The murder that changed our lives

Beyond the divisive politics and the heated accusations, the murder of Daphne changed the life of those who work in this field. It’s a different world today, but not a better one.

The debate on the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia this debate has been overshadowed by recriminations, partisanship and parochial minds that are still torn apart by that murder and her memory
The debate on the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia this debate has been overshadowed by recriminations, partisanship and parochial minds that are still torn apart by that murder and her memory

I am just some two years older than Daphne Caruana Galizia, and I have faint memories of her at primary school in what was then a mixed, Catholic school in Sliema. I was a class ahead of Daphne Vella but she shared a class with my sister.

She was shy and reserved, but already then she was identified by all teachers for her flawless and expressive English writing.

After those years I do not remember ever meeting her, having gone our different ways and taken our own paths, but like her, I lived through the harrowing 1970s and 1980s when politics was inevitably the formative experience that would throw us headlong into our trade.

We were angry at Mintoffian authoritarianism and partisan thuggery, which dominated the confrontational politics of the day and instilled in us a feeling of despair.

Before her seminal column, she had been a features writer in a lifestyle magazine distributed by post. That changed when she moved into news reporting, where she wielded her vivid writing with the audacity she came to be recognised by.

She was sought by many in travel and tourism, business and politics for her script writing. But she was mainly known for her opinion columns in the Sunday Times and later, as assistant editor in 1992 at the newly-launched Sunday Independent together with Martin Galea, the newspaper’s first editor.

She had then this urgent yearning to remind her readers of the ugly days before 1987, when Labour was ousted at the polls by the PN of Eddie Fenech Adami. I too suffered from the same malaise, angry at the way Labour had governed in the 1970s and 1980s.

I dived headlong into the formation of the Green Party, Alternattiva Demokratika, editing the newspaper Alternattiva with no income but a sizeable and faithful following.

I was then also livid at the way the Nationalist administration had failed to rout out the corruption and errant lot that had led Labour into Opposition.

And at around this time, Daphne was actually openly supportive of Alternattiva Demokratika, having even voted for AD in 1992, critical of Eddie Fenech Adami and the Nationalist party.

Her famous description of Fenech Adami as “a village lawyer” resonates for its iconoclastic and boldly heretical timbre.

Her father Michael too had been a prime mover for the third party – Partit Demokratiku Malti – in the 1987 election, together with Lino Briguglio, father of Michael, the PN candidate, and formerly an AD leader. Indeed I had also edited and designed their own newspaper, Il-Fehma, prior to my AD days.

By 1992, her friendship with Fenech Adami’s enforcer, Richard Cachia Caruana, and the then-PN broadcaster Lou Bondì, had moved Caruana Galizia closer to the PN, with more well-defined and rigid antagonism towards Labour.

It was around this time that I recall meeting her at her home, asking for more details in which the notorious Labour minister Lorry Sant had blackmailed a fellow MP.

This was part of her vocation to illustrate the bad old days, hard-wired into her memory with a dislike of Labour.

At the same time, these views were matched with her own passion for women’s issues, the environment, anti-racism, and her scepticism of the Catholic Church’s hold on affairs. Owing to her pedigree and confident voice in the English-language papers, she struck a chord with the Anglophone middle and upper classes, and somewhat liberal strands who in the 1990s still felt stuck in a conservative and ultra-religious island.

In the time prior to Malta’s accession to the EU in 2004, I remember meeting her at a reception. We were then still on talking terms, and I listened to her severe critique of the conservative PN minister Tonio Borg over his staunch insistence that the Treaty of Accession to the EU should include a protocol guaranteeing that Malta will not be forced to legislate abortion. We could see eye to eye on this.

When, after 2004, the Gonzi administration kicked in, we would share many telephone conversations about stories and even agree on the angle of some story.

But the internecine war in the PN, where factionalism started dominating the Gonzi era, stopped all that as she and I each took a different ‘side’.

Two years later, in 2006, we were together again: it was May and the front of my house in Naxxar was torched, just a few metres away from the police station. I blamed far-right extremists fuelled by a racist reaction against immigrant landings in Malta in those years.

At the time MaltaToday was taking a very active stand against the policy towards migrants and we were very critical of the government’s detention policy and the creeping far-right persona of Norman Lowell.

A week later, Daphne’s home was also attacked and torched. She too was a vocal critic of the far right. I remember visiting her home in Bidnija in the early morning. I let her know that I would not stop writing about the subject and that we should get together and do something about the far right.

Our front-page report on the arson linked the attack on her home to the gathering of Norman Lowell supporters that same night. We were sued in court for defamation, but 11 years later, the courts threw out Lowell’s case and it was confirmed on appeal.

Daphne took her audacious ‘running commentary’ online in 2008 as the PN risked losing the election (it won by some 1,500 votes).

She was no longer constrained by an editor or the weekly instalments she was expected to deliver. Indeed, she worked day and night, sometimes penning long reads, other times simply employing the impudent language of the Internet to mock the people she obviously liked the least – Labour MPs and their associates.

In the ten years that followed, she became a reference point not only for those interested in the salaciousness of her revelations, but also for whoever shared her own prejudices – she was after all, her own brand.

At this point, this is not the time to judge the veracity of what she wrote about or how she chose whom to write about. We did share the same bench in court, usually waiting our turn to face yet another defamation case.

One fine day in September 2016 – by then our relationship strained – my secretary informed me that Daphne was on the phone. I took the call.

“Can we meet?” she said, and I answered that she could come to my office and we could speak then. “Is it okay? Would it not be a problem?” I said no.

When she did come, we talked for more than an hour. She said that we should join forces to fight corruption because we had similar aims.

I did point out the differences. I also said that I did not share her innate disposition that everything that was Labour “was bad”. And I commented that I thought that too much had been said in the past for such a partnership to take off.

As we continued talking I told her that her disregard for private people’s lives and her malicious commentary could also lead to some serious repercussions, that she was playing with fire by employing such a wanton disregard for the way some words were put out.

“You hit out at people who have nowhere to go – those are the people you should be scared of.”

She had then replied that she never touched people known to be drug traffickers because she knew that these kinds of people had no limits.

But she did. At one point, definitely with information from a source who had good knowledge or insight into this underworld, she did touch upon drug traffickers and she mentioned them by name, even accusing one of the persons – first arrested and later released in the wave of arrests on her murder – of having murdered a person who had disappeared without a trace.

After that meeting, we agreed to bury the hatchet and I decided to drop a defamation case against her in return for a simple clarification and to have the legal fees paid for. When that cheque came it could not be cashed, because minister Chris Cardona had placed a garnishee on her; so she went out of her way to phone my lawyer and inform her that she would be making alternative arrangements for the payment to be met.

After that we spoke sporadically on the phone and I received some SMSes from her.

In the summer of 2017, we ended up working on the same story related to Adrian Delia without ever crossing paths.

On the day of her brutal murder, I remember I was in a meeting with the managing director at The Times when I received the call.

I was incredulous at what I had been just told. I walked back into the room to tell them what had just happened, cancelled the meeting and called at our newsroom. No journalist was ever the same after 16 October.

A feeling of paranoia and fear crept in, and in our minds we started conjuring up who were the “fearless” people we had written about. Some journalists considered leaving the profession. They did.

Beyond the divisive politics and the heated accusations, the murder of Daphne changed the life of those who work in this field.

But this debate has been overshadowed by recriminations, partisanship and parochial minds that are still torn apart by that murder and by the memory of that journalist. It’s a different world today, but not a better one.

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