Revisiting the nightmare | Michelle Muscat

It has been a long 15 months for Michelle Muscat, the Prime Minister’s wife at the centre of the Egrant inquiry concluded on Sunday. She tells Saviour Balzan what it was like to be in the eye of the storm

Michelle Muscat
Michelle Muscat

My first question may be a little superficial: but how are you feeling, a few days after the publication of the Egrant inquiry findings?

I am very calm. I try to keep very calm, but once again it’s like revisiting the nightmare. Because obviously you start remembering those days when, at the very beginning, I thought it was something like a joke... something I could laugh off... but then you realise it was very serious. And now I realise how much more serious it really was. I never imagined it would be serious enough to change the landscape in this country...

The saga began 15 months ago. How did you cope with the situation before Sunday? Did it affect your routine... did you feel you had to ‘switch off’ to avoid confronting the issue?

I never stopped my daily routine: I woke up in the morning, took the children to school, went for training... It was April [when the allegation first surfaced]; at the time I was at the peak of training for my third swim, which was 10km long. So, I was going for training every day. It was something you might think I wouldn’t do, but for me, at that point, this was all so... it was something you worried about, because for the people, this was obviously a big story. But for me, because I knew that I had done nothing wrong... I was calm.

What did you tell people who were sceptical?

In truth, the people who surrounded us, who were close to us, always knew it wasn’t true. And the people who really know us, knew from the start that it wasn’t true...

There could be an element of loyalty in that, however...

No, it wasn’t just loyalty... we live our lives surrounded by people, who work with us, who are our friends... they know how we live. They know we live a very normal life; we have two children who are growing up; we face all the usual challenges of family life. We try as much as possible to keep things normal at home. There are things we do ourselves, instead of hiring people to do them for us. It doesn’t mean we don’t have help; but no more help than any other couple who both work. We live a very normal life. We try to bring up our children in a normal environment. Sooner or later they will have to fend for themselves. Their father will not be Prime Minister forever. But for other people – maybe even you – who have built up a distorted image of us in their minds... an image of me that is based on the character of a novel, or a film: those people will not be seeing ‘you’. They will see what they think you are. And yet I lead a normal life: I am not the ‘diva’ they have portrayed me to be in these past 10 years. And the people who live and work with us know this.

You are, however, a public person: the wife of the Prime Minister, and before that, of the Opposition leader. Was this media focus something you expected all along... or did it turn out to be more than you bargained for?

Ten years ago, when my husband became leader of the Labour Party, there were two focuses: one from the party itself, in the sense that, for the first time, the party leader had a wife. For [Labour supporters], this was a big thing: because one of the issues with previous leaders was that there was never any female presence in the leadership. And the PN used to use this very point to project itself as being very ‘family-oriented’; to stress how beautiful family life is... that you have a wife to support her husband; to do things which show her husband in a good light... Labour, on the other hand, never had ‘the wife of a leader’. So even from the party itself, I had... not to say ‘demands’, but people were excited... [...] If there was an event, for example, I was expected to attend. On the other hand, the wife of the previous prime minister [Kate Gonzi] was very active; she did a lot of philanthropic work... and everyone used to praise her. She gave a lot of interviews in magazines; she’d be on the front page of magazines distributed by certain media houses. She had her own budgets, to go abroad with camera crews and do her work... and nobody said anything. Nobody ever criticised her; on the contrary, they would portray her as though, ‘that’s the way to do it’.

Do you think the antipathy shown towards you, but not towards others, was the result of political prejudice?

Yes. It was political prejudice. Other people could do those things, but not me. Now, what was the difference? I was 40 years old; others were 60. I might have the energy of a 40-year-old; and in one day I’d do eight different things. Someone else might have done four... which would also have been a lot of work. But, for instance, a few weeks after my husband became party leader, I was interviewed by The Times. They invited me, and as I had seen so many interviews with others... I didn’t see anything wrong in doing that interview. So, we did the interview; I was very ‘myself’; and then, out comes someone prominent [in the media], who writes each week, saying: ‘Now that Michelle Muscat has decided to put her toes in the water, she shouldn’t be surprised if her toes are bitten off.’ Something like that. Maybe not the exact words, but that was the idea. [Pause] Today, I say that those words were the beginning of the attack. An attack that has lasted 10 years...

Now that the Egrant inquiry has vindicated you, and established that neither you nor anyone in your family was connected with that company: do you feel it time to ‘ride the wave’, as the expression goes?

I always rode the wave. For the moment, I am still taking stock of the situation. I will take my time, and then we’ll see. But this attack did not come about because of any disaster [caused by us]; this attack came about because [...] they underestimated us. In the first five years, they thought we’d never make it. They thought we’d never win. They still attacked us: if I went here, if I went there... and yet [...] I always kept to my station of the time. If I was the Opposition leader’s wife, I didn’t play the part of the wife of the prime minister. I never interfered, I never put myself forward. I always kept my place. But I was consistent. [...] I always maintained my role according to my position. Why am I saying this? Because I did nothing special. I did nothing spectacular. I did nothing that wasn’t done by my predecessors, and nothing that those who come after me will not also do.

When I heard the news about what happened to her, I think I was more sorry than her own family. Her family could go on to make her a saint; but at the time I said to myself: ‘Now I will have to live with her lies’

Turning to the Egrant allegation: when it was first made, Joseph Muscat called for a magisterial inquiry. Were you convinced, at the time, that that was the best way to tackle the situation?

After all the lies – 10 years of lies about us – first of all, I never filed a libel suit. To me, that was a waste of time. I don’t have time to waste with people who lie about me without even ever having met me, or spoken to me personally. And as we know they were all inventions. This one, however, was an invention that... well, it was too big to ignore. It was a bit too much. It was an invention that, if never cleared up... what’s the future? What’s the future for everybody? I think that was the only way we could clear our names. The way this invention was presented made it very hard to dispel. There were even documents that were later found to be forgeries.

Were there moments that you felt you weren’t going to succeed in clearing your name? For instance, when you went to court to testify in the inquiry...

For me, it was a trauma to have to go to court. I had never been in court before. No one had ever forced me to go, and I never chose to open a libel case myself. There were many things said about me, that maybe someone else would have sued for libel over. But I always said to myself, I prefer to live my own life; I do my thing; I do what I think is the right thing: I raise my children, I live my public life. And I don’t waste time on these things. If it was the right attitude to take or not, I don’t know. But obviously yes, that time I went to court. To others it might be an everyday experience, but to me it was a big thing. Especially because I should never have been there in the first place. I mean, what was this even about? [...] This story was so fabricated that... had it not been about me; had it been something that happened in a film, for example... it would have been funny. It’s something out of the movies. [...] Egrant, for instance. The first time I heard that name was when the story came out. I don’t have a Facebook page of my own; but the people around me do, and I would hear them say, ‘Look, they’re coming out with a new story...’ So there was always this sense that they were going to invent something new. And I would think: these are people who clearly don’t have anything left to invent. And I laughed, at the time. But when I was testifying before the magistrate, and he started asking me about all these names, I found myself thinking... but what does any of this have to do with me?

Your testimony to the magistrate is part of the full report, which has not yet been made public. The Prime Minister has asked for it be published...

Even I want it to be published; so that all those who are still spouting hot air [iparlaw fil-vojt] – I will say it straight – they can carry on talking. They can say what they like, and keep on sinking. Now, everyone knows the truth.

This story was so fabricated that... had it not been about me; had it been something that happened in a film, for example... it would have been funny. It’s something out of the movies

Now, but not before. In the days after going to court, you appeared visibly shaken by the ongoing events. What was going through your mind at the time?

The thing is this: that even though the people around us believed in us, with other people who didn’t know us... it was the other way round. I began to feel that certain people would start looking at me in a certain way. What do you tell them? What do you do? You know these people think badly of you. You go somewhere with your children... it’s like your children have the plague.

Speaking of your children, who were nine years old at the time: what was the impact of media attention on their daily lives?

We always tried to live as normal a life as possible, and stick to a normal routine. I did this, because I believe that children need to have constants in their life: they need to know where they stand. From the very start, I told my children that they were lying about us [...]

How did it affect their interaction with others, for example, at school? Was it a difficult time for them, or was there an attempt at buffering?

The school did nothing to protect my children. For the school, it was business as usual. Obviously, because they were our children. When things happened to other people’s children, it was never ‘business as usual’. With ours, it was. Which is fine: that helped us continue leading a normal life. But then, of course, at school there would be other children who would hear things, and over the weeks...especially when it came to the election... there were taunts about Panama. There were parties to which the entire class was invited, but not our children. And in the school social chat-group, there were other children who would post things about their father. There was all of this. [...] And it wasn’t just my children; my niece, too, was taunted at school because of her aunt. The damage wasn’t done only to my children and myself; but to all my family.

Former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil was on the other side of the coin: what are your sentiments towards Busuttil today?

I feel sorry for him, because he should never have done what he did, and stoop so low. It’s a disgrace.

Do you think he knew it was fabrication?

Either he knew, or he swallowed someone else’s lie. If he knew, it would be more than a disgrace. He’s supposed to be a lawyer, and he should know the repercussions of all this. He should have known better. So he’s ignorant. Because if we say, he didn’t know... then someone duped him. We’d have to say ‘miskin’ [poor thing]. But if it’s not a case of ‘miskin’, then he’s ignorant. He tried to do something; and this ‘something’ he planned to do boomeranged on him terribly.

It’s an uncomfortable question to ask, but what about Daphne Caruana Galizia? What are your feelings towards her?

If there is someone who wants Daphne Caruana Galizia to be alive today, that is me. When I heard the news about what happened to her, I think I was more sorry than her own family. Her family could go on to make her a saint; but at the time I said to myself: ‘Now I will have to live with her lies’. I want her alive.  [...] If she mentioned me 11,000 times on her blog, I could have taken her to court 11,000 times. Because it was always something negative. I will never forget one of them: just after my mother died, my brother – now, I don’t often speak to my brother. He has his life, I have mine. But when our mother died, [and Daphne blogged about it], my brother was very hurt. We hadn’t even buried her yet, and already they were writing things about her. And when [Daphne] wrote about Egrant, I had to ask my brother. I said, ‘Do you believe this’? Because [...] I wouldn’t have been surprised if, even... at the end of everything... [Pause] But you asked me what I thought of Daphne Caruana Galizia. I have never met her, nor was I ever introduced to her formally. I saw her once in a cafe; and when she was told I was there, she went to the toilet, and didn’t come out until there was a whole queue of people outside the door. I guess she was waiting for me to leave. But I didn’t leave. I was having a meeting over a coffee, and I stayed there. In the end she got fed up waiting, and left. She walked right past me; I looked at her to see what her reaction would be; and she lowered her head, almost until it hit the doorstep, and walked out. That was the last I saw of Daphne Caruana Galizia.


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