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Googling Joseph Muscat

It was a point of honour, Joseph Muscat said in court recently, for him to pursue his libel case against the heirs of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Years from now, the Egrant allegations will still pursue and tarnish his name. Someone googling him will come across the issue. Therefore, he will not drop the case unless the heirs state Caruana Galizia’s reports were not true.

Muscat’s declaration attracted plenty of attention. Virtually all of the comment centred on whether he was being fair to the heirs. But equally relevant is another issue. Does it look as if Muscat has anything to worry about?

I googled him to find out. The specific results change, of course, with passing time. Using a smart phone instead of a larger screen makes a difference too. So I used both a phone and a larger screen, and I googled him more than once in the course of a week.The results were more interesting than I expected.

The most striking thing is that, on the first page, no reference to Egrant appears. To be precise, immediately after Muscat’s court testimony, a few references did – but that was to report and comment on the testimony itself. In other words, if anyone did anything to drag Egrant into the most prominent results about Muscat, it was him.

But that Streisand effect didn’t last long. Within a few days, those links had disappeared, displaced.

Interestingly, a pre-Panama Papers 2015 interview with the Franco-Italian salon interviewer, Alain Elkann, remains prominent, no matter what else happens to Muscat, it seems. It’s around the top of the second page if you’re using a larger screen and at the end of the much shorter first page of a mobile phone.

Perhaps the bare-knuckled style of interrogation (“Is Malta in the Commonwealth?”) keeps dragging fascinated readers back, in a way that the soft-pedalling approach of the BBC’s John Sweeney (“Some say you’re the Artful Dodger of Europe”) does not, since references to Sweeney’s interview are elusive.

If there’s a ghost haunting Muscat’s results page, it’s the Panama Papers – not Egrant, but Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. It’s there in the conventional reference to other public figures that people search for, after looking up Joseph Muscat. In order of appearance: Daphne Caruana Galizia, Simon Busuttil, Konrad Mizzi…

But not to worry. It’s true that Google will quickly lead you to a 2018 Guardian article about the Daphne Project and ‘how Joseph Muscat’s glittering political career lost its lustre’. Invariably, Joseph Muscat’s carefully curated Wikipedia page ranks first, but Mizzi’s and Schembri’s entries are anything but embarrassing. It’s their version of the Panama Papers that’s written up, because wiki entries are easily managed through edits from government staff or PR firms.

Schembri’s entry has a nice touch, since it argues that setting up offshore companies is not unusual for Maltese. It helpfully points out that Francis Zammit Dimech’s firm provides such services and so does a firm that the wiki entry links to Richard Cachia Caruana.

Both men would strongly dispute the obvious implication but that’s not the point here, which is that Muscat need not fear for his good name (some might argue that it’s Malta that needs to be anxious about its reputation, given the narrative that Schembri is simply following Maltese conventions, but that’s a different matter).

Mizzi is not to be outdone. His wiki page is scrupulous in listing his genial achievements but has one curious omission. It doesn’t say he became deputy leader of his Party only to be forced to resign in a few months. You need to go to Chris Cardona’s page to find his predecessor was Mizzi.

We are increasingly becoming reliant on Google algorithms to serve us with relevant information. This means that it’s really difficult to know that in the space of three months, Muscat went from (a) saying that Mizzi setting up a Panama company was perfectly normal and that he knew about it; (b) supporting Mizzi’s campaign to become deputy leader; (c) saying he was naturally disappointed by the Panama company, even though it was legal, and therefore Mizzi would not continue as deputy. Apparently, setting up a Panama company falls short of the standards of the Labour Party but not those of the country.

Google, however, won’t easily prod the perplexed to embark on such reflections. That said, the search results for Mizzi, by the second page, begin to give links to the reports on Panama and 17 Black. Schembri’s search results begin to get annoying even sooner.

Two conclusions follow. One is that Muscat may be over-anxious about his reputation. Google’s results don’t throw up the very claims he says he’s concerned about. Why should that change years from now? It’s not as though, right now, he’s paying someone to manage his reputation on search engines, surely?

However, if there’s anything casting a shadow on Muscat’s internet reputation, it’s his protection of Mizzi and Schembri. Proceeding against Caruana Galizia’s heirs won’t do anything about that. Getting rid of Mizzi and Schembri will.

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