sometimes felt as if he were living in a universe created for him by Daphne Caruana Galizia'. How would Daphne have reacted to that?

It was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened. There I was, sitting at my PC and poring over the incoming news... when a certain comment caught my attention. How would Daphne have responded to that, I wondered? 

And sure enough, before I even knew what was happening... my mouse hand had strayed to the ‘Running Commentary’ bookmark, and my finger clicked the button. I went into Daphne’s blog... to read what she might have had to say about reactions to her own murder. 

How bizarre is that? To tell you the truth, it spooked me at the time. It still does. But when I mentioned it to random acquaintances, they all confessed to similar experiences. They might not have (as I did) momentarily forgotten the actuality that Daphne is no more... but that impulse to ‘check her blog’ was there all the same. Like the first symptoms of withdrawal.

It may be a triviality in itself, but I think it tells us something about the enormity of that ‘bicca blogger’s’ influence. We were, up to a point, addicted to Daphne Caruana Galizia. And as with all other addictions, we individually got hooked for different reasons. Some needed their daily Daphne dose just to know what opinion they should be holding on any given topic. ‘Daphne says, so it must be true’ became almost a mantra, recited with as much conviction as the Rosary. 

Others got hooked for the clean opposite reason. ‘Whatever Daphne says is a lie’ was just as pervasive a view... but all the same: it’s still a case of ‘you need to know what she’s actually saying’ before being able to form your own opinion. It is, in a nutshell, still ‘Daphne doing all your thinking for you’.

Above all, both approaches are every bit as suspect as each other. I am well aware that this may apply to some of my own, publicly stated views in the past. It’s an important point, and I’ll come back to it later.

Meanwhile, another reaction caught my attention for different reasons. It came from Joseph Muscat, who said in parliament that he ‘sometimes felt as if he were living in a universe created for him by Daphne Caruana Galizia’.

How she would have reacted to that, I have no idea. On the surface it was hardly a compliment – ‘the universe she created for Joseph Muscat’ was not exactly designed for his maximum comfort and enjoyment. But it could also be taken as an acknowledgement – however grudgingly – of her penmanship. It certainly does impart an image of the sheer power of the written word. 

And I stress ‘the written word’ because, for most of her career, the pen was indeed Daphne’s only instrument. By the time of her death, she may have grown to command an entire media empire of her own making – which in itself is a formidable achievement by any standard - but I will not forget that she started out armed only with a typewriter and a column in a weekly newspaper. 

Nor will I forget that the impact of that column was immediate and far-reaching. Long before the advent of social media – and even before the widespread use of computers and word-processors, let alone the Internet – Daphne’s early writings had electrified Malta. Her investigation into the sinking of the Esmeralda in 1990 did more than just ‘fill a void’ in newspaper reporting at the time. It would be no exaggeration to state that she single-handedly redefined the entire Maltese media landscape. 

Part of the reason was that she wrote in a style that none of us had ever seen before (at least, not in the local press). I was reminded of this during the 2013 election campaign, when someone posted one of Daphne’s early articles, without her name. The challenge was to see if anyone could guess the author, based on the arguments (fiercely critical of the PN) it contained.

I had no difficulty immediately recognising it as Daphne’s. The style alone was inimitable and unmistakable. Though her political nuances had meanwhile changed – whose haven’t? – the approach to writing had remained virtually identical. It was eloquent, erudite, clinical, methodical... sometimes hilarious... and always homing in on the subject at hand with a ballistic precision that was almost frightening to behold.

No matter how her style evolved over the years, those were all qualities it retained to the end. And yes, other aspects also crept in over the years. If we are to dispassionately assess Daphne Caruana Galizia after her death – and I feel we must, even for the simple reason that she was such a formative influence on the entire country – we must also acknowledge that her writing increasingly came to echo an underlying malaise we all know to be true, yet rarely confront: our national culture of mutual enmity and mistrust.

It’s a difficult paradox to grapple with, but I’ll give it a shot. I’ll start by saying that this culture was not of Daphne’s own making. Indeed, the opposite is true. Though Daphne started writing in the early 1990s, her own political formation had occurred earlier. I suspect a good deal of it can be traced to her arrest, along with several others, for ‘sedition’ (translation: ‘peacefully protesting against the government’) in the latter of the pre-87 Labour years. 

And that was but one of many injustices that happened to touch her directly. I was brought up in the same neighbourhood at the same time (albeit a significant seven years younger). I can attest to the fact that Daphne grew up in a climate of hostility and political fear.

In other words, the ‘universe Daphne created for Joseph’ is also a ‘universe created for Daphne by Labour’... which, one imagines, is also the ‘universe created for Labour by [fill in the blanks]’. Hence the problem: to assess Daphne is also to delve deeply into our troubled political past. You cannot understand one, without understanding the other.

The more I think about this, the more I realise that this same difficulty will cast a long shadow over the investigation into her murder. In our own ways, we all inhabit much the same universe. I too must acknowledge that a good deal of mine was created by Daphne Caruana Galizia: a world of thought-processes that were undeniably influenced by her writing. 

How much of my opinion may have been coloured by that over the years? I have to honestly say I don’t know. But now, with the hindsight of this ghastly murder, a new perspective comes into view. I feel I have to extricate myself from that universe: to banish all preconceived notions, and re-evaluate everything – and I mean absolutely EVERYTHING - from scratch. 

The country rightly clamours for justice... but justice can only be borne of dispassionate, unfettered reasoning

I speak for myself, but I also feel that we all have to claw our way out of that box somehow. The country rightly clamours for justice... but justice can only be borne of dispassionate, unfettered reasoning. If we are to understand what actually happened, it is imperative that we cease to think only along purely binary lines. 

For this reason alone I will not be drawn into speculation about the murder itself. Coming from within that universe, speculation is worse than worthless: it is hopelessly counterproductive. I am surprised that so few people out there seem capable of ever seeing this.

Perhaps it would be better to focus on things we might be able to agree upon for a change. First off: yes, we do need institutional reform. I’ll concede that there is no country under the sun that can successfully prevent any kind of murder from ever taking place – and it would be patently unrealistic to expect that country to be Malta, of all places. 

But it is also patently absurd for the Prime Minister to state, live on CNN, that ‘the rule of law in Malta is supreme.’ Sorry, but... no, it isn’t. We didn’t even need a journalist to get killed to know that: the Chief Justice himself, speaking on the inauguration of the judicial year, complained about cases he knew about where information passed on to the police had been wilfully ignored.

This, too, is part of the same universe. For too long now we have accepted a situation where ‘untouchables’ visibly get away with it, because of who they are or whom they know. None of this may have any direct relevance to Daphne’s death... but there is undeniably an implicit connection. The rule of law has indeed been diminished – and very visibly, too – over the years. And Malta really has become a place where criminals feel they can act with impunity. For what it’s worth, my own view is that the nature/modality of Daphne’s murder was deliberately intended to make this very point.

Viewed from this perspective – or indeed from any perspective, except the most twisted imaginable - ‘Justice for Daphne’ is also ‘justice for everyone’. The snuffing out of her life may have had the immediate aim of silencing one, troublesome voice... but in effect, it was also a direct challenge to the justice system. It was the criminal underworld, loudly and brutishly proclaiming ownership of an entire country. Our country. We cannot respond to that challenge by proclaiming, equally loudly, that ‘we don’t have a problem’.

So whether or not this was a ‘political assassination’ in the traditional sense – for all we know, it might have been – ‘politics’ is still very much part of the bigger picture. Both parties have propped up the same architecture which makes Malta such an attractive place for Mafia (and mafia-like) organisations in the first place. And, much more to the point: political parties are the only institutions which, between them, have the power to dismantle that architecture, and build something better.

That, in a nutshell, is an outcome I think we can all agree on. Something better. It is perhaps ironic that we have to emerge from ‘the universe Daphne created’ to be able to build it. But like I said, it was a universe created for her, too. For all of us. And we’ve been stuck in it for far too long.

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