The long and short of it…

The long and short of it is that the work of a journalist can be very hard. Even hair-raising, at times. But it is also highly rewarding.

This is part of a series of articles celebrating 20 years of MaltaToday

Twenty years might not sound like much in the scale of human history. To be honest, it is not very long even by newspaper standards. In a country that boasts a proud tradition of print media going back to the 19th century, MaltaToday is still a baby trying to take its first steps in a big world.

But 20 years is a very long time when it comes to the amount of change they can bring. When MaltaToday first came out in 1999, Eddie Fenech Adami had just been returned to power after Alfred Sant’s brief interlude as Prime Minister. The race for EU membership was about to begin in earnest. The introduction of divorce still seemed a near-impossibility in our lifetimes. And he first few boatloads of what would turn into a full-blown immigration crisis had already started arriving. Just look how much Malta has changed in those two decades.

So when my editor asked me to write a retrospective article about my experience with MaltaToday, I replied: ‘Yes, gladly; but you do realise you’re asking me write a whole book…?’

I am afraid I don’t have time to do that right now, so instead I shall give an account of some of the experiences I have had in that time: focusing on the ones which I think taught me the most in my career.

I will start with what I consider to be the closest I’ve ever been to a real war-zone. The year was 2008. The venue was Valletta. An estimated 14,000 hunters and trappers were marching on the capital, after the European Commission forced the government to close the spring hunting season. And boy, were they pissed off.

In all honesty, it was like the tension building up to the siege of Helm’s Deep. Even Former Police Commissioner John Rizzo looked a little scared when the first bottles started flying.

At least two journalists got slightly hurt in scuffles that broke out as the crowds dispersed later. I wasn’t one of them; but that’s probably because no one recognized me as a journalist (I don’t look much like my press photo, when it’s not in my interest to do so).

As I made my way through thick crowds of very, very angry men, I stopped to chat with an old rugby friend of mine, who is also a hunter (yes, I have friends who have different opinions from mine). The conversation started with me telling him: ‘tikxifnix’ (don’t reveal who I am). And he didn’t, recognizing that my precaution was warranted.

But then, the entire committee of the hunters’ organization FKNK marched past: led by former secretary Lino Farrugia, in a particularly foul mood. He nodded at my friend as he walked past… then stopped and spun round to look at me.

Pointing at me but talking to my friend, he said – very loudly – ‘DAK MALTATODAY!’ Then he stormed off.

The crowd that had hitherto ignored my existence suddenly turned to face me as a body. And I’m telling you, it’s quite a hairy situation for a well-known anti-hunting journalist to find himself in.

Rather than beat me to a pulp, however, the ones who approached me were more interested in talking to me about our difference of views. It is a sensation I have often felt when talking to people who genuinely feel like they’re the good guys, but are being maliciously misrepresented. So I turned on my recorder and took their comments for the article.

As for Farrugia, I later interviewed him and discovered that he didn’t seem to hold anything against me personally. He probably didn’t even realise that he could quite easily have been responsible for a third injured journalist at that protest. I have since even eaten quail with Farrugia and the rest of the committee; the FKNK once invited the press to a ‘summienata’ at Buskett, and I went very willingly.

I could say a lot more about this interlude, but that experience taught me that it is possible to have an open channel of communication with people, even if you strongly disagree with their views. I trust I do not need to explain the importance of that, at a time of all-out media war.

Another part of my job that has taught me a lot were all the interviews I have done since I joined the MT staff in 2007. Let’s start with former prime minister Dr Alfred Sant. I have interviewed him twice in the living room of his Birkirkara home. The first time I was left waiting a few minutes, and – inevitably – I found myself poring over his (very impressive) library. What struck me most was that the section reserved for Russian literature – Gogol, Dostoevsky, etc. – was all in Russian.

When Sant came into the room, I asked him if he had read all those books in the original language. He nodded, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. What followed was a fascinating (but sadly very brief) discussion about Russian literature and history. I wish I could have interviewed him about that, instead of about Maltese politics.

One interview experience that cannot be left out concerns Mario De Marco. This happened shortly after the 2017 election, and again I interviewed him at his house. I was recording him – or, more specifically, I thought I was – using a new device which I hadn’t tested properly. I suppose you can guess what happened next. When I got home and tried opening the file… It wasn’t there.

I actually had to call him, in a rising state of panic, to ask if we could do it all over again. Any other politician apart from Mario De Marco would have (quite rightly) sent me flying. But he just laughed, said something like ‘That’s the sort of thing that usually happens to me’, and accepted to be interviewed again.

This makes me probably the only Maltese journalist to have ever interviewed the same person twice on the same day…

On the subject of interviews, I feel compelled to pay tribute to the people I have interviewed who have since passed away. These include Jeremy Bosseivain, the Dutch anthropologist who put Malta on the map with his seminal book Saints And Fireworks in the 1960s. And also Peter Apap Bologna, whom I interviewed at his Sliema home in 2012. I distinctly remember it as one of the most unexpectedly fascinating interviews I have ever done. Apart from being a veritable goldmine of information about the era, Peter also turned out to be witty, charming, intelligent, cultivated and – in a word – a delight to talk to. On both counts, my only regret is that I will never be able to repeat those experiences again.

From the outset I was reluctant to mention libel, but I cannot look back on my career with MaltaToday and not mention the fact that I was shut down by multiple lawsuits – complete with the threat of a garnishee order – for daring to ask questions about the relationship between Malta’s tuna-penning industry, government and organized crime.

We seem to have quickly forgotten that garnishee orders did not become a problem only recently; people have been trying to shut down MaltaToday for 20 whole years. In this one case, they succeeded – because those multiple lawsuits are still, technically, in abeyance.

But those lawsuits were all filed in the civil court. I was less lucky when sued by the prison director and five prison warders, over an article about the results of an investigation into a prison beating. Those lawsuits were filed in the criminal court, and I was therefore prosecuted by the police.

The abolition of criminal libel was in fact one of the many, many issues MaltaToday has campaigned for in its two-decade lifespan. For newspapers are not just about ‘the news’; they are also being part of the epochal changes happening in the country.

The job of a journalist also includes covering major events in the country, including election campaigns.

It was difficult to select one incident out of so many. But one experience that certainly stands out took place during the 2013 election campaign. I must say that this is all from memory, so a few of the details may be incorrect; but what I’m after now is the gist of what happened. The significance, from the point of view of someone who works for a newspaper.

For my sins, I was appointed to cover the Nationalist campaign. That’s the equivalent of drawing the short straw. Labour events were more fun, because Labour expected to win at the time. So attending a Labour press event was like going to a street party. Going to a PN ‘taħt it-tinda’ meeting, on the other hand, was like being invited to your  own funeral.

I cannot even begin to describe the tenebrous atmosphere at a Nationalist Party campaign event in 2013. Lawrence Gonzi knew he was destined to lose by a margin that not even I predicted; so… well, you don’t exactly expect to be treated to a bottle of champagne, when you’re part of a newspaper that exposed a major corruption scandal on his watch (which, strangely, no one ever seems to talk about anymore).

So I knew perfectly well that my presence there was going to be a little irksome to some people. Two of these people kept staring at me (I remember their faces well, and the leering, sinister grin they gave me as I was sitting there trying to do my job… but let’s not dig all that up again.) My demeanour made it very clear to them that I was aware of their intentions, and that it wasn’t going to get in the way of me trying to do with my job. But they persisted, and followed me around the rest of the evening (other journalists have had this worse, I know, I know…)

Once the speeches were ended and the crowd was dispersing, Lawrence Gonzi happened to walk past. (Remember, I was not Mr Popular at that event).

Now: this is from memory and I have nothing on record; but the impression I got (and I doubt he’d remember this, because for him, at that moment, this would have been just a minor footnote) was that he noticed that two thugs were harassing me. All I will say is this: the look Lawrence Gonzi gave to those two bullies would have withered an entire mountain. Before my eyes, I saw those two guys literally deflate into a puddle on the road.

Now: I could fill the rest of this article with my interpretation of what that meant, but I’ll just end on this note: just as I once had to apologise to him (and got criticized even for that), now I have to acknowledge that Lawrence Gonzi showed real leadership that day. Without even speaking a word that I can remember.

The long and short of it is that the work of a journalist can be very hard. Even hair-raising, at times. But it is also highly rewarding.