Faith? No more...

Maybe we did need Paloma Faith to spell it out for us in the end…  the very fact that political parties are allowed to own media corporations attests to how deeply we have all been affected by this ugly disease

Paloma Faith
Paloma Faith

I was reluctant to wade into the mini-controversy surrounding Paloma Faith’s refusal to give an interview to One TV last month. For one thing, her reasons remain vague and obscure to this day. It was initially reported that the artist had ‘conducted background checks’; and that her agents told the journalist that her objections stemmed from One TV’s ownership structure and political affiliations.

This may well be the case – that the agents said that, I mean – but it could just as easily have been an excuse to cancel an already-arranged interview at the 11th hour. It’s hard to say with any certainty, because Paloma Faith herself was asked for an explanation at the ‘Isle of MTV’ press conference... but MTV officials prevented her from answering (against her will, it seems).

Meanwhile, there are other reasons to doubt the official version of events. Paloma Faith is known to be very politically outspoken – mostly on feminist issues – and as a small child she had been taken (in a pushchair) to anti-Thatcher protests in the 1980s. Recently, she appeared on stage with The Guardian’s ultra-leftwing columnist Owen Jones, who addressed the audience “on everything from social injustice to the NHS and the tendency of the right to blame problems on immigration.”

This places her very clearly on the left of the political spectrum; thereby raising the question of why a leftwing, feminist celebrity would boycott a left-leaning political station, affiliated with a political party that (whatever its other faults) has consistently been at the forefront of women’s emancipation in Malta: from the right to vote in the 1940s, down to the recent Gender Equality legislation implemented earlier this year.

In any case: the simple truth is that we don’t know why Paloma Faith turned down that interview. Let’s face it: she might have broken a nail, or been having a bad-hair day, or – who the heck knows? – she may have simply been resting her voice for the show. (It has to ‘go on’, remember?). But this, naturally, also means that everyone and his dog felt compelled to fill the void with ‘explanations’ of their own (aired, as always, with the supreme conviction of a high court judge). In the days that followed, we were variously informed that:

a) It was because of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, and the widespread suspicion (fanned endlessly by international media) that the Labour government was somehow behind it;

b) It was because of the Panama Papers scandal: i.e., Faith refused to associate in any way with a political party that had defended ministers and officials revealed to have held undeclared overseas accounts;

c) It was a principled objection to the idea that political parties are allowed to have radio and television stations to begin with;

d) It was a logistical screw-up that the organisers tried to patch up as best as they could.

(Note: That, roughly, was what ‘everyone’ had to say on the subject. ‘Everyone’s dog’, on the other hand, limited its observations only to ‘woof, woof’. I need hardly add that – as always – the dog makes much more sense: if you don’t know the answer to a question, even a meaningless bark is preferable to wild conjecture and fanciful conspiracy theories.)

For what’s it’s worth – and trust me, it’s worth nothing at all – I consider scenarios (a) and (b), to be vaguely plausible (or at least, consistent with Paloma Faith’s general political outlook); while scenario (d) looks by far the likeliest. That leaves us with ‘political ownership of the media’ – a serious issue that has plagued Malta’s media landscape for over two decades, and to which people like myself have objected for just as long...

…but which I can’t imagine would even remotely interest international artists like Paloma Faith, however ‘political’ their music may be. To be outspoken about political issues, as a celebrity, is one thing; but to dive so deeply into the nitty-gritty of a country’s (highly sui generis) political set-up... and even then, only one small aspect of it... that strikes me as pushing the boundaries of conjecture too far.

Meanwhile, there is another possibility that no one (that I have seen, anyway) seems to have even considered thus far. Among the international issues raised by Faith in recent years has been mistreatment of migrants and refugees. This year’s ‘Isle of MTV’ took place against the backdrop of repeated stand-offs between Italy and Malta over the fate of hundreds of asylum seekers rescued while crossing the Mediterranean. Just two weeks before the concert, Malta had refused to take in over 200 rescued passengers on board the Aquarius.

That, to me, seems an entirely valid reason for a vocal human rights activist to boycott anything affiliated with a government that routinely adopts such hard-line anti-immigration stances. Still, however, it remains conjecture, nothing more. And besides, I think we’ve already wasted far too much time on this non-event as things stand.

And yet, like all such non-events, it does tell us something small about the political set-up that caused all this speculation in the first place. From where I’m sitting, the entire Paloma Faith interlude comes across as a microcosm of the absurdly bipolar nature of Maltese politics in its totality. It spells out an instantly recognisable pattern: something happens; we don’t know exactly what, why or how; everybody shoots off an opinion or theory... and lo and behold: invariably, without fail, the theory in question turns out to be an externalisation of the theorist’s own political prejudices.

It will not surprise any of you to discover that the ‘Daphne murder/Panama Papers’ hypotheses were aired exclusively by the same people who now use social media as a permanent platform for their own anti-Labour bias... the ’good governance’ brigade, who only ever recognise ‘rotten governance’ when it comes from ‘the other party’ (even though we experienced 25 years of it under when the shoe was on the other foot... and not a squeak from any of them). Or, conversely, that those who hurled insults at Paloma Faith belong to an online clan of zealous (and equally prejudiced) pro-Labour apologists.

Nor should it surprise you – though it might – that the likeliest political objection (our dismal record of dealing with immigration issues) was instantly discarded by both sides. Neither party can claim the moral high ground on that front: today’s Labour government is merely continuing its predecessors’ policies, going back some 15 years or more. And the recent stand-offs were in themselves repeat performances of almost identical disputes – ‘resolved’ in almost identical ways – under successive Nationalist administrations.

In a nutshell, both sides are altogether too guilty of human rights violations to even dare point a finger at the other; and in any case: ‘sticking up for immigrants’ does not exactly translate into a bonanza of instant political brownie points... in a country which talks about ‘immigrants’ and ‘jellyfish’ as if the words were interchangeable.

This, too, is part of the pattern. If there are no political points to be scored by using a particular argument, or making a
particular observation... then we simply don’t use that argument, and we don’t make that observation. End of story. After all, what’s more important here? That we get specific answers to specific questions? Or that we instantly exploit any circumstance that may arise, in order to maximise one political party’s advantage over the other?

Truth be told, we didn’t even need Paloma Faith to spell it out for us. Just a cursory glance at the week’s headlines will reveal the same pattern replicating itself endlessly, in all directions, like an immortal strand of DNA. For instance, it was reported that former PN MP Tony Bezzina lost a libel case against Prime Minister Joseph Muscat... in a ruling that confirmed how Bezzina had “coerced employees of the Public Works department into signing a declaration stating that they had not been used to carry out works inside the Zurrieq PN club during their work hours, in 2012.”

The Labour Party (and its media, and its dutiful supporters, and all their dogs, etc) responded by challenging the PN to take disciplinary action against Bezzina. The PN retorted that Labour had yet to take disciplinary action against Interior Minister Carmelo Abela, who likewise stands accused of having engaged government employees to carry out private works during their regular work hours.

Even the question of whether these two incidents are analogous has divided public opinion along the same, woefully predictable lines. If you’re Nationalist, you will see the connection instantly. If you’re Labour, you will never see it in a million years. It’s that bloody simple... and that bloody irrational, too.

From this perspective.... well, yes, maybe we did need Paloma Faith to spell it out for us in the end. Even if almost certainly incorrect, the (c) scenario, outlined above, briefly cast a spotlight on the very nexus of the problem. The very fact that political parties are allowed to own media corporations – against all known good European practice, and militating directly against every known journalistic principle and convention – attests to how deeply we have all been affected by this ugly disease.

One and Net TV have been around for the better part of a quarter of a century now. What has their contribution been, exactly? As far as I can see, they have only succeeded in normalising this utterly absurd and politically indefensible situation beyond the point of no return... until the same pattern is now infused with our very way of thinking. We no longer even expect serious journalistic work from either of those media houses: it is taken as a given that they will both actively distort any given news item, and milk it for whatever political advantage it might yield.

And we all just accept that perversion of journalism, for reasons that the Paloma Faith episode also framed for us into a workable context: because (let’s face it) that’s how everyone responds to ‘the news’ in this country – with an instant, knee-jerk impulse to reduce it to a reflection of their own, petty little political obsessions... and to hell with what really happened.

OK, rant over: now I’m off to support a football team to which I have no official connection whatsoever, in the hope that it will win the World Cup by any means necessary (fair or foul); and above all, to hotly criticise and/or defend any referee decision, solely on the basis of whether it will translate into an advantage or disadvantage for ‘my’ team... and to hell with whether it really was a penalty or not.

After all, if everyone else is content to behave like an irrational, fanatical hooligan... why the hell shouldn’t I?

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