It is the role of the press to ask uncomfortable questions

Journalism is there to mediate between a public that cannot question the people in authority, and those calling the shots

A provocative question by MaltaToday, to the Superintendent for Public Health this week, raised hackles on social media. It was intended at getting Charmaine Gauci to respond to the feeling out on the street – as well as the informed opinions of the entirety of Malta’s main medical and specialist colleges – that the science that informs the public health response to COVID-19 has been overwhelmed by political expedience.

In a free democracy, the sacrosanct right to ask questions is the sole weapon in the hands of the free press. Yet, as usual, it was met with the customary barrage of sycophantic responses.

It goes without saying that Charmaine Gauci enjoys national respect and prestige, as the guide to the national medical response to COVID; but that alone does not place anyone above even the harshest kind of questioning. Journalism is there to mediate between a public that cannot question the people in authority, and those calling the shots. And journalists are meant to discharge this duty without fear or favour.

The press, too, is not above criticism. It is often denigrated for its standpoints: it can be too close to power at times, or too distant from the public; it is either too liberal, or too detached from daily realities.

The risk of internalising the views of those in power – or rationalising political actions as ‘realpolitik’, even when these are immoral or unethical – is a dangerous position for the press; the same goes when it echoes uninformed, emotive, or desultory viewpoints that sow conspiratorial mistrust of the authority or punch down on defenceless minorities.

The journalist often walks a tight-rope between these two poles, armed with some degree of cynicism, and some hope; suspicion as well as cautious optimism; intellectual curiosity as well as native wit.

But what has happened in Malta, over the last three months, in the battle against COVID-19?

Over Christmas, COVID-19 cases were averaging around 120 cases a day. COVID fatigue was setting in, after a lost summer from a misguided loosening of restrictions: as seen in the infamous Hotel Takeover party, and a resultant spread inside the homes for the elderly.  December was replete with indications that many continued to flout the emergency regulations, despite consistent warnings by the health authorities. It was evident, then, that after many months of limited social contact, there was additional pressure piling up to celebrate with even greater abandon than usual.    

It takes little to understand, there and then, that the post-Christmas season was destined to bring about a radical increase in cases. It was certainly no time to be lowering our guard. Yet, the rise in cases continued unabated in the following months, and again throughout the carnival season when Gozo turned into a hideaway for private parties.

So far the triumphalism of the arrival of the vaccines – with full credit going to the government and the public health authorities for their timely interventions – was again used to predict light at the end of the tunnel; or business-as-usual, as our country’s leaders often remind us.

And yet, all top 40 records in COVID daily increases, were registered after January 2021 bar four instances. This week we have seen record-breaking COVID cases forcing the government once again into announcing renewed restrictive measures; measures that could have been taken earlier on in a bid to save the next summer for the trickle of tourists that might make their way to our shores.

Yes: it was necessary to publicly ask Charmaine Gauci, as we would have in any personal interview, whether she should resign to make way for a public health czar who can withstand any political pressure on COVID-19 measures.

Such questions are never personal. The role of the public health superintendent is not meant to be turned into a poster-child for the Labour government’s COVID-19 efforts. The public functionary serves the State, and as such must embody the expectations of that role.

Of course, to simply say that science must trump political decisions, at all turns, risks sounding naive. Politicians are there to understand the people’s needs, and inform public health authorities of their anxieties after the hardships and sacrifices we have had to endure.

Prime Minister Robert Abela’s emotive defence of Charmaine Gauci will certainly go down well with the choir he preaches to. Vaccine populism, and his ‘team Malta’ nationalism, come straight out of the government’s playbook to attempt to portray divergences of political viewpoints as ‘unpatriotic’.

But nothing should deter the free press from asking the hard questions, even when these are aimed at well-respected decision-makers.  Asking uncomfortable questions is a must, a necessity, to elicit equally judicious replies from decision-makers.

For those in power, fending off such questions, and providing dispassionate replies, should be part of the job.