Breaking news shouldn’t break us

“It is institutions that help preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of ‘our institutions’ unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after another unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about – a court, a newspaper, a law, a labour union – and take its side.”
– Timothy Synder, ‘On Tyranny’

On 16 September, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen delivered her state of the union speech, presenting her vision for a renewed and stronger Europe. The date also marked the 35th month since the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

In the meantime, the news cycle continues to test our limits. COVID-19 cases continue to spike overnight, and government officials taking the witness stand during the public inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s murder continue to astound us with what can only be described as craven displays of ineptitude and self-interest (and, in the case of Edward Scicluna, venality).

We learn that the Maltese taxpayer footed a bill of over €40 million in excise tax refunds to Electrogas. We learn that Malta Enterprise knew of the dodgy past of the Indian ‘investor’ behind the Streamcast deal but went ahead anyway. The government plays hardball with the powerless by leaving them stranded at sea for months and the ministry of health blacklists a journalist for being too sharp with his questions.

Malta’s prime minister dislikes the COVID-19 numbers so his Party’s media outlets cherry-pick some charts to reassure supporters.

The prime minister doesn’t like the details that are emerging in the course of the public inquiry, so he hints that he will tamper with that too.

Journalists are routinely denied access to the truth and when it does emerge, it is mocked and twisted until everyone has their own truth. It then rains and our roads become rivers once more. And that’s just Malta.

Our bodies are designed to handle being on high alert for a short period of time but when a highly fearful state of affairs lasts weeks or months, the effects are different.

When everything comes to a head all at once, a person’s mechanism for coping becomes overwhelmed and the person begins to experience what is known as crisis fatigue.

The effects include a mixture of emotions from exhaustion to rage, despair and grief. On a societal level, people experiencing crisis fatigue may be tempted to just throw their hands up and give up on any form of civic engagement. “Why not? We’re all going to hell clutching our electricity bills anyway so let’s just enjoy tomorrow!”

There’s also the added element of the way we consume the news. The effects of news fatigue are similar. If there’s just too much bad news then just turn it off or worse, simply turn towards the news you want to hear. In Malta, we have a solution for that, it’s called Party-owned media.

News fatigue wasn’t always as pronounced as it is today but with social media feeds many people began to cut down on or even completely avoid the use of more traditional channels.

The combination of low value, low relevance, and high volume makes scrolling through media feeds especially overwhelming, even more so when these trends were picked up by the media industry trading quality for clicks.

It doesn’t help that despite such a broad shift in consumer’s behaviour, many media outlets all over the world still use a breaking news format. This is fine, of course: today more than ever, many still want to be the first to know when something happens.

Yet this format simply gives us a series of seemingly random and unrelated events, there one day, forgotten the next, till the next similar story comes along, devoid of any context or history.

It warns and warns but we forget what it’s warning us about. In short, a breaking news cycle is not very good at charting a trend, whether that trend is the demise of democracy or the change in the earth’s climate or the cementing of institutionalised corruption.

To put this in a local context. The corruption in the highest echelons of Malta’s government didn’t happen overnight and didn’t only happen with the Labour party.

The two main differences now are the pervasiveness with which corrupt practices occur and the brazenness – how openly unapologetic the current administration is about its wrongdoings.

Similarly, Malta’s business magnates didn’t start striking deals with the government this year or in 2013. There was one person who would remind us of these trends in her writing.

It was one of the many reasons Caruana Galizia’s blog was so widely read, even by her detractors and the people she went after. She filled that gap in readers’ knowledge.

She had been writing since her 20s and her memory was such that she was often able to link seemingly random events to things that happened in the past or that were likely to happen in the future. She kept tabs on events that a regular news cycle presented as new and unrelated.

Even her assassination wasn’t a random act and the reluctance of those in government to ensure justice isn’t a new phenomenon. Both are the culmination of years of sustained campaigning to discredit her work and vilify her person.

The trend was such that those who commissioned her murder felt sure they could get away with it. That the breaking news cycle would forget about it soon enough.

“Don’t be alarmist, we are a young democracy,” some might say; and it is true, we are. And like many young democracies, we take our cues from “old” democracies such as the UK or the US, countries that pundits were so sure had institutions strong enough to keep would-be autocrats in check; but now we may want to look at them a bit more critically.

We may want to ask what happens to countries without any sense of the common good, countries that grow fat on exploitation notwithstanding the images they projected to the world, countries that are held together by fundamental falsehoods.

They eventually get leaders that fit that mould: leaders without a coherent ideology, driven by greed and self-enrichment and owing no loyalty to fact and truth.

The hard part is on us really because just like a parent is expected to be at their most patient when their child is having a meltdown, now would be the time to persevere.

Just because corruption and kleptocracy have become pervasive, it cannot be normalised, neither can the flouting of the rule of law.

Racism, misogyny and the destruction of our environment is everywhere in Malta, but it cannot be normalised and, no, neither can the fact that our roads continue to flood every time it rains heavily. We’re going to have to keep calling wrongdoing out when we see it, chart a trend when we spot it and break a bad habit when we fall into it.

Choose an institution you care about and take its side. Even a young democracy needs to grow up at some point.


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