Chris Fearne saves the day

Given how quickly the latest crucifix controversy seems to have developed and given the speed with which Fearne immediately swept in, one would be forgiven for wondering whether it was all planned

It was a classic case of ‘whodunnit’ and at first we did not know who gave the mysterious order to have all crucifixes removed from health centres. The predictable uproar caused Health Minister Chris Fearne to hurriedly intervene, and rescind the order, but at that point it was not clear who came up with the idea.

In a circular following restructuring works, Primary Care officials told heads at health clinics across Malta that there should be “uniformity and cleanliness” and to remove all religious symbols from their premises, symbols such as holy pictures and crucifixes on their walls, “as Malta is a multi-cultural society”. It was later specified that the Primary Health Care Nursing Manager was responsible for the circular and that the Minister had not been consulted on the matter, which I find quite odd for such a politically sensitive decision.

It could not have happened at a more inopportune moment, when emotions are running high over the increased numbers of other nationalities setting up home here: whether they are EU citizens or African refugees who arrived on a boat. Whoever took this decision clearly does not have their hand on the nation’s pulse, and while personally it does not really bother me that much if crucifixes are removed, I do respect the fact that for those who are very devout, removing this religious symbol would be considered a sacrilege.

Considering all that has been happening lately, it would have been the last straw for many who are already feeling quite anxious and threatened by the presence of “the foreigner”. Whether we are personally religious or not ourselves, it has to be admitted that the Catholic faith is considered by many as a cultural trait – and this despite the drastic drop in Mass attendance.

Because it all happened so quickly and seemed to come out of left field, and because Dr Fearne immediately swept in like a masked crusader defending our right to see a crucifix whenever we pop into a clinic, the suspicious part of me could not help but wonder whether this was all planned. Maybe it was a way of testing the waters of public opinion on this issue (although anyone with half a brain could have predicted the reaction)? Or maybe it was a way for Fearne to swoop in to save the day to make him appear like the hero he was proclaimed to be? Let us not forget that even though he has publicly called for Muscat to stay on, Fearne is a contender to succeed the Prime Minister when the latter steps down. It is worth bearing in mind that Muscat has been heavily criticised for his continued insistence that we need more and more foreign workers not only to secure future pensions, but to provide manpower to build all the apartment blocks under construction (and to fill up said apartments once they are ready).

Or maybe the most likely explanation is that I have just been watching too many episodes of Veep where such outrageous ploys and subsequent political spin in which someone has to take the fall for a governmental blunder, are all simply part of a day’s work.

In fact, when I read that disciplinary action might be taken against the person who issued the circular, I scolded myself for being so cynical and thought no one would go that far just to “look good” in the eyes of the electorate…would they?

Are all opinions created equal?

Norman Lowell, leader of Imperium Europa, has been hovering around the edge of our national consciousness for many years. Founded in the year 2000, IE remained on the fringe for several years, until it set up a website and chat groups where like-minded people gathered, while the occasional get together was filmed, as Lowell gave vent to his philosophy on white supremacy.

The infamous 2007 interview on One TV, which had presenters (now Magistrate) Joe Mifsud and (now Judge) Toni Abela, barely able to conceal their tears of laughter, saw Lowell paying homage to Carmelo Borg Pisani with a dramatic flourish in what can only be described as high theatre. Borg Pisani was a supporter of Italian fascism and was executed for treason by the British after he was caught on an espionage mission.

Every time he appears on TV, Lowell causes controversy and heated debate because of his extremist far-right views. Viewers range from those who admire his unabashed, fervent nationalism to those who tune in to laugh at his outrageous antics. He has been on Bondiplus (TVM, 2010), on Realtà (TVM, 2009), Bejnietna (Favourite TV, 2014) and even on an official Broadcasting Authority programme prior to the MEP 2014 elections. More recently, he was interviewed by the international Vice News (2015) during which he described Nazism as being “alright for the time” but is now passé.

For a while Lowell was even featured in a satirical show with a spot-on impersonation by comedian Sander Agius.

The only programme which has banned him, as far as I know, is Xarabank, whose producers took a deliberate decision not to give him airtime because of his often inflammatory views.

The dilemma of whether to allow his views to be broadcast once again came to the fore with this week’s interview on Attwali (F Living) which gave him a whole 90 minutes to express himself. The presenter allowed Lowell free rein to expound on his beliefs, which while not implying tacit approval, certainly means that Lowell was never really challenged or questioned about some of his most radical assertions. This included the belief that disabled people should be euthanised as well as praise for Hitler and Nazism.

Writing on FB, the presenter Kevin Mercieca denied that he had not challenged Lowell in any way. I have translated his status from the original Maltese:

1) As a democratic country Malta upholds freedom of speech. Norman Lowell as the leader of a political party and an MEP candidate was therefore invited on my programme like other leaders and candidates will be. A few days before the programme I met personally with Mr Lowell and told him not to instigate hatred in what he says and does during the programme. What he said is what he believes in and it is then up to the viewer to interpret what he says.

2) It is not true that I let Norman Lowell say whatever he liked because when I did not agree with him, I immediately told him so myself.

I invite the public to watch the programme on YouTube to better understand what I am saying.

The Broadcasting Authority apparently took his advice and watched the programme but did not quite see it the same way. They have now imposed what F Living have described as “exorbitant restrictions” on further political broadcasts so the station has decided not to air any more candidates’ interviews as from Monday 15 April. Unfortunately, this has affected other candidates such as independent Arnold Cassola who has seen his interview scheduled for 26 April, being axed.

Back in 2008, it was originally believed that Lowell would not be allowed to contest any more elections because he had been found guilty of inciting racial hatred and handed a two-year suspended sentence. However, he was on the MEP list in 2009 and 2014, and is back again this year as the only candidate for Imperium Europa, which has been officially registered as a political party.

From whipping up antagonism against migrants, to the ‘mercy killing’ of those who are elderly, disabled and feeble, Norman Lowell seems to be ticking off all the boxes of those he wants to get rid of. The question remains: should we allow anyone to say anything they like on TV under the freedom of speech umbrella? I think the answer to that is no, because there are certain red lines which should never be crossed. Presenters and producers must be held accountable and assume responsibility for content while keeping their guests in check. The alternative would be a free-for-all where everything is excused and justified until we cannot tell right from wrong any more, leading the human being to do the unthinkable.

And we’ve already gone down that path once before, haven’t we?

More in Blogs