Some don’t like it hot | Frans Ghirxi

The Sliema murders shook the nation but it was also the press and its reports that came under the public’s scrutiny. Former newspaperman Frans Ghirxi considers the facts, and reports…

“I believe that certain journalists know more than they are letting on. Their sources are good and they are not yet reporting everything they may know” - Ghirxi
“I believe that certain journalists know more than they are letting on. Their sources are good and they are not yet reporting everything they may know” - Ghirxi

There's no coyness about the fact that the first week of 2012 had journalists in a flurry over the current affairs taking Malta by storm. Crowned off by news of a Cabinet reshuffle and the open rebellion of government MP Franco Debono threatening Lawrence Gonzi's government's stability, it was the harrowing New Year's Day tragedy inflicted upon two families that had the nation shocked at the mysterious and bizarre circumstances that let two men, Duncan Zammit and Nicholas Gera dead.

The high-octane media attention visited upon the double-murder seemed unprecedented in its search for clues and more information on the two men and their presumed relationship that could have been the backdrop to the tragedy. Set in the tranquil environs of Sliema, an affluent town that has seen just 12 murders in 200 years, the murders - originally believed to have been a tragic conclusion to a botched burglary - shocked the nation out of the stupor of the Christmas festivities. All the expected ingredients of a murder - the motive, a criminal record, a deprived setting - were absent, and instead the tragic characters hailed from respectable families, both of them publicly denying any knowledge of how Zammit or Gera could have known each other.

The chatter and private speculation on the murders spilled over into the online comments boards, as media house after the other proffered a series of leads being considered by the police investigators: that the two men knew each other well, that this was an act of revenge, or that one of the men was killed by the hand of Zammit's wife Claire in self-defence.

But a good part of the public's response, echoed by the concelebrant in Gera's funeral mass, demanded a stop to speculation. Had the press's incessant attention into the details of this murder gone beyond the mere remit of reporting, or was their probing justified?

Frans Ghirxi, erstwhile editor of the General Workers Union daily l-orizzont, has had his fair share of crime reporting, understanding full well the kind of allure law and crime reports have for the general public.

However he sounds a cautious note on the role of journalists tackling such a delicate case:

"I can see that the press is fully justified in reporting this crime, and it is certainly one that merits attention. However, short of clear facts journalists must make a difference between what is clearly fact, and what can be commentary and speculation. Every case should be seen on the basis of facts... but it's hard to hold back private speculation," Ghirxi says.

But he qualifies his statement, aware that journalists have been searching for new angles to the Sliema murder by scouring their police leads and speaking to relatives and possible eyewitnesses who last saw Gera clock off work and then head to Muddy Waters, or Zammit who that night was celebrating the New Year at home with his family.

"It is clear that the police had many occasions to call a press conference, as it has done in the past, and clear the air on some aspects of the murder and the investigation being made. I think it is obvious that the police had to give basic details of what it found on the crime scene, and that it updates the media in a bid not to leave any room for speculation on the crime.

"Journalists know there are two levels of speculation: the kind that takes place in the street and is alive and kicking but never published; and the one they could entertain in print when exploring the possible leads police are considering.

"In the case of a crime where it looks like third persons may not be involved, and where the sole witness has been identified, perhaps there was enough room for the police to quell some speculation by holding a press conference on the crime."

So does that mean the press is somewhat justified in speculating on the theories that could have led Gera to find himself in the Zammits' apartment?

"I can understand that journalists, when faced with this kind of crime, are interested in following up with their own investigation the kind of facts that come their way through well-placed sources. And there are many journalists who have very good sources, not just in police circles, who provide information on their lines of inquiry.

"But what I don't agree with is that journalists, short of an investigation that results in objective facts, should speculate by way of revealing inklings of the investigation, midway into the process."

Ghirxi considers the dangers of speculation, especially by of a press that has multiplied its presence inside the digital universe with news that can be searched at the click of a mouse, and stay permanently in the ether for posterity.

"It became more of a preoccupation with me as I grew in this business, that when we start speculating in such moments, journalists have to place themselves in other peoples' shoes. They really have to weigh the effect the printed word can have on the people they write about. And it is possible you are hurting someone. You must think of the other person.

"Although the media should not stop from investigating, and this is an important role of the media, it must be careful from speculation that could boomerang against it and damage its credibility."

But does Ghirxi feel that the myriad news stories on the Sliema murders, and the converging police leads that the major news outlets focused on, were the fruit of a genuine journalistic interest, heightened as much as it was?

"Yes, there is certainly a genuine interest in the story that pushes journalists to explore the story further. But there is also an element of competition between the online news providers who want to provide on-the-minute news, sometimes just for the sake of having some latest detail published."

Ghirxi of course, is not a man of the digital age. At the age of 16 back in 1964, he started an apprenticeship at the General Workers Union's printing press, where he was placed by the linotype printer to re-type all the copy of the day into the lead characters used to print out the newspaper text. He would re-read all that copy and do it up again. "You must read it, you end up taking an interest in the job. And that's how it all started. When I applied for a journalist's vacancy, I took up the job at a lower wage."

As he considers the power of the image and the endless opportunities for the media to serve the purpose of delivering a message, Ghirxi cannot fail to note that even the families of the victims - in this case entrepreneur Anglu Xuereb - seem to have insisted on impressing their version of events by using the media.

"I've never before seen somebody indirectly involved in an incident of this sort take the opportunity to appear in the media. And although I do understand the kind of need these families may have in conveying their message, they cannot expect the public or the media not to question or comment on their motives," Ghirxi says, not yet having heard Xuereb talk on Bondiplus as we hold the interview on Thursday afternoon.

Ghirxi suggests that the very fact that the daughter of a tycoon is implicated in the tragedy, already generates enough interest as it is, a fact that sets this crime apart from similar murders that occur in less glamorous surroundings and by socially unimportant characters.

"I believe that certain journalists know more than they are letting on. Their sources are good and they are not yet reporting everything they may know," Ghirxi says, as he delves into the general feeling of unhappiness by a certain section of the public that has been annoyed by reports on the possible police leads being considered.

"The fact is that there are cases where an autopsy registers 40 stab wounds taking place during a murder. But it turns out that these include bruises and cuts endured by the victim while trying to defend themselves against their aggressor, and only one stab wound would have been fatal. In the eyes of the public, this may sound sensational. And it is up to journalists to explain this better, and also up to the police to release proper autopsy notes and reports to help the public understand better these press reports."

Ghirxi also says that court and crime reports always tend to elicit the public's attention because of what they eventually lead to. He cites as an example the recent trial of Corradino prison 'queen' Josette Bickle, which gave the public a window into the broken Maltese prison system.

"This was a case less concerned with the person herself than with the actual ruling of the judge and how this merited greater attention. It was obvious that journalists had to take the case further and go to the authorities to question them over the state of Malta's prison system.

"And there are cases of human interest. Recently there was a case where a mother left her seven-month-old infant inside the bar where she had been drinking. It's not something that happens every day. There was the case where an infant was left behind the door of a convent. These are stories which say something about Maltese society and which the media is duty-bound to report."

Ghirxi concedes that the Maltese media works in certain restricted conditions, faced by daily pressures from advertising departments, businesses that threaten to cut down on advertising budgets and also pressure from political patrons.

"I see there is a certain level of Maltese journalism that is very good but is unable to develop any further. The independent media houses can allow their journalists to flourish. But other journalists are encumbered by the agenda of their political masters," he says referring to the political party media. "And I think they can spread their wings further."

He says Maltese journalism has improved generally, but also notes that some of the newer crop of reporters (and some old...) are not always inclined to ask questions during press conferences. "I'm disgusted at the fact that some journalists don't ask any questions. It's what sets apart a reporter from a journalist. And that's why I have never agreed with the format of Broadcasting Authority press conferences during elections that restrict journalists to two questions without following up on their interviewees' answers. It just gives politicians free rein to say what they want without being questioned any further."



My, my life is full of surprise. Frans Girxi has now joined the silence and anti speculation wagon, since when? In the history of crime the press always feed us vultures the juicy morsels. Fact or speculation it was printed because it increased sales. Of course when it is clear facts, it is much better. Take the latest paedophile case and with it I include also that concerning the priests. No body in media had any qualms to name and shame and describe the lurid and sordid details. But this double murder is different, everybody wants us to shut up and avoid a good session of gossip with friends over a coffee and let our imaginations go. No sir, you must keep silence and keep your imagination in check. That is what the Commissioner of Police wants, Frans Girxi wants, that is what lou Bondi wants and of course what Anglus Xuereb wants. So us peasants have to comply. Now if Mr. Xuereb wants silence, he should be the first one to refrain from talking. By all means, I fully respect his grief. On the other hand, to put an end to speculation and innuendos, he should refrain from narrating cock and bull stories on the media. I fully concur that this is a personal and private matter and it is nobody’s business. But does this principle apply to all criminal cases that are of a personal and private nature. Unfortunately, no. A murder case of this sort is immediately of public domain . Why should it be any different? Because a tycoon in involved. So what? Whoever or what ever will not hinder me from thinking, speculating and forming an opinion. That is my God given right. Now if the Media wants to comply and keep its mouth shut, that is its business. It knows what side their bread is buttered. But for us common folk nobody will or can deny us the right to think and speak on whatever catches our fancy.