Behind the affront

The optics do not look good for Labour when it has to resort to false, moralistic premises to sack people who are considered to be valid, internal critics

Mark Camilleri, since 2013 the executive chairperson of the National Book Council, certainly has a way with words. 

His outspokenness on social media is legendary, not least for being one of the few, if not only, critics of the same Labour government he has actively supported in 2013 and 2017. He has been active inside the party through the Senglea branch as recently as the last Labour election. But, as  one of the ‘critical-Left’ members of the Maltese political landscape, Camilleri has been unique in that, as a State-paid functionary hand-picked by former education minister Evarist Bartolo to head the National Book Council, he has been keen to criticise his own party-in-government’s failings on good governance and the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination.  

His candour is especially welcomed by those who desire a more honest dialogue inside the Labour Party structures, one that is not beholden to the leadership cults that exist in both major political parties. Camilleri’s critics traditionally include those from the opposite side of the political divide, who discount his politics and today pay him tribute only for the fact that he holds up a mirror to the deficiencies of the Labour Party. 

His outburst this week on social media nearly cost him his job after he publicised a private, foul-mouthed exchange with a lawyer from the Yorgen Fenech defence team who took issue with an earlier statement of his on the Caruana Galizia public inquiry. Faced with the lawyer’s unsolicited ‘advice’, Camilleri was entitled to his exchange; his publicisation of the private conversation then led to the lawyer to enter the fray once again, with Camilleri responding kind. 

With his brown, Marxist behind (which is where Camilleri asked he be orally despatched by the offending party) now at the tail-end of a 2020 replete with social media eruptions, it brings to mind countless examples where Labour functionaries in government expressed far worse on social media. Unprovoked attacks on Labour critics came from such people as Mario Philip Azzopardi or Jason Micallef, the head of the Valletta Cultural Agency; their choice of language was equally as unfortunate, yet they did not face the prospect of the chop. 

Camilleri, who has since apologised for his unfortunate choice of language, turned out to be made of sterner stuff: when asked by the permanent secretary to resign, he refused. 

The irony continues, for Camilleri had once led successful anti-censorship campaign when, as the editor of a minor university pamphlet, Realtà, in 2010 he was reported to the police by the University of Malta administration for publishing a short story by acclaimed author Alex Vella Gera. Charged unsuccessfully on obscenity charges, with then Attorney General Peter Grech appealing the acquittal again unsuccessfully Camilleri’s anti-censorship struggle was recognised by the Labour government, when he became the recipient of a Republic Day honour in 2013. He slept in and missed the ceremony. 

Diary malfunctions apart, Camilleri became an instrumental part of the Labour government’s anti-censorship drive. Together with his campaign activists Ingram Bondin and lawyer Andrew Sciberras, he contributed in great part to the reform in censorship laws which did away with obscenity as a criminal charge; as well as playing a part in a rewrite of the Media and Defamation Act that had been first pushed by leading newspapers. 

Camilleri’s biggest contribution has been revolutionising the National Book Council by forcing bigger public spending on its activities: royalties for Maltese authors from lending rights, a convention of writers to push for legal changes, A-list celebrity writers invited to the Malta Book Festival, and one of the biggest ever national promotions of Maltese literature over the course of seven full years. He is backed by a hard-working team, with some past members whose contributions should also be noted. 

Camilleri may be known for his sharp corners and kicking back. Those who dislike his intransigent ways have long attempted to have him shipped out. His inelegant tiff on Facebook makes him exposed. But the optics do not look good for Labour when it has to resort to false, moralistic premises to sack people who are considered to be valid, internal critics, and whose contribution to the Maltese literary milieu has been universally noted for its hard work.