An agony aunt for the glasshouse brigade

No social media presence makes children fair game in the guilt-by-association war of political shaming, something that became a fact of life for Malta in the last decade

It stands to reason that after the Egrant affair, Michelle Muscat is entitled to express her umbrage
It stands to reason that after the Egrant affair, Michelle Muscat is entitled to express her umbrage

Michelle Muscat’s candour on the aftermath of the Egrant affair was refreshing for most, but of course the prime minister’s spouse was tone-deaf in some of her statements about the death of the Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Her candid manner of expression is expected in more ways than one. The first is that there is actually little sympathy of course, because Caruana Galizia was considered to be a persecutor of the Muscats. The second is because Muscat’s style can lack the finesse of the diplomat, one known to rub her audience – myself included – the wrong way.

Arguably, Muscat’s liberating reaction to the Egrant affair left her critics gasping for air as they scrambled to salvage their own credibility. One such contribution came from Simon Busuttil’s partner in her Sunday Times column – a not-so-subtle takedown of Muscat’s complaint that her children’s school was unsupportive when it came to “protecting” the children in the playground throughout the Egrant saga.

The upshot was that politicians should steer their children away from the limelight. But in an obvious reference to the Muscats, logic careened down to the precipice as the author implied that if the PM’s children were allowed to have an Instagram account (no doubt curated by their parents) then they were being willingly thrust into a limelight that brings with it a ‘natural, character-forming’ consequence like bullying.

Hardly sensible thinking. No social media presence makes children fair game in the guilt-by-association war of political shaming, something that became a fact of life for Malta in the last decade. Parents may unwisely be giving their children a social media ‘life’ their kids have not asked for. But that’s no reason to ignore a parent’s complaints about bullying.

Kristina Chetcuti may have shared her better half’s conviction on the Egrant canard, which is why her pointy-elbow patronising is hardly a fitting response to the fiasco that has embroiled the former shadow minister for good governance.

Politicians with young families are a hard act to manage, but it is only within the spectrum of incessant press attention. The Obamas seemed at ease ‘parading’ their family life (as early as the 2008 DNC) because that’s the way it’s done in America. Gordon Brown did not ‘parade’ his children: The Sun had done it for him when it splashed the news that his youngest had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth - a fact that illustrates what an unscrupulous press can do if it considers children to be part of the game.

Of course it’s hard to ignore the fact that Michelle Muscat is herself guilty of brash self-advertisement. Swimming for charity? Gauche protagonism that deserves a satirical put-down. Unfashionable tardiness at events or appointments? Downright rude.

But I also feel confident in saying the PM’s spouse has been on the receiving end by a certain part of the commentariat that feels annoyed at her aspirational, upwardly-mobile impertinence. Yet another offshoot of the complex class war that is played out in tiny Malta. And it’s for this reason that some people in the press think their children are fair game.

Why should children be kept out of any family’s public life?
Why should children be kept out of any family’s public life?

This point needs explaining. When a prison workers’ charity she patronised was accused, unfairly as I later found out, of exploiting the prisoners’ labour, Muscat fended off the accusations with a press conference which she had been ill advised to give. The ‘my dear’ press conference gave her detractors grist for the mill when their original accusations had fallen flat: freshly tanned from a Dubai break with a Henna tattoo on her hand and her throaty voice rolling her ‘r’s with such abandon, her vexed highness was taken to task by the commentariat for her thin-skinned reaction to the media interest.

Well before this episode, in her very first public appointments as the PM’s spouse, it was her rich Maltese cadence and glottal stops that made Daphne Caruana Galizia reach for the keyboard. And roll further back to when her husband was still Opposition leader: it was the choice of her children’s names… French… celestial objects… as far as possible from the genteel understatement of the Biblical standard… that invited opprobrium on social media. (As it happens The Times’ special correspondent on new baby names revels in the mirth of ‘non-traditional’ names).

Such taunting reactions, undeniably class-based, have always been employed as the ultimate put-down where fair comment or political arguments fail.

To the contrary, the Maltese media was kinder to Lawrence Gonzi’s spouse. Ostensibly, her demure way allowed us to overlook her worldly job as a political liaison to her husband (with staff of her own). Her reactionary views on women’s sexuality were brushed off as the product of her generation. She dressed modestly. Her unassuming manner, so distant from Muscat’s indulgence on fashion and charity events, invited no questions.

It stands to reason that after the Egrant affair, Muscat is entitled to express her umbrage. And that, after having been at the receiving end of political and class shaming, she too can call into question the manner in which an expensive, private school might have paid scant attention to her children’s needs.

But no. Let’s blame the kids’ Instagram for the bullying, or perhaps – to go by Chetcuti’s standard – “de funnie ekksent” and your “rubbish politician” dad.

I find myself putting forward an unnecessary defence of Michelle Muscat (I have personal knowledge of an outburst of hers related to public statements I have made). But I strongly feel Chetcuti’s unsolicited advice – that it’s the parents’ political exposure to be blamed and not the toxicity of bullying – is simply prejudice parading as psycho-twaddle.

Which parent will excuse bullying as a rational by-product of the political game? Well, someone who thinks your kids are fair game in love and war.

And that’s bunkum. If she has more advice about how to deal with disappointments and growing up, let it be whispered at the pillow.

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