A real drama behind a (mostly fictitious) documentary

Of all the inaccuracies in the first part of the BBC's docudrama about Daphne Caruana Galizia, one detail, about the reasons she launched her own blog in 2008, can't go unchallenged

So far, I’ve only listened to the first part of the BBC’s docudrama about Daphne Caruana Galizia; so for now, I will resist the temptation to publicly challenge any of its more glaring inaccuracies (like, um… ‘Ravioli’? Come on… even Daphne would have said ‘Ravjul’.)

There is, however, one little detail that cannot possibly go unchallenged, for the implications are just too downright bizarre. It concerns the presumed reasons why Daphne launched her own blog in 2008.

According to the BBC, Daphne took that decision because she felt there was no real freedom of expression in Malta at the time. The precise scripted words were: “If there’s no free press on the island, I’ll create my own bloody press.”

Somewhat bizarrely, however, the same podcast ends with the election of Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party… in 2013. And this event is presented as having ‘set the stage’, as it were, for a ‘war’ between Daphne and the incoming Labour government, in part over the same press freedom issues she had earlier complained about... in 2008.

Erm… did anyone vet that script for continuation issues before approving the final production? Is it possible that no proofreader or screenplay consultant ever noticed that there’s an enormous, inescapable contradiction between those two statements… so large, in fact, that you don’t even need any real knowledge of the facts to be able to spot it instantly?

Ok, I’ll give you all a hint. In March 2008 – i.e., when Daphne reportedly stated that there was ‘no free press in Malta’ - the Prime Minister was Lawrence Gonzi, not Joseph Muscat (who was not even Opposition leader yet; Labour was still led by Alfred Sant…if only for a few more weeks). And besides: in 2008, Malta had been under successive Nationalist governments for a full 19 out of the 21 years since 1987.

So, what the BBC is really suggesting is that all Daphne Caruana Galizia’s complaints about press freedom in Malta should really have been directed at Gonzi’s government… not at Muscat’s Labour Party at all. For if her ‘war’ really did have anything to do with the suppression of the free press in Malta… then she should have declared it against the regime that was actually in place at the time; not the one that would come into power five whole years later.

Yet we all know that, in reality, it was the clean other way round. Daphne worked tirelessly (and successfully, in 2008) to keep the Nationalists permanently in power; and above all, to avoid any situation which might ever, EVER result in an electoral victory for Labour.

Why would she even do that, anyway… if the sole reason she started blogging, no less, was actually down to the PN’s failure to protect freedom of expression up until 2008? A situation for which Labour cannot realistically be blamed, either… because it hadn’t actually been in power for 10 years before that; and even then, Sant’s government had only lasted the grand total of 22 months?

These, I suppose, are among the many questions the BBC’s screenwriters should really have asked themselves, before writing a ‘docudrama’ that is quite frankly full of plot-holes.

All the same, however: people who were actually around to witness events in Malta in 2008 – a category which clearly excludes BBC journalists – won’t need to hear the answers. We know them already.

For starters, Daphne’s blog did not come about as a response to the lack of press freedom in Malta. It came about for one reason, and one reason only (and she told me so herself directly, in one of many public conversations we had on her own blog): because she saw how close Alfred Sant had come to winning the March 2008 election; and that was the first election in which the social media had played an active role.

Quite rightly, Daphne identified the social media’s potential to upset the political balance of power; and this was the lacuna she set up her own online platform to fill (so much so, that she started blogging immediately after the 2008 election).

Secondly, Daphne did not declare her ‘war on Joseph Muscat’ when he became Prime Minister in 2013. She declared that war long, long before he even took over as PL leader in 2008 – all the way back when he was nothing but a goateed, bespectacled newscaster on Super One in the late 1990s – and for almost exactly the same reason, too.

Accurately as ever, Daphne surmised that Muscat was eminently more likeable (and therefore less ‘scary’) in the eyes of the socio-economic bracket that had traditionally always voted PN… so he would easily be able to succeed where Sant had always failed, and attract that ever-growing contingent of disgruntled Nationalist voters firmly to the Labour fold.

Ironically, though – and it’s a weighty irony – one reason why so many former Nationalist voters did indeed rally to Muscat’s ‘moderate/progressive’ call in 2013, was precisely the deteriorating freedom of speech situation in Malta under the later Nationalist administrations.

We seem to have quickly forgotten that time – precisely around 2008 – when people could (and sometimes did) get arrested for attending Carnival parties dressed as Jesus Christ, or some other Biblical figure; when archaic blasphemy laws were not only still in place, but enforced with (ahem) religious zeal.

Forgotten, too, is the case of Alex Vella Gera and Mark Camilleri, who were arrested and prosecuted over the campus publication of an ‘obscene’ short story in 2011. Not to mention the outright ban of a play called ‘Stitching’, that was later given an age-14 certificate at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival…

Granted, none of these events may have been the single catalyst for the mass-diaspora of liberals from the PN in those days. There were other issues driving more and more people into the open arms of the Labour Party before the 2013 election… the Arriva fiasco, the ‘honoraria’ disaster, the PN’s antediluvian position on divorce, the oil procurement corruption scandal… the list is practically endless.

But make no mistake: the BBC did at least get one thing right. Freedom of speech in Malta really was under threat towards the end of the Nationalist Party’s 25-year grip on power. We had a government that was hell-bent on inculcating its own views through the full force of the law – remember the anti-abortion Constitutional entrenchment drive of 2005/6, anyone? – and, paradoxically, an Opposition party that went on to build a significant chunk of its 2013 campaign strategy precisely on a promise to end censorship in Malta.

What the BBC got manifestly wrong, however, is that Daphne Caruana Galizia openly championed the former, and waged a total war of annihilation on the latter. And the core question I already asked, above – i.e., why would she even do that, if she really was concerned with freedom of speech? – remains unanswered to this day.

All of which, I might add, have the makings of a much more interesting human drama than the one we listened to on the BBC. For human drama, in and of itself, always revolves around conflict: and one aspect that has so far remained unexplored is the deep personal conflict that this state of affairs inevitably ended up posing for Daphne herself.

The Daphne I knew – and unlike any BBC journalist, I’d known Daphne Caruana Galizia socially ever since I was around five years old (i.e., 40 years before 2017), and had followed her career in journalism ever since she started writing in 1990 – was, in fact, very concerned about freedom of expression under Nationalist governments.

I had conversations with her at the time, both online and privately, in which she freely admitted to hating the censorial, Bible-bashing wing of the PN… which, incidentally, took the upper hand immediately upon Gonzi’s ascension in 2004.

Whether she hated it entirely out of principle, or because she (once again correctly) identified it as an Achilles Heel that would help enable a future Labour victory, is admittedly less clear. I’d say it was a combination of both. But the only things Daphne Caruana Galizia ever really criticised the Nationalist Party for – in the days before Adrian Delia, at any rate – revolved precisely around its tendency towards mediaeval conservatism and rightwing extremism.

She openly criticised Gonzi over his ill-fated anti-divorce position in 2011. She eviscerated Tonio Borg over that aforementioned Constitutional abortion crusade. Likewise, she was a fierce, relentless critic of the PN’s mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers… which also explains why the Far-Right tried to burn down her house, among others, in 2007 (Note: to be fair to the BBC, they got this one right, too.)

Yet Daphne Caruana Galizia also defended and championed the Gonzi administration throughout that time: even though its every policy, decision and action flew directly in the face of everything she herself clearly believed in. Conversely, she made it her mission in life to utterly destroy the Labour Party, and Joseph Muscat in particular… despite the fact that (on paper, at least: and excluding immigration issues) Labour, in 2013, was far more in synch with her own views than the PN could ever dream of being.

This, if you ask me, is the real ‘drama’ underpinning the tragedy of Daphne Caruana Galizia. (Note: it may even have a direct bearing on her eventual murder… but I’ll leave it to you to figure out why for yourselves). And it is the stuff that Shakespeare’s most poignant plays are made of, too: a tale of someone who ends up working against her own, most cherished beliefs… only to bring about the very outcome she was all along trying to avoid – i.e., a Labour government – while completely annihilating her own party in the process.

There are distant echoes of Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet and even Coriolanus in there somewhere… all rolled up into a single, very gripping (and, alas, very real) murder story, with dramatic political repercussions for an entire country.

And that conflict, to me, is what a proper docudrama about the real Daphne Caruana Galizia – as opposed to that purely mythical entity we heard about on the BBC this week – should really be exploring.

‘Ravioli’, indeed…

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