Daphne and the devil’s hoof
Why was Daphne Caruana Galizia divisive? Despite appearances, the answer isn’t obvious.
Contrast her public personality with that of some media personalities, whose public interventions overlapped with her career at different junctures; say, Manwel Cuschieri and Glenn Bedingfield, as well as David Agius, Clyde Puli, David Casa and David Thake.
Despite the obvious differences from each other, they have one thing in common. Although they had devoted audiences and dedicated detractors, they fitted into pre-existing divisions.
You could arguably still accuse them of reinforcing such divisions. But Daphne was accused of something else: creating division and dividing people about how they stood in relation to her.
To be divisive in this sense, it is not enough to be both popular and deplored. You need also to excite compulsive, endless, irreconcilable debate. Party hacks and blowhards don’t do that. They are predictable even when extreme. Even the non-hacks on that list were careful not to depart too far from a Party line.
A media personality who follows a Party line can become a symbol of something larger than herself. But it would be a symbol that’s an emblem, like a flag. Daphne was not an emblem, despite the efforts of her various opponents to present her as one.
A flag always unites the same people behind it. Daphne could frustrate or repulse admirers, and fascinate enemies.
Such a media personality is a symbol that’s both life-like and larger than life, vividly real and transgressive of reality, like a dream. It means many things, including opposites. Blood is such a symbol: it means life and wounds; family and war; passion and danger.
Blood — seeing it, feeling it, taking it, giving it, invoking it — is powerful because it means many things at once.
In the little world of Maltese public discourse, Daphne was like blood. The interest in ogling her in an uploaded photo; the spectacle of her giving stick, or receiving it; her essentially woman’s voice but ‘alpha male’ personality; her name as battle cry and curse; her word as truth and gossip, authority and rule-breaker, reassurance and danger… To see her, to feel her, to take it from and give it to her, to invoke her name: each one of these experiences was co-mingled with the others.
Daphne did not achieve this cultural status at once or only because of her own personality. A lot depended on the boundaries she found, and which she did not choose.
Contrary to the myth peddled by Labour, she did not begin her days as a columnist criticising all things Labour. She largely ignored the 1992 and 1996 general election campaigns.
Her first targets were Nationalist ministers. The early incarnation of her column was called, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, and she was criticised for never noting the good.
Her early eye-catching targets included Giovanna Debono (because she did not do enough to speak up on behalf of women in parliament), Peter Serracino-Inglott (a key adviser to the Prime Minister), and, most notoriously, the Deputy Prime Minister, Guido De Marco.
Her first column blaring out that Malta was not a democracy was targeted at the Nationalist government, in the summer of 1996, a few months before the general election.
She transgressed the boundaries of Us vs Them. When Georg Sapiano (for Il-Mument) and Peppi Azzopardi (for TVM) interviewed her in the mid-1990s, it was as a social critic — of Malta as Lilliput — that she featured.
And even when the anti-Labour line became a feature, not a detour, she could still sternly criticise Nationalist leaders, whether it was Eddie Fenech Adami, Lawrence Gonzi or Simon Busuttil. The simmering dislike of her among a significant section of the PN base was whipped up by Adrian Delia, but it went back to 1990.
She transgressed by being politically independent. It was also her business model as an independent writer. She was not just the columnist with the loudest voice but also one of the most highly paid, since her column sold newspapers. No doubt, sometimes she transgressed with calculation.
But she also crossed and recrossed professional lanes. In a country with a more sophisticated division of journalistic labour, she would have had to choose between investigations and opinions that courted controversy and satirised her targets. In Malta, she combined both, with talent, but they were always an unstable compound.
It’s not any single thing she did but the combination that provoked ambivalence in some and fury in others. She couldn’t be easily categorised. Nothing she wrote exceeded what we might expect from iconoclastic writers like Christopher Hitchens, but he could easily be labelled and boxed as a professional gadfly.
She also dug up important corruption scandals. But she couldn’t be labelled only as an investigator.
On these grounds alone, she became divisive. She divided people into unaccustomed sides, and she divided people within themselves. Some were ambivalent about the mix of investigations and gossip. Others were transfixed in the way that Oscar Wilde once described:
“I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit.” Some people detested her because she exposed their shortcomings to themselves; others both admired and hated her guts.
This last characteristic, however, would not have been possible without Labour’s decision to demonise her from the beginning. She herself noted:
‘What IS strange is how the Labour Party has managed to sustain its level of obsession with me for two full decades and counting. You’d think they’d have lost interest in a lone newspaper columnist by now…’
That’s not false modesty speaking but level-headedness. It took Labour’s excited, obsessive focus to make her seem dangerous, and heroic, in a way that no newspaper columnist could ever be on her own.
Then, after 2013, came Labour corruption, which made her truly dangerous. The State’s multiple organ failure made her truly heroic.
She was divisive not just on her own steam but far more because of Malta’s underlying conditions. She disregarded rules in a country where to follow them is to take a knife to a gunfight. She was divisive because we are divided against each other and within ourselves.