A snapshot of a country | Carmen Sammut

Whatever the result, media expert Carmen Sammut argues that the referendum result will speak volumes about what sort of society Malta truly aspires to be.

This interview was held before voting took place in the divorce referendum.

Opportunities for a society to stop and appraise itself are few and far in between as ‘societal snapshots’ or ‘still-frames’ are hard to come by, or are wide open to interpretation. 

But, media analyst and university lecturer Carmen Sammut says such a time is now: in the wake of the divorce referendum.

As we sit down on Friday – the hallowed day of reflection – to argue to merits and flaws of the referendum campaign, she quickly makes the point that  whatever  the result, it will speak volumes about the society we call ‘Maltese’.

“The campaign has revealed shifts in the tectonic plates of the Maltese social landscape, whereby the more traditional ‘dinosaurs’ among us were seriously challenged by a modern generation that aspires for a liberal, secular, Europeanised lifestyle.”

She maintains that the result will give us a snapshot of Maltese society. “It will tell us how we perceive and handle the influence of the church and political institutions; and what we perceive the rights of minorities, women and children to be.”

“A ‘yes’ majority will mean that we are a changing, adapting society that has definite aspirations,” she says. “A ‘no’ majority will, however, indicate that we are still traditional and resistant to that change,” a realisation that might shock and surprise the younger generations more than the older ones, who would have a deeper cultural and social ‘context’ within which to place the divorce debate, she says.

“On Sunday morning we can look at ourselves into the mirror and count all our national beauty spots,” she smiles.

Result aside, the divorce referendum campaign represented a ‘first’ for Malta on a number of counts. Despite how the race to the polls lived up to Maltese politics – in that it quickly polarised both ‘camps’ and fielded very aggressive tactics – Sammut points out that for the first time, the lines in the ‘electoral’ sand did not correspond to traditional party lines.

“This may have perplexed some party loyalists,” she argues. “On one hand, some pro-divorce Nationalists did not wish to defy the formal party line and embarrass their Prime Minister, or even simply opposed divorce to spite Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, deemed to be a thorn in the government‘s side. On the other hand, some traditionalist Labour supporters opposed the bill motivated by personal values despite how their political leader openly supported it.”

Sammut points to the increasingly complex interplay of political factors surrounding the referendum as serving only to muddle the central issue further, and push further away those who felt that parliament was abdicating its legislative duty.

“Some kept their eyes and ears shut throughout the campaign as they felt the decision should have been shouldered by Parliament,” Sammut said. “One separated woman did not even bother to claim her voting document, saying only ‘the majority should not impose its values on us and I do not want to partake in this charade’.”

As talk turns to the campaign itself, Sammut opines it was unavoidable that both sides of the divide would appeal to emotions and feelings. “Divorce touches the very heart of where we live and what matters most.”

“We not only saw the employment of positive emotions like love, hope, kindness and the human rights morality, but also very strong scaremongering strategies that exploited negative emotions like anxiety, fear of the unknown, suffering, anger, revenge, and shame.”

Sammut notes that in the beginning, the traditional troika of the Labour Party, the Nationalist Party, and the Church all vowed not avoid crusades.

“I appreciated the effort of seven influential priests who formulated a position paper on divorce in October 2011. That position allowed informed individuals to vote according to their conscience,” Sammut says. “Initially, institutions feared that crusades might backfire, and in all three organisations some outspoken players showed open disagreement with the main thrust of their organisation.”

But when tensions flared, she says, the campaign turned into a full-fledged crusade. 

But what does she consider were the greatest assets each camp wielded? Sammut argues that the pro-divorce campaign’s primary reliance on a political newcomer was invaluable. “The Yes campaign revolved around its chairperson, Dr Deborah Schembri, who despite being an unknown quantity, took the Maltese islands by storm.”

“She was rational and calm, even when confronted by the most hysterical of interlocutors, demonstrating the media savvy worthy of a seasoned politician. The harder journalists or adversaries pressed her, the better and stronger she emerged.”

Sammut dubs her “the Exocet missile repeatedly launched against the No brigade, who enjoyed strong institutional backing.” She recognises however that that the presence of articulate key politicians – proponents MPs Pullicino Orlando and Evarist Bartolo plus former Minister Michael Falzon – as ‘heavyweight’ assistance that helped the Yes campaign assert itself across party lines.

However, the Yes camp had limited means. “It obviously had a dearth of resources and led a straightforward campaign that relied on billboards, a few public meetings, some meet-the-press events and very high visibility in the media.”

“This campaign also enjoyed the open editorial backing of non-partisan media, namely MaltaToday and the Malta Independent, who still reported the No campaign. The Times did not seem to be blatantly editorially committed but most of the columnists supported divorce,” Sammut notes.

The same applies to most of the bloggers who write independently or in collaboration with the established media, who are followed especially by younger voters.

As talk turns to Moviment Żwieġ bla Divorzju – the movement leading the ‘no’ charge – Sammut opines that the group’s greatest thrust lay not in their expensive newspaper adverts, nor the billboards liberally scattered around the island, “but the power of interpersonal communication in communities.”

She argues that locally “it is easy to reach everyone directly, if you have existent structures. Church organisations and the civil society groups it influences are strong in all communities. Meetings were organised in many localities. These were reinforced by the power of the pulpit, the confessional and Easter-time house blessings with considerable success, not merely among older voters. We have heard anti-divorce messages even during the most sombre of rituals, like the funerary masses. Fear of sin and denial of Holy Communion were advocated even when some clergy members openly disagreed with such tactics.”

Sammut also points to the ample funding the No camp clearly poured into newspapers advertising and billboards campaigns. “It was not revealed who has funded this campaign and there was a lack of transparency about who exactly was behind this camp.”

“Funding transparency shouldn’t apply only to the political parties,” Sammut argues, “and that is a lesson that we should have learned by now, with European Union accession behind us.” She dismisses promises by the No camp that they would unveil their accounts after the referendum. “It is easy to talk of transparency after. What counts is before people go to the polls.”

Undoubtedly, it was during election week that all of the campaign issues came to a head and the campaign was at its fiercest, I point out. “We all had access to media polls which all revealed that people were taking their time to decide. This partly explains why campaigning hit the degree of aggression normally experienced only in general elections as voting day approached.”

She points to three factors that may have helped to secure a ‘no’ vote: fear of sin, child welfare, and the gender card. 

She points out that while anti-divorce camp’s main proponents did not resort to religious dogma, “within the church some figures did so with considerable success. An online Times of Malta poll, based on almost 23,000 responses, revealed that 61% liked the Bishop of Gozo’s speech on divorce. One elderly Labour supporter who had faced interdiction in her younger years told me how she came to defy her party leader’s position. ‘I listen to Radju Maria. The priest asked: Do you go to Heaven when you commit bad things? No! Is divorce a good or bad thing?’

She also refers to an article published in PN-owned newspaper In-Nazzjon. “Monsignor Anton Gauci asserted that proponents of divorce are “infernal spirits” who, together with all their supporters, are responsabilis in causa and that their unpardonable sin has “eternal consequences” as it will not be erased for thousands of years after their death. Then, if you conduct a YouTube search you will find numerous uploads that echo the message of the crying Madonna of Borg in-Nadur, doom and gloom – which also included an earthquake warning.”

“The gender card undoubtedly raised temperatures among women,” she says. “The plan was to appeal to women’s perceived vulnerability and anxieties, targeting middle-aged housewives in particular, and scare-tactics work. They even registered on the radar of some men,” she points out. 

“Two days before the ballot a distant acquaintance asked me: ‘do you want your man to run off with a young Russian and eventually leave you without a pension?’ It temporarily slipped his mind that I am paying my own pension schemes and that I have another 20 years of work to go!”

I strongly believe that these first two strategies may lead to Pyrrhic victories. The fire and brimstone campaign, while appealing to traditional religiosity, will only serve to undermined efforts to modernize the Church.”

She says it also brought back memories of old political conflicts for which the Church has long tried to find atonement. “It is true that people did not get excommunicated or buried in the miżbla but some of the dogmatic rhetoric resonates with experiences from that phase of Maltese history.”

“Moreover, the fear tactics employed with regard to women only served to anger a whole generation of women who felt that their struggle to achieve equality in society were being undermined by a vote-catching exercise,” Sammut says.

Sammut says that while children were a key focus of both fronts, it proved more expedient to one than the other. “The pro-divorce billboard where children were described as ‘bgħula’ backfired and the No camp made a feast out it.”

Sammut notes that the reality is that children born out of wedlock suffer the stigma, and that words like poġġut and bagħal are still in current in use, despite being politically incorrect. “But it is a fact that many people hated the billboard. Many felt it was offensive and that it hurt the kids whose interests it claimed to be protecting. In comparison, the No camp’s clean billboard depicting a doe-eyed sweet girl in her red jumper was more palatable to the public.”

Sammut also referred to what she describes as “unethical statements that misinterpreted data obtained from acclaimed academics on the impact of divorce of offspring, saying that this, along with contentious depictions of children, “may have exacerbated polarisation as those who favoured divorce saw it as proof positive of deceit, whereas No campaigners perceived it as a vindication of their position.”

A cursory view of the campaign issues, and how they gain momentum, suggests that the anti-divorce camp might have been the agenda-setter, with the pro-divorce forced to play defensive. Was it the case?

“In any campaign, one side needs to respond to the other, and as proponents of the bill, the pro-divorce movement had the ‘onus’ to justify its necessity,” Sammut says, agreeing that the Yes camp often found itself defending and rebutting. 

“However, the pro-divorce side wielded an effective campaign ‘weapon’ whenever they launched offensives on the No lobby over their failure to present feasible alternatives to support people with broken marriages.”

Sammut says that the anti-divorce front was however able to push the campaign into legally-convoluted waters on issues such as pensions, maintenance, inheritance, and child support. “Their specialised jargon confused helpless voters who do not have the competences to evaluate it,” Sammut notes. “This when in fact, the referendum was always a question of principle – a vote that indicates to Parliament whether the public supports a divorce bill that spells the end to a marriage four years after a separation. It is then up to legislators to fine-tune the law, and ensure it is watertight so that the rights of women, children and men are safeguarded.”

Curiously, the pro-divorce camp intentionally stayed away from one campaign ‘push’ that the Irish pro-divorce campaign famously exploited, I point out: paedophilia within the Church.

Sammut concedes that “the pro-divorce camp did not formally employ one of the strategies used in the second Irish referendum. Then, the moral authority of the Irish Catholic Church was seriously shaken by a string of clergymen who were accused of paedophilia.”

Pointing out that “a systematic content analysis of the news media in Malta during the campaign” is absent, Sammut expressed strong suspicious of “a surge of news items that updated running stories on paedophilia, which culminated with the publication of at least two new allegations concerning a nun and a member of the clergy that were being investigated by the police.” 

“Was this a timely news item? Or was it an orchestrated spin tactic? Maybe time will tell,” she says.

One of the biggest legacies, she argues, will be a look at the changing face of Maltese media itself. 

She points to how local non-partisan media were overwhelmingly in favour of divorce, and how most did not attempt to disguise or water down this stance. 

“One interesting observation was the editorial roles taken by the non-partisan media. In this case, they appeared to advocate what they deemed to be a civil right, and openly challenged the hegemony of institutions. “In this, non-partisan media could afford to be more adventurous than party-owned papers and stations. They were only responsible to their readership, and not any political ‘constituents’ or supporters.

“This says something about Maltese media and how the ‘role’ of the media is changing. What remains to be seen is whether they had their finger on their readership’s pulse and predicted the upswing of a yes vote, or whether they were agents of social change.”