A convenient untruth

Every news item featuring allegations should be expected to also supply evidence – or at the very least, some form of substantiation

Every time I walked past the mural of Joseph Muscat as (in the artist’s own words) a ‘vampire mafia don’, I simply had to stop and admire this specimen of unparalleled satirical craftsmanship
Every time I walked past the mural of Joseph Muscat as (in the artist’s own words) a ‘vampire mafia don’, I simply had to stop and admire this specimen of unparalleled satirical craftsmanship

In recent articles, I may have occasionally alluded to the mortal perils of attempting to reach any local destination on foot. Vanishing pavements... non-existent zebra crossings (presumably, for the convenience of resident ‘non-existent zebra’ populations...); cars which suddenly swerve towards pedestrians as though drawn by an invisible magnet; tables and chairs which force you to walk in the middle of the street; manholes and roadwork trenches which seem to magically open up under your feet the moment you’re not looking... the list is practically endless.

But having made all these points before, I feel it’s only fair to comment on the positive aspects of walking in this country. One of these is that (provided you survive all the above dangers) you will almost certainly get to see things that will otherwise remain hidden from view. Even streetscapes you think are perfectly familiar, or that you’ve driven through on countless occasions, will sometimes throw up a previously unnoticed little gem: a crumbling little niche, perhaps; a faded old shop-sign, or a small roadside plaque (complete with flowers) marking the tomb of the unknown pedestrian.

One of these hidden wonders, lying permanently outside the motorist’s field of vision, is the graffiti artwork that adorns the Msida skatepark/subway on the way to University. For the past few years or so, my perambulations have taken me past this spectacle several times a week. It’s a little like stumbling across an unexpected riot of vegetation in the middle of a desert: a sudden explosion of vibrant colour, where everything before (and after) was just an endless expanse of drab, grey urban sprawl.

And ever since last October, one particular corner of this exotic paradise was too conspicuous not to notice. Every time I walked past the mural of Joseph Muscat as (in the artist’s own words) a ‘vampire mafia don’, I simply had to stop and admire this specimen of unparalleled satirical craftsmanship. Few newspaper cartoonists have ever come that close to such a perfect political caricature. And what makes the feat all the more astonishing is that the artist chose to paint the prime minister wearing a hat... thus blotting from view his most immediately recognisable (and, therefore, satirisable) feature: what little remains of his bright, ginger hair.

Gone, too, is the ubiquitous cheeky grin that adorns all Muscat’s public portraiture. Even those iconic baby blue eyes of his are glazed over to seem vaguely dead (and loving it). Then there are the subliminal details: Adrian Delia morphed into a vampire bat, for instance (and what a forcefully impactful image that is...)

But it is Joseph Muscat’s face you take away with you when you finally drag yourself away. Somehow, whoever painted that grotesque masterpiece managed to capture something of the quintessence of that man, while presenting him in the most unrecognisable way imaginable.

A work of art as good as that should really be hanging in the National Gallery... or at least, emblazoned on a prominent building, where it can be viewed and admired by thousands. But then again, every time I walked past that mural, I felt oddly privileged. It was a sight denied to the masses, and therefore reserved for a handful of satire aficionados such as myself. Unlike all those cars whizzing round that public space at all hours, I could see it in all its splendour. Ha! Chew on that, you motor-f*****s!

But alas, no more. The last I heard (because I haven’t walked that way in a while) was that the mural had been painted over ‘by government officials’... presumably, on the orders the great vampire mafia don himself, who was unlikely to have shared my own appreciation of such a spectacular work of art.

And it angered me (or at least, it would have, had I actually taken that story as Gospel Truth). The loss of any work of art would be upsetting in its own right: still less, one so refined and exemplary. But what angered me more was the self-fulfilling prophecy that news story seemed to spell out. Here we are, in a country besieged by international accusations of corruption and institutional collapse... and what does our prime minister do? He clamps down on satirical commentary; you know, just to prove all his international critics right. Malta really is a Mafia State/Banana Republic rolled into one... and its prime minister really is a vampire mafia don, to whose euro-ring we are all expected to genuflect.

Until, of course, you realise that the story itself was a fabrication. What actually happened was that the street artists themselves chose to paint over the mural, to replace it with another. Apparently it’s something they do from time to time: which (on the plus side) also means that there will always be something new and exciting for the art-loving pedestrian to look forward to in that park.

Either way, you will notice at a glance that there is a world of difference between what actually happened, and what was reported (on Net TV) to have happened. And granted, mistakes of this kind are up to a point unavoidable – we’ve all been guilty of getting things wrong... sometimes literally (I myself have just been named as the defendant in a lost libel case going back to August 2013: a point I feel the need to clarify, as it actually refers to a nominal role of registered editor, and not any actual involvement with the story itself. And in any case, the newspaper plans to appeal the ruling. But still, there it is. We lost a libel case...)

In this particular case, however, it is debatable whether we can talk about a ’mistake’. After all, it wasn’t exactly difficult for the news reporters to verify the facts: all they had to do was call the relevant government department, and ask a simple question.

And this alters the landscape slightly. Taken out of context, the story of a prime minister taking personal offence at a visual caricature, to the extent of ordering its removal, might not exactly be earth-shattering. It merely paints him as a humourless sod who doesn’t quite understand the principle of freedom of expression.

Within its proper context, however, it only adds another layer of veneer to the narrative painstakingly being constructed around life in Malta in general. Another testimonial that fundamental rights are slowly and surreptitiously being withdrawn; another small piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle that – in its totality – present us with a composite picture of rotten governance everywhere you look.

And it turns out to be untrue. Hmm. On an immediate level, it makes you wonder how many of the other jigsaw puzzle pieces may also have been fabrications. After all, a great chunk of the allegations surrounding Joseph Muscat still involve claims that have yet to be verified. These claims have been fanned and enlarged upon by the same news outlet for over a year... and still no conclusive evidence. That, too, is part of the context of this little piece of ‘news’. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both stories can be seen (in different ways) to prop up the same, entirely political narrative...

Separately, however, it also opens a small window onto the internal mechanics of a political party-owned news station. ‘Fact-checking’ – even in such a basic, entry-level case – becomes irrelevant, if the purpose of your ‘news’ is not to report facts, but to twist them to suit a political agenda. Again, one has to ask how many other ‘news items’ have similarly been manipulated in the past.

The question assumes greater relevance when you consider all the other things we are expected to take on trust from the same, or similar, sources. Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi has just made highly damning allegations of a police tip-off to the suspects in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder inquiry... even pin-pointing the alleged informer by name. He did this in Parliament, where he enjoys immunity from libel proceedings. Meanwhile, an internal police investigation seems to have cleared the suspect of suspicion...

Ah, but how do we know who’s lying, and who’s telling the truth... when both sides of the equation become equally suspect, by virtue of the same willingness to bend facts to suit a case? How can we rely on either side to perform an honest attempt to uncover the truth... when they are both so liberal with the truth, whenever it suits them to be?

It was for this reason that, from the very outset, I argued that every news item featuring allegations should be expected to also supply evidence – or at the very least, some form of substantiation. Otherwise, all we will really be doing is simply deciding which particular set of allegations most suit our own political viewpoint... then re-christening it ‘The Truth’, when for all we know it could be anything but.