Joseph Muscat’s most lasting legacy can be summed up in the shameless comment he gave to Times of Malta’s Jacob Borg yesterday, which started with: “That’s none of your business.”
This is how Malta’s outgoing Prime Minister responds to a legitimate question from the island’s longest-standing newspaper about who funded his family’s First Class trip to Dubai.
In what is likely to be one of his last comments to the press as Prime Minister, Muscat has highlighted the worst aspect of his premiership: his sheer contempt for journalism and the truth.
Whoever is elected this weekend as his successor needs to keep in mind that Muscat’s disgraced departure from politics is a direct result of this contempt.
The press is a lot like a mirror. You can hate it all you want. You can even try to ignore it or get rid of it. But ultimately, it is only reflecting the truth. And because of that, it is in your interest to take it seriously and use it for self-improvement.
You can only hate the press if you fear the truth. And if you fear the truth, it’s because you know it’s going to catch up with you one day, as it did with Muscat.
Those who only give a superficial reading of Muscat’s biography might find it strange, ironic even, that a man who got his start in journalism has ended up like this.
But in reality, Muscat’s contempt for journalism and the truth has always been there, even if many of us failed to see it.
Muscat did not get his start in journalism. He got his start working for his party’s propaganda machine Super 1.
By viewing his work as journalism, Muscat corrupted his own sense of the free press. To him, the media was simply a tool to further an agenda: back then, to ensure the Labour Party gets elected to government.
Truth was irrelevant. Objectivity was not permissible. His mission was to get Labour elected, and his weapons were his microphone, his TV shows and eventually his website maltastar.com.
Muscat spent so much of his life weaponising journalism, that he came to view journalists as the enemy. And when a journalist was killed on his watch in the most barbaric way, he simply doubled down on his contempt.
There was a time, not long ago, when Muscat was very friendly with the press and it came across as rather genuine. But in hindsight, he was only friendly when the press’s objectives aligned with his own.
It was between 2008 and 2013, when Muscat was Opposition leader promising transparency and a new way of doing politics. Just like the vast majority of the electorate at the time, the press was sick and tired of the Nationalist administration that had long overstayed its welcome.
The press, like the electorate, was thirsty for an alternative. So when Muscat brought some competence into an almost defunct Labour Party, we were more than willing to play ball and take him seriously.
While many people in the press believed this was a foundation of mutual respect, we were wrong.
Muscat had no real respect for the press. Since he viewed the press as a weapon, he knew he either had to weaken the press or take control of it.
He removed key journalists from the State broadcaster. Those who could be bought were given bigger State contracts doing other things. Those who could not be bought were fired and replaced with friendlier ones.
Muscat then proceeded to condition the newspapers. Through a mix of illegitimate secret deals, government advertising and state contracts, he guaranteed support for as long as he could.
With a tame press, Muscat was able to get away with a hell of a lot. But that all came crashing down when Daphne Caruana Galizia broke Panama Papers.
Suddenly, even the friendliest of press were dumbfounded. How could a Prime Minister who pledged transparency and a war on corruption end up defending the evidently corrupt?
Muscat’s mask came off and it suddenly became crystal clear to everyone willing to open their eyes: This man did not want to fight corruption, he wanted to enable it. So his fight was against journalism.
Muscat stopped giving interviews and instead began rallying people against the press. He showed visible contempt to anybody who asked him a difficult question. Press conferences dwindled to a minimum, journalists’ questions were ignored, Freedom of Information requests and Parliamentary Questions stopped being taken seriously. Information blackouts spread across government: ministries, police and other institutions. And while the press was left with no answers, it was being accused of spreading fake news.
Then a journalist was killed. Daphne Caruana Galizia, no less.
We still do not know who really ordered her killing. But we are starting to get an idea of the Office of the Prime Minister’s involvement in the deliberate coverup, possibly best explained by MaltaToday’s Saviour Balzan who admitted to being fed false narratives of the murder investigation by Muscat’s right-hand man Keith Schembri. Schembri is now under investigation for the murder itself, according to the police inspector on the case.
You would think that the barbaric murder of a journalist on his watch would change Muscat’s approach to the press. But it hasn’t. It only increased his contempt towards journalists. And his comments only became more cynical.
While his office is accused of being directly involved in murder, and he is personally accused of taking expensive gifts from one of the alleged murderers, Muscat tells Jacob Borg he should be asking who else from former government administrations has expensive watches.
Even during his last week in office, Muscat has no respect for journalism or truth. He simply sees every situation as an opportunity to cynically twist truth to suit his own agenda, in this case to confuse viewers into thinking he is innocent, or at least, as guilty as everyone else.
Muscat spent his political career believing he was answerable to nobody except the electorate whenever he is prepared to ask for their vote.
Many aspiring politicians watched him soar electorally while ignoring, attacking or even rallying people against the media.
This is his legacy and we can already see it in action in people like Robert Abela who expects to become Prime Minister this week despite playing games with the independent press on who gets to interview him.
Like Abela, many of Muscat’s followers have come to view the press as an enemy of the State, not as a legitimate and essential part of democracy, as is our judiciary.
This mentality is something we should seriously detest and fear as we rebuild Malta.
The press, like every institution, is far from perfect. But it is a watchdog whose role is to fill the gaps of injustice left by the official institutions. When the institutions are all captured, and the gaps become fissures, the press becomes the country’s only watchdog. Never has this been better demonstrated than in the past few years in Malta.
A politician who is acting in good faith knows that the press is an essential tool for self-improvement, just like a mirror. You might not always like what it has to say, but it’s in your interest to pay attention to it and take it seriously, especially in those difficult moments.
The alternative – believing the press is an enemy that must be ignored, corrupted or stopped – is extremely dangerous.
Whether or not Muscat was involved in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination or its coverup, it is no coincidence that a journalist was killed on his watch.
It is also no coincidence that Muscat’s career ended in disgrace despite his ability to keep winning elections. Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains to bring it to light.