The Malta Independent 22 January 2019, Tuesday

The rising tide

Noel Grima Sunday, 14 January 2018, 10:58 Last update: about 2 years ago

There can be no doubt that John Sweeney’s ‘Artful Dodger’ jibe at Prime Minister Muscat was an intentional insult on prime time on ‘the world’s favourite station’, as the BBC describes itself.

I cannot remember a similar episode taking place at any other time in Malta or, indeed, in most of the world. Imagine Sweeney doing that to Donald Trump.


But what was indeed surprising was Dr Muscat’s timid, muted, low-key response. He was, I remember, more forthright when he was faced with keen questions by Christiane Amanpour in the days following Daphne’s murder. I think he did not immediately put the jibe into its proper literary context – Charles Dickens – or that he, seasoned journalist that he is, did not immediately grasp the implications for him and his government.

He just had no counter-argument. Neither do I think his team failed to provide him with information about Sweeney, who rivals Tim Sebastian and Hard Talk. So, the question remains: why the muted response?

The ‘Artful Dodger’ jibe will live and persist: it may even outlive Muscat’s term as prime minister. Does it describe him to a T? Is that how his fellow EU leaders see him? I looked closely at the joint press conference following the mini-summit held in Rome on Wednesday. The leaders’ faces were quite po-faced but one cannot fathom if they are usually like that or if there was a particular reason – Joseph Muscat – for them.

That the situation turned ugly for Muscat can be seen from the frenzied reactions of some of his supporters, such as Tony Zarb, or those who spoke of immediate criminal charges against Sweeney or who brought up the old Foreign Interference law and would have declared Sweeney and/or the BBC persona non grata.

Meanwhile, programmes honouring Daphne Caruana Galizia proliferate – such as the Roberto Saviano one on Rai 3. Honours pour down and the canonisation of Daphne proceeds apace.

In his replies to Mr Sweeney, Dr Muscat repeated the many answers to similar questions he has been giving since 16 October but it seems he has become rather tired of saying the same things over and over again. Either he has not convinced the naysayers – and does not seem to be convincing them now – or his replies have not done the trick of persuading them.

His target audience remains the one that returned him with an increased majority on 3 June but as for the rest, he seems to have given up on persuading his critics. Thus, for instance, his rather adversarial reply to the PANA committee’s report.

He may act as if the situation is not critical and inaugurate public projects such as the Tritons Fountain and Valletta Square or, unperturbed, tour the world selling passports or speak about economic growth, but the central problem – the elephant in the room –is still there.

Next week, it will be three months since Daphne’s murder and there are people still hoping that her memory will fade away, but it does not seem as if this is happening. On the contrary, as outlined, her memory keeps getting refreshed and the allegations, repeating in essence what Daphne used to write about, keep getting repeated.

Nor do Dr Muscat’s main henchmen emerge unscathed, especially Konrad Mizzi. He is now floundering – if not sinking – under the dual burden of an Air Malta whose pilots seem the most obdurate, and facing the multiple questions as to how Vitals Global Healthcare suddenly sold its interest in three Maltese hospitals to an American outfit.

In other words, less than eight months after the election, the main impression that Maltese and foreigners alike seem to be getting is one of drift where the golden promises of a few months back, which seemed to foretell a golden future, now seem less golden than they looked then.

Malta has become inward-looking and on the defensive, especially with regard to financial services in general, and people in the sector tell you of their sleepless nights as they lie awake fearing that the big building they have built could collapse around them.

Fingers are pointed but they get deflected. It’s become a country where every one of the top levels face multiple charges and is ready to reply that it was not his remit after all. And there is no corner of this island, however small, where things are as they should, not least an Opposition still at sixes and sevens inside its shell. Even football, the national game, is tainted – but we have always known that.

Faced with arrogant interrogators, which he never gets from Maltese journalists now that Daphne is no more, Joseph Muscat resorts to bluster, claiming the media is against him nevertheless. There is no whiff of reason. Everything is hype and the long-term approach of the coming electoral battles. The media reacts by pushing Sweeney or Saviano.

And as developers bust a gut squeezing more flats from every square inch of the country, people with myopic vision get a government hot on clientelism. The empire is crumbling and the tide is fast rising.


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