Silence is evidence

They came, they addressed the Judges, and the wolves did not even bother with the sheepskins. The men from the Office of the Prime Minister don’t hide that they are hostile to the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. They treat the Judges as adversaries.

They testified according to a clear shared strategy: starve the inquiry of information. Say the assassination was never discussed. Not formally or informally. Not at OPM, which was daily dealing with the international fallout – according to the men responsible for communications. Not in the Labour parliamentary group, according to Glenn Bedingfield.

Not even now with Keith Schembri, according to his bosom buddy Neville Gafà. The two discuss football but never, not once, the events that led Schembri to resign from OPM and the Labour Party. Not the recordings made by Melvin Theuma. Not the statement by Robert Abela on Xarabank that he did not believe Schembri lost his mobile phone. Not the various public calls for Schembri to be arrested and further interrogated by the police.

The strategy is to be unconcerned with being cleared by the inquiry. It’s aiming instead for a generic condemnation in the absence of concrete evidence pointing to specific individuals. No names means there will simply be a condemnation of everyone and no one.

There’s just one problem for these OPM men. The one thing worse than not being believed is being believed. If the OPM men really testified the truth – that they never discussed the assassination – then things look worse than if they lied under oath.

Let me explain. The Financial Times journalist (a Cambridge-trained social anthropologist), Gillian Tett, predicted the 2008 financial crisis in 2006 because she noted that the traders she spoke to avoided certain topics, even among themselves. It was taboo to ask natural questions about the dubious viability of the financial products they sold. It wasn’t because they were uninterested or suspected nothing. It’s because fear – of asking uncomfortable questions, of being scapegoated, of legal exposure – made them prefer silence. Asking questions could compromise the one who asked, as well as the one who was asked.

Silence was not evidence that nobody had any suspicions that anything was wrong. Quite the reverse. It was evidence of deep, fearful, widespread suspicion. Silence convinced Tett she was on to something big.

Back to OPM and the claim that the assassination was never discussed. The Judges expressed incredulity. I’m prepared to believe the OPM men, past and present. But let’s be clear about the only thing that it can mean never to discuss the assassination when it’s the subject shaping your work and political activism. It’s evidence of active avoidance.

Take Gafà’s case. He says that, in Caruana Galizia’s lifetime, he and Schembri had discussed the ‘hurt’ that her blog posts had inflicted on them, their children, and other family members. Surely, the public accusations now swirling around Schembri are causing as much stress to him and his children – not least because the man who is now prime minister publicly declared he doesn’t believe Schembri lost the phone that the police demanded.

Yet Gafà says he’s never raised the topic. What kind of friend wouldn’t ask? Only one who thinks it’s best for you, and for him, that he doesn’t.

Here, and in the meeting rooms and corridors of OPM, silence is not absence of evidence. It’s evidence of avoiding a subject you know to be dangerous.

Silence means not wanting to ask: so that you can truthfully claim, if the need arises, that you don’t know. Silence is knowing that the time might come when the authorities might force you to answer questions about what you know.

Silence is evidence of suspicion that something dark and dangerous lurks behind the door the question seeks to open. It is evidence of suspicion that there may be a trail that leads from the assassination to an associate. Given the widespread silence, it is a widespread suspicion.

Now, suspicion in itself is not proof that the trail exists. But it is evidence that the possible embroilment of an associate was considered plausible by OPM loyalists.

Indeed, that is the most damning thing about the silence if it really was as comprehensive as the sworn testimony claims. The OPM men had dark suspicions they could not exclude, yet they remained loyal.

They remain loyal, observing their honour code of silence, to this day.

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