Once referred to as a one-woman WikiLeaks, Daphne Caruana Galizia was Malta’s most formidable independent journalist, with her blog, Running Commentary, serving as a leading source of investigative reporting in the tiny European island nation. Before she was assassinated by a car bomb in October of 2017, Caruna Galizia had long faced physical and legal threats for her work, which included uncovering the many Malta connections buried in the Panama Papers.
Maltese and international journalists, academics, and others who knew and admired Caruna Galizia reflect on her life and legacy in “Invicta: The Life and Work of Daphne Caruna Galizia,” which was published shortly after her death last fall. Among those reflections is “The Standard Bearer,” an essay by Ranier Fsadni.
Caruna Galizia’s “uniqueness is easy to describe but tricky to explain,” writes Fsadni, a Times of Malta columnist and anthropology lecturer at the University of Malta. “It is too simple to say she was a big fish in a small pond.” Fsadni explores Caruna Galizia’s influence and the elements that made Running Commentary so groundbreaking—including her innovative use of satire, the fact that she was the only independent financial journalist in the country, and her formidable information network.
“The Standard Bearer,” by Ranier Fsadni
As a figure on a social landscape, Daphne Caruana Galizia dominated Malta’s media environment in the same way Jean-Paul Sartre dominated French intellectual life in the 1940s and 50s. She was not simply at the top of the pyramid of influence, since that suggests she occupied a role that survives her and which will in time be filled by someone else. Just as no one took over Sartre’s position once his decline began, not even intellectuals more intelligent and seminal than he, the role she occupied died with her.
Her uniqueness is easy to describe but tricky to explain. It is too simple to say she was a big fish in a small pond.
Yes, she was a very gifted journalist. In Malta she developed certain genres of journalism almost from scratch and she set the standard. She would have had a distinguished career in any large media organisation in Europe.
But she was as much a creature as a creator of the Maltese context. She was a very intuitive thinker and writer – but that intuition was honed in Malta. Elsewhere, she would have had role models to follow; in Malta, she had to invent her own way. Experiment was necessary, misjudgements and excess were even less avoidable than usual and, with the spotlight on her, both the freshness and the excess became part of her reputation.
Elsewhere, she would have operated under different rules and had different opportunities and adversaries. Her public persona and talents would have developed in another direction. Their unique combination would probably have been traded off for the benefits of greater specialisation and faster professional development. To me it seems improbable that one of her three greatest achievements – the setting up of a crowdsourced information network that would be the envy of any large media organisation – would have been possible elsewhere.
From her very first year, on days her columns were published, many people woke up wondering who would be in her sights next. From 2008, once she had her blog, the number of her readers rocketed. At work, even those who detested her made it a habit of checking her Running Commentary first thing in the morning.
It was a blog with several areas of interest. First, there was the reporting. Her blog repeatedly broke major news stories with spectacular scoops. She was proven right on so many occasions that many readers were prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt even when she made extraordinary claims based on a single unnamed source.
Then there were pure opinions and gossip. She opined, with the unassailable conviction of Miss Jean Brodie, on the Italians, Maltese etymology, dress codes, sex and psychology, when to eat long pasta, the pathology of Maltese everyday life. Here she could range from insightful to dotty or, alas, plainly ignorant of established facts. No one can write so much, so fast, so frequently – some 20,000 blog-posts in nine years – without slipping up.
Her sharp take on matters of etiquette, dress codes or pronunciation animated discussions around the dinner tables of families and friends. A government minister was said to have bought new shoes after reading her comments on his appearance. Her occasional lapses of judgement or good taste likewise triggered debate in private company, the columns of others or on Facebook, never mind her own blog.
She was on the horizon even of those who did not read her. Some defined themselves as holdouts or dropouts: not reading Daphne (the surname was redundant) was a decision, like not being on Facebook or getting a smart phone.
Others came across her on television and radio. It was not because of her own personal appearances – from the mid-1990s, she turned down all invitations for personal interviews and participation on discussion panels. Despite refusing the customary coverage required for celebrity, however, she was still a near-constant media presence. The very many libel suits filed against her were news items. Her great adversary, the Labour Party machine, chased her with its cameras and ran stories about her with the same regularity with which she probed and skewered Labour’s leading figures and supporters.
In February 2016, a blog was set up by a communications aide to the Labour Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. She was often its main target. Photos of her going about her daily business were uploaded, with readers posting leering and mocking comments. That she should have been selected for such exemplary treatment was, in its perverse way, a compliment paid to her national stature.
This blog was set up some two weeks before she began to break the story of how a cabinet minister and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff had opened shell companies in Panama within days of their ascent to power in 2013. From then on, in the last one and a half years of her life, her investigative stories dictated the country’s political agenda. In the case of the Panama Papers, even Europe’s agenda.
The arc of her development is significant. It was uneven and featured reversals. Some of her early attempts at satire (on bus drivers, say) were appalling: weak as writing and as social observation. She was always the columnist with the loudest voice but not always the most read: a move to a smaller newspaper in the mid-1990s reduced her earlier readership until the newspaper went online some years later, when once more her column became the most widely read. A stint as an associate newspaper editor was short. She took part in a failed experiment with a tabloid, while a period in which she combined her journalism with a public relations consultancy led to the blurring of important professional lines, the kind of which she was rightly so critical.
These false starts show that her uniquely dominant position did not come effortlessly. It was not due to early entry into a new field. She earned it. Next, they show that she was at the height of her powers in the last period of her life, after she established her blog. Into it she poured all the skills she learned from her previous projects. Nothing was wasted, creatively. The result was astounding.
She was accomplished in many areas of journalism but in three her blog was path-breaking.
At her best, the satire was truly innovative, not just entertaining. She could sting like Dorothy Parker and her wickedly introduced photographs were Hogarthian. She applied English satire to an Italianate concern with fashioning a bella figura (cutting the right impression) and a permanent anxiety about failure, the dread brutta figura. She made it look effortless.
Second, she was the only independent financial journalist. Although the Maltese economy is so dependent on financial services, there was no other writer on business and financial affairs from outside the industry itself. She understood money and could show, with forensic intelligence, the political salience of what might otherwise seem arcane details. To top it all, she explained in language accessible to a general readership.
Finally, there was what she liked to call, with humorous exaggeration, her international worldwide network of spies. She built up a formidable information network based on her reputation for uncompromisingly shielding sources, linking up disparate nuggets of information, discerning the story beneath the mass of facts, running with a story quickly if she believed it and having fun with photographs that readers sent in. She gave a prominent platform to citizen journalism while the discussion beneath posts was a major attractive feature in itself. I believe no major international media organisation has anything like this interface with readers and viewers.
The rhetoric of Caruana Galizia’s blog was animated by an indignant thirst for justice, whether the issue was corruption in the highest echelons of government or the aesthetic ruin of the country by philistines, or what she considered the hypocritical toleration of boorish opinion or vulgar dress in the name of politeness.
The theme of justice runs throughout, even in the pettiest of blog-posts, but the combination of satire and investigative journalism ensured that there were two different conceptions of justice in play. One was liberal justice, rights-based and focused on transparency, fairness and due process. The other was poetic justice, whose satisfaction is based on dramatic outcome, catharsis, an emotional, purifying sense of release.
When Caruana Galizia demanded justice from the authorities, she had liberal justice in mind. But when she administered justice herself, it was poetic justice. She lampooned her targets mercilessly – to give them what she considered their comeuppance and to give her readers a sense of release. What other justice could she administer as a writer?
These two notions of justice, running in parallel, help explain why the majority of her readers viewed her with ambivalence. They read her news stories to find out what was going on in Malta. From her many learned what they should expect as theirs by right. But they tended to regard her pure opinions, especially the gossip, as one or two degrees over the top. Her sense of poetic justice seemed too fierce, vehement and relentless, not least when her targets were ordinary people. Her critics accused her of being a snob.
Even if she was, it would be simplistic to explain her lapses and excesses only in terms of her psychology. Her poetic justice had roots in two unresolved conflicts in Maltese society more generally.
First, there was the unresolved political conflict dating back to the 1980s, source of a deep national divide and whose history is contested. She was politicised in that period. She considered the attempted reconciliation a sham and had no faith that liberal justice could ever resolve it. Poetic justice – dealt harshly to name and shame, repeatedly lest anyone forget – was her solution.
Second, there was gender politics. Caruana Galizia’s gender was not marginal to her identity as a journalist. She did not just dominate her field. She did so as a woman and in a profession where, before she came along, women were scarce. Her toughness must be seen in context.
One self-styled liberal male critic, having dismissed her as an ‘embittered and insufferable snob’, suggested the cause might be menopause. After her death, two otherwise thoughtful assessments by self-consciously liberal men suggested that she was a liberal ‘saint’, who spoke truth to power, but a tabloid ‘sinner’ who punched down when it suited her: it all sails rather close to a ‘Madonna-and-whore’ characterisation.
If her fellow liberals could write like this, what was it like with people with less liberal sensibilities, and hostile to boot? No one was treated the way she was either before or since. For years, people were incited against her, and she was at the receiving end of a steady stream of vulgar misogynistic language in private messages, phone calls, television footage and blog commentary.
All these played a part in desensitising her. Growing a thick skin is not just prudent self-defence; it is an emotional price you pay. Becoming less sensitive to the insults you receive is bound to make you more insensitive to the feelings of others. Objectively, she may have punched down. But she can be forgiven, at least sometimes, for imagining she was not punching down but swinging out, alone, against a mob.
She was accused of perpetuating the injustice of elitism but she saw herself as fighting against the injustice of sexism. Sympathy for her point of view need not preclude sympathy for those who were wounded by her strictures. Why take sides when social inequalities pit one set of victims against another?
Indeed, some of the middle-class ambivalence towards her may have stemmed from an uneasy recognition that we are all involved in the pitting of one social inequality against another. She broke the taboos of polite society but, in so doing, exposed the evasions of our genteel euphemisms.
Finally, I do not think that we – the readers and beneficiaries of her best work – can completely distance ourselves from her worse showings. We profited from her hardening. Her best work came in her last years and, without her thick skin, she would not have had her staying power. For she may have been the first independent journalist with an opinion column carrying her name, but many others followed in the 1990s. Yet, of them all, only one or two such columns have continued uninterruptedly to this day; the others came to a stop.
Hers continued with fresh energy. She set the standard and then raised it. For three decades she carried it into battle. Nothing stopped her – not sacking, not pressure, not intimidation; it took a bomb.