Some communication experts are specialists in what is called ‘pre-suasion’. Before a message is even communicated, they prime the target audience to interpret the message as telling one story rather than another. Persuasion engages in explicit argument; pre-suasion shapes people’s implicit assumptions. If people are pre-suaded, they need no arguments.
In the coming days, the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry’s board will submit its report. It’s assumed the report will soon after be published. Joseph Muscat has already begun his campaign of pre-suasion.
We don’t know what the report will say, although we can make educated guesses. Its remit, remember, is not to discover who ordered Caruana Galizia’s execution. It’s to determine whether the State was complicit in the assassination, directly through individual State officials or indirectly through system failure.
System failure includes whether the State somehow endangered Caruana Galizia — for example, by increasing the risks she faced, or by culpably leaving her unprotected. The questions asked made clear that the panel was doggedly pursuing the issue of risk.
Probing corruption and public contracts was relevant to establish whether Caruana Galizia was the only threat to powerful financial and political interests. If she was broadly right, while being the only threat because there were no other effective controls or investigations, then the State’s negligence endangered her life.
It’s for the police to determine whether she was killed because of a specific contract. The inquiry’s job is to determine whether corruption contributed to the risks she faced. If she was isolated, she was vulnerable. If she had many enemies, the killers will have been emboldened, knowing suspicion would be dispersed.
The inquiry also looked into whether the actions of the State, especially of communication aides, legitimised the idea that Caruana Galizia could be a target of hate. Was it irresponsible enough to lead her killers into thinking they could literally get away with murder?
Muscat (like Robert Abela) has already begun to question the legitimacy of these questions, saying they fall outside the scope of the inquiry. That’s rich. When Muscat appeared before the panel, he criticised it for not looking at the media, when the latter clearly are not part of the State, and certainly fell outside the remit he had himself set.
It gets better. Muscat accuses the panel of bias because of the questions asked. We know, he tells his target audience, what the conclusions will be from the questions.
Actually, it’s the answers to those questions that make us think we can guess the conclusions. The answers were damning. Some public officials showed no remorse for behaviour that, in any democratic state, would be unacceptable. Other witnesses revealed attitudes or background events that were shocking.
The questions themselves, however, were open. They could have been answered differently. Had the facts been different, the questions would have let the State off the hook and vindicated Muscat.
They didn’t. The only reason why we think we can guess the inquiry’s conclusions, before publication, is because the testimony revealed a State that, on Muscat’s watch, was manifestly corrupt in multiple ways.
We predict on the basis of logic. Any honest person would expect the inquiry report to follow logically from the answers.
Muscat points at the logic and condemns it as bias.
His pre-suasion game is to say the report is illegitimate because its conclusions can be predicted. If we can anticipate them, he implies, the panel must have jumped to conclusions before the inquiry began.
In fact, the panel followed where the answers led. They asked many people the same questions to make sure of those answers. Their repeated questions is a sign of dogged attempts to verify.
Muscat condemns them for verification.
Muscat’s pre-suasion game has one last trick. He declares he will ‘accept’ the inquiry’s conclusions — adding, as he would that of any inquiry.
It’s only ‘acceptance’ in a formulaic sense. He has delegitimised the report before it’s even out, effectively telling people that it’s not trustworthy.
To accept a report is to accept its findings. If the inquiry finds that the State does bear some responsibility for the assassination, then there is only one way for Muscat to accept that damning conclusion: to hang his head in shame and express regret, if not remorse.
Muscat, however, is indicating he will turn the meaning of acceptance on its head. He will ‘accept’ proudly, to show he has a sense of duty to the State.
He presents his ‘acceptance’ as a vindication of his honour, not a recognition of his disgrace. By ‘accepting’ the report he wants his target audience to see him refute the judges: showing a sense of responsibility and loyalty in spite of their ‘biased’ conclusions. Indeed, by ‘accepting’ their judgement, he will show why they are unworthy to pass judgement on him.
If the inquiry report turns out to be damning, accepting it should mean shame. Muscat is spinning acceptance as heroism.