“The PN has nothing to offer this country and so has resorted to conspiring with criminals”.
This was Malta’s prime minister recklessly making weighty but unsubstantiated allegations. “There is a coordinated strategy between the PN and criminals,” Robert Abela insisted. This was on 20 May 2021. Carmelo Abela, minister within the office of the prime minister, had been incriminated in a violent bank heist by Vincent Muscat, il-Koħħu and the Degiorgio brothers.
Robert Abela was under pressure. And needed to deviate attention. He hinted that “more proof is yet to emerge on this coordinated attack”. Six months later, Abela hasn’t come up with the goods. His accusations are exposed for what they were – grey propaganda – propaganda disguised as news.
When truth is distorted, it is not about making claims but about silencing critics. With Carmelo Abela facing such serious accusations, the expectation that he should at least be suspended, pending investigations, was perfectly reasonable. But Robert Abela used the issue to his advantage. By painting the opposition as not only grossly insincere and incompetent but also ‘criminal’, Abela was vandalising the public’s trust in the PN.
This is a tried and tested strategy of Labour’s propaganda. Labour’s persistent and repeated labelling of PN MEPs as traitors has seeped into the public’s subconscious. Labour’s characterisation of independent media and civil society organisations as part of a conspiracy, hellbent on bringing Labour down, has been assimilated by the public. Labour adopts appealing linguistic strategies for stealing the voices of its adversaries. It delegitimises their right to be heard through its relentless unfounded accusations of treason.
The rhetoric used by the prime minister and his cabinet, broadcast by Labour’s well-funded media organisation One and state-funded TVM, is not an attempt to persuade, but an act of cultural tribalism.
Its objective is to create a team primed against the “others” in a manner that shuts down open-minded thinking and fuels division. It attempts to unify opinion within the tribe and extinguish dissenting voices. Such demagogic speech both exploits and spreads flawed ideologies creating insurmountable barriers to democratic deliberation.
Robert Abela’s hysterical response is not only an outright assault on the opposition but a clear message to those within his party who felt uneasy about the serious allegations and who might have been thinking of voicing those concerns. Abela was making it clear – he won’t tolerate any dissent.
A democratic party is one that values liberty and political equality, one that is suffused with tolerance to divergent opinions. It rests on the view that collective reasoning is superior. The prime minister’s attack was intended to stifle divergent perspectives of cabinet colleagues and party members. Abela’s vicious response intended to ensure unity around his own position at the expense of democracy.
Abela understands that he can only maintain power by dominating the narrative. He understands the power of propaganda. That is why he spent half a million euro promoting his recent budget. It’s also why €70,000 were squandered in launching the metro proposal. Tens of thousands more were frittered away on the inaugurations of the Marsa flyover. Glossy brochures with Miriam Dalli’s full colour photos have been sent to all households informing us of the investment in national parks.
It’s also why the very same Carmelo Abela is “currently focused on reforming our public broadcasting company”. We all know what that means. It is the completion of the project to transform TVM into a second mouthpiece for Labour. TVM presents itself as fair and balanced. It is clearly neither. Its distorted and biased presentation pollutes public discourse with a toxic form of censorship.
When the Standards Commissioner’s report finding Rosianne Cutajar guilty was finally adopted, four months late, TVM failed to report it. It also failed to report the Vitals court case and Joseph Muscat’s testimony in court. It didn’t report Repubblika’s 72-hour protest. It didn’t report the speeches of 10 representatives of international press freedom organisations on the fourth anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
ADPD’s deputy general secretary was perfectly right to describe TVM as “an extension of the government’s propaganda machine”. No wonder the Centre for Media, Data and Society classified PBS as ‘state-controlled media“. That is exactly what it is.
At the same time, Labour uses all means to harass and stifle independent media organisations. A combination of frontal attacks, systematic denigration, withholding of advertising funds and exclusion of critical media houses from government press events makes it increasingly difficult for independent media organisations to survive. As government tightens the screw, self-censorship is inevitable; throttling the few remaining critical voices in the local political sphere.
The most damaging consequence of Labour’s pervasive propaganda is that it seeks to justify the privileges, advantages and status ministers and their close allies enjoy as “legitimate” and “deserved”. The public has come to accept Labour’s flawed ideology. Its legitimising myths are based on the classical Konrad Mizzi argument: I have done so much good, I deserve immunity.
Labour justifies the appointment of hundreds of persons of trust, the award of millions in direct orders, its obscenely corrupt Electrogas, SOCAR and Vitals deals. Labour provides an apparently factual justification for the manifestly unjust squandering of our taxes. As a mechanism of social control, it indoctrinates the Maltese electorate with its flawed ideology, justifying the very structural features that enable the public’s exploitation.
The best way to fight Labour’s propaganda is to become savvier about how it manipulates and how it works. That propaganda must be fought with civic rhetoric that ensures that obstacles to democracy are overcome. Civic rhetoric is the voice of those being silenced – the tool required to contradict the lies that keep being repeated.
Labour knows Goebbels was right when he said “If you tell a lie big enough, and keep repeating it, people will come to believe it”.