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The OPM men who would do it again

In the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the former and current officials of the Office of the Prime Minister have given scandalous testimony. Much of the attention has been on their scarcely believable answers and their hostility to the panel of judges. But equally scandalous is what they have confidently asserted.

Confronted with documented evidence of unacceptable behaviour – for public officials of a liberal democracy – they speak as though they were justified. Nothing that has been revealed since the assassination has given them reason for even an iota of retrospective regret. On the contrary.

They do not just plead innocence of malign intent. They do not merely absolve themselves. They award themselves the blessing of the principles of democracy and justice.

The first pseudo-principle: sharing an article or link on social media is a neutral act, even if you share it as an OPM official. This is Josef Caruana’s line when confronted with fake news and insinuations that he ‘shared’. He says all he did was come across these items, authored by others, and shared them.

Nonsense (and not just because he was sometimes the original source). He didn’t share everything he came across. He selected only certain items from the mountain of articles available. Anyone who’s ever selected two flavours of ice-cream off a menu knows that to choose is to show what you value.

When Caruana selected the articles, he championed them. Just ask Ray Barbara, the personal assistant to Joseph Muscat (and, now, Robert Abela). On Friday, Barabara testified that he too shared items on social media – not because he had any special information about them, but because he’s a Labour loyalist and the articles supported the Labour message.

Caruana did more than endorse. Communications coming from within OPM have the authority of the State. By sharing the articles, he gave them a value and authority that they previously did not have. When you champion something, you make it your own.

Yet Caruana rejects the public responsibility that comes with being an OPM official – on principle. When he does this, he’s not just talking about his past behaviour. He’s talking about how he understands his responsibility today.

The second pseudo-principle was enunciated most clearly by Glenn Bedingfield, though expressed also by others. Asked about his blog, dedicated almost entirely against Caruana Galizia, he justified himself by saying that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

He had the nerve to justify State intimidation of a journalist by couching it as some kind of natural law. There’s more.

Bedingfield suggests that Caruana Galizia ‘started it’ (since the Labour attacks on her were a ‘reaction’). The game of who-started-it is childish but, if we had to play it, we’d have to go back 27 years, when Caruana Galizia began to write. Even though her early columns had the then PN government in her sights more often than Labour, you still find hostile references to her in the Labour press. She didn’t ‘start it’.

Besides, similar hostile treatment from Labour operatives has continued against Caruana Galizia since the assassination. How, exactly, does a murder victim earn herself an equal and punitive reaction?

Next, Bedingfield suggests that the ‘reaction’ that Caruana Galizia received, in her lifetime, was equal to what she dealt. Hardly. The collective weight of a Party of government is not symmetrical to the power of an individual journalist, no matter how influential.

But the greatest falsity is the claim that this is all natural and commonsense, when such actions are rejected as abhorrent in every functioning liberal democracy. Yet, Bedingfield and others continue to claim they have a right to say what they do because they have a right to freedom of expression. Never mind that every legal authority says that it is a right that belongs to individuals, as a restraint on the State – and not a right of State officials as a restraint on harsh critics.

Despite all this, in the name of ‘principle’, Labour operatives continue to use social media to intimidate certain independent journalists.

The scandal lies, therefore, not just in what they did to Caruana Galizia. If they defend their behaviour in terms of principle and natural justice, then it means they’re ready to do it all over again. Not only to Caruana Galizia, were she still alive. But to anyone else.

The public inquiry was meant to perform an autopsy on the past. It’s turning out to be a biopsy of a very sick present.

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