‘Truth be told’… in a post-truth age

How Pierre Portelli could claim to be ‘alarmed’ to discover that Manuel Delia also accepted to do PR work for other people – when it is precisely how the rest of Malta’s entire PR sector has always operated – is anyone’s guess, really

Given everything that’s going on in the world around us right now… don’t you find the expression ‘truth be told’ to be just slightly ambitious?

Anyone would think that ‘telling the truth’ was the easiest thing in the world; like there’s this thing out there called ‘The Truth’ – that we can all see, understand, and (here’s the rub) agree upon – just waiting to be ‘told’; and even then: told by anyone at all, with no credentials required.

Yet the moment you try and tell that ‘truth’, you will instantly find that: a) your ‘truth’ is automatically someone else’s ‘outright lie’ (which also means that all those other people’s ‘truths’ will sound equally ‘untrue’ to your own ears); and, b), that there is an infinite number of possible reasons why people out there – perhaps including yourself, without realising it – might have a vested interest in fabricating or otherwise distorting that ‘truth’ to begin with.

We are also living in age when ‘fabricating truth’ has never been an easier or more popular pastime. It’s a bit like Minecraft: only with gossip and hearsay instead of pixelated building blocks. Any child armed only with a Facebook account and Microsoft Paint (not to mention ‘Photoshop’, which most children can’t afford) can very easily convince millions of people that the world is flat; or that dinosaurs still exist in undiscovered subterranean continents; or that ‘birds’ are actually miniature government drones, using facial recognition technology to spy on us all through our bedroom windows…

And just look how many millions of people around the world really do believe such unmitigated nonsense (yes, including the one about birds). It cannot be just because the ‘photomontage’ or ‘fake news item’ was so utterly convincing that it ‘had’ to be true. My guess is that there are other factors involved: a rather straightforward one being that many people simply want to be deceived, because they dislike the reality of any given situation.

Another is that people are becoming increasingly sceptical of ‘official’ news sources: and not without good reason, either. Our recent experience here in Malta amply proves that you can’t always believe what you read in the papers… not even in the supposed ‘serious’ media, like the FT or (even less) the BBC.

So you just imagine how much less people are willing to believe their governments or national institutions: which – like it or not – are very often governed by an automatic, inbuilt impulse to somehow ‘manage’ the truth.

Viewed from this angle, ‘truth be told’ almost becomes a statement of outright impossibility. Which version of whose truth is to be told, anyway? By whom, and in accordance with what hidden agenda?

OK, let’s turn our back on hypothetical examples, and look at a few real cases instead. Just as it is easy for a child to manufacture an Internet meme… it is childsplay for anyone in the world to just start up a blog, or an online news portal, and manufacture ‘news’ using the same building blocks as the child. All you need to do is keep your ears open for gossip and hearsay, and – if you like what you hear so much that you desperately want it to be true – you simply upload it is a reported news item… and hey presto! Instant, potted ‘truth’, made to order, and delivered right to your home at the simple click of a mouse.

And yes, that is a real scenario: one that has unfolded endlessly, almost like a viral loop, for the past few years at least. Egrant was one example; the story about Chris Cardona meeting Daphne Caruana Galizia’s suspected murderers, shortly before her murder, was another; and just last week, PN leader Adrian Delia withdrew libel proceedings against Lovin’ Malta, after the news portal candidly admitted that it could not corroborate its previous reports about him running around with his pockets full of 500 euro banknotes, all plundered from the Nationalist Party’s coffers.

In all three cases, public opinion was very neatly divided into those who automatically believed (and shared) the stories because it suited their own political agenda; and those who dismissed them as outright lies for the equal but opposite reason. How many people – starting with the news organisations themselves – actually made any effort at all to verify (or at least substantiate) any of those rumours before printing them?

In the most recent case, Lovin’ Malta only went through that trouble afterwards, when slapped with the inconvenience of a law-suit. Naturally, this raises two questions: if (as they belatedly realised) the rumour couldn’t be substantiated, why was it even printed at all? And (somewhat less obviously) would Lovin’ Malta have retracted the story, had Adrian Delia not sued them for libel? Or would it have just remained floating out there indefinitely: one more little media polyp, to add to the ever-growing jellyfish bloom of Internet inventions?

In any case: all’s well that ends well, I suppose. But we’re still left with the dilemma of whom to believe (and on what basis), when we are surrounded, at all times, by a veritable untruth factory in full production swing.

Another, more recent example seems to place its finger squarely on the very source of all this misinformation. It concerns revelations, made in court, that the author of the blog ‘Truth be told’ – see? I was going somewhere with all this – had been contracted to do ghostwriting for Adrian Delia, in the run-up to (and slightly beyond) the August 2017 PN leadership race.

If true, it would certainly be a truth worth telling. This is, after all, the same Manuel Delia who now leads the wolfpack in its attempts to almost literally tear Adrian Delia to pieces. And (always assuming the allegation is grounded in fact) the same Manuel Delia who now holds Delia to account over his ‘bicca blogger’ attitude towards Daphne Caruana Galizia, also used to write some of his speeches/press articles at a time when (among other things) Adrian Delia was suing Daphne on four separate counts of libel.

Even I – who thought I was inured to political surprises, by now – have to admit to being somewhat bowled over by Pierre Portelli’s testimony this week. And it is important to stress that Portelli was testifying in court; for unlike an unsubstantiated rumour, anything that is said in court is automatically fair game for news reporting. Naturally, this in itself doesn’t also make it automatically ‘true’. But even at a glance, you will surely spot the difference between this kind of allegation, and the baseless (often scurrilous) variety that has been bandied about so liberally by the local press in the past two or so years.

Meanwhile, Portelli also testified that: “It was agreed that Manuel Delia would be a ghostwriter for Adrian Delia’s articles from August to September. In September after Adrian won, Manuel wrote to me asking for payment.”

As one may safely assume that the PN isn’t in the habit of paying people for doing nothing – quite the other way round: last I heard, Media Link was not paying its journalists for all the work they did – it can be inferred that Manuel Delia would have fulfilled his contractual obligations, by writing at least one article or speech.

It would, of course, be utterly fascinating to know exactly which of Adrian Delia’s campaign offerings (if any) were penned for him by Manuel Delia. Was it the one, perchance, where the PN leadership contender hotly accused an unnamed ‘elite establishment’ of having ‘hijacked’ the Nationalist Party for its own ends? If so, there would be spectacular irony in the fact that it was written by none other than Austin Gatt’s erstwhile right-hand man: i.e., the very inner sanctum of the selfsame ‘establishment elite’.

But that’s just the start: “It was when Delia mentioned ‘other clients’ that Portelli grew alarmed. He had no idea or control over who these clients were […] This led to a potential conflict of interest which he as editor would have no idea about, Portelli said...”

Here, the ironies seem to expand in different directions. Pierre Portelli is a seasoned media/newspaperman; he should surely know that if the PN wanted to engage Manuel Delia on an exclusive basis, they should have written a clause to that effect into the contract (and paid extra for the service). And besides: if someone (anyone) accepts to be anyone else’s ‘ghostwriter’… well, that’s a professional choice that usually extends beyond a one-client-only approach. There are few PR companies who only work for one client; most would have entire portfolios representing a broad and diverse clientele spectrum (note: even more so in Malta, where the job is poorly paid, and there isn’t that much work going around anyway).

So exactly how Pierre Portelli could claim to be ‘alarmed’ to discover that Manuel Delia also accepted to do PR work for other people – when it is precisely how the rest of Malta’s entire PR sector has always operated – is anyone’s guess, really. It’s a little like hiring mercenaries to fight your war for you, only to find out that ‘your’ mercenaries are also fighting for the other side. It comes as a shock, sure… but it’s a shock you would have brought on yourself, by hiring mercenaries in the first place.

It is partly for this reason that I reserve a degree of healthy scepticism for Portelli, too. Not to imply that he may be committing perjury, or anything; at the time of writing this, Manuel Delia hasn’t denied or confirmed the allegation yet (truth be told, he hasn’t reacted at all). And judging by how certain other allegations have been treated in the recent past, ‘failure to deny’ seems to have suddenly become ‘automatic admission of guilt’ while we were all looking the other way.

But I never agreed with that equation in the past, and I still disagree with it today. The bottom line is that – despite all these efforts to ‘tell the truth’ – I still find myself staring into a vast, intricate network of concealed political motives and dodgy political narratives, everywhere I look.

Like all those other conspiracy theory nutters out there, I’m beginning to seriously suspect that nothing even remotely resembling ‘the truth’ has been told in this country for years, if not decades; and what’s worse, I doubt whether it is even possible for ‘the truth’ to ever be told at all… especially when the people doing all the ‘telling’, also happen to be the ones with the most obvious and glaring motivation to distort that truth as much as they possibly can.

‘Post-truth’, on the other hand… that’s a piece of cake. Gets told all the time…

More in Blogs