If proof were still needed that Malta is really two countries and not just one, it was furnished in abundance by the politically-owned stations on Monday night’s news.
For obvious reasons, Alfred Sant’s press conference that afternoon – later described as a “colpo di scena” by Lou Bondì, who had an episode of Bondiplus geared up to discuss the same topic some four hours later – was catapulted to number one item on both Net and One TV bulletins. But there the similarity ends, and zappers between the two could marvel at the unique sensation of being in two different places at once.
Judging by One TV’s coverage, Sant has not only fully recovered from his operation, but having defeated a malignant tumour in his large intestine he has now emerged in a new incarnation: “Super-Sant”, capable of effortlessly captaining his party to any number of resounding electoral victories, and possibly also to leap higher than the tallest buildings in a single bound.
Equally remarkable was the alacrity with which the news team assembled this propaganda reinvention. Before the press conference began, Ray Azzopardi personally saw to it that all cameras – including One TV’s, to the cameraman’s evident surprise – were prevented from occupying positions towards the front of the hall. The audience was likewise seated at a safe distance, and when Sant finally materialised, he was whisked in and out faster than a speeding bullet, and shielded by a tight cortege of minders.
Otherwise, it was a sterling performance by Sant, who, when all is said and done, had descended upon the Glass Palace only 17 days after the surgical removal of a section of his lower intestine, and around 10 days before his official recuperation period is due to expire next week. Understandably enough he looked somewhat pale and drawn at this early stage of convalescence; but naturally, none of this featured on One News, which instead focused almost exclusively on the interventions of his medical team: the serene cancer specialist Mr Anthony Zammit, and the informative diagnostician Mr Mario Vassallo.
At every point the emphasis was the same: Sant has passed his medical tests with flying colours, and now has a certificate of political virility by no less than the Royal Marsden Hospital in the UK. Other than a few minor side-effects of his precautionary chemotherapy – all of which are amenable to treatment – there are no medical hurdles to overcome ahead of the coming elections.
Switch over to NET, and it may as well have been another news conference totally. The camera ignored Sant’s medical team altogether, and instead zoomed directly onto the man himself: up close and personal, eager to capitalise on any aspect which may suggest frailty or ill-health; focusing on the thick layer of indelicately-applied foundation caking his face, and repeating any instance in which Sant’s voice faltered even imperceptibly.
The only times the camera panned away at all were to reveal his entourage, strategically captured in various stages of visible concern: Charles Mangion, deep in disquietude; Manuel Cuschieri, turning away and covering his eyes in pity and horror; and Jason Micallef, paring his nails for all the world as though his beloved leader might expire before his eyes at any moment.
The cult of the Leader
Naturally, this is all part of the transparent charade into which Maltese TV has long degenerated, and perhaps the only remarkable thing about it is that the two stations concerned still seem think they’re fooling viewers with such obviously manipulated nonsense. All the same, from these and other fleeting hints one can discern the birth pangs of two, distinct campaign strategies: both of which evidently intend to shamelessly exploit Alfred Sant’s state of health ahead of the election.
For Labour (apart from the initial scare) there was from day one the prospect of groundswell sympathy, and Sant’s handling of the press conference on Monday will no doubt come across to many (though not to all) as a sign of certain courage in the face of adversity. They also know that his malady, even if cured, renders their leader somehow immune to direct criticism; at least, of the harsh and altogether personal nature we have grown accustomed to over the years.
But there is a downside to all this, and none knows it better than the Malta Labour Party, which has itself engineered many of the traits of the typical Maltese voter over the past century. Sympathy for weakness may be a perfectly natural human reaction; but it is at best transient, and above all it makes an unreliable electoral asset for a party leader.
Maltese voters may profess admiration for gentlemanly behaviour, but when it comes to the crunch, ultimately there is no doubt what qualities are really valued in our political leaders. Lord Gerald Strickland, Carmelo “Il-Gross” Mifsud Bonnici, Enrico Mizzi, Dom Mintoff… there has always been a tradition of domineering personalities studding the landscape. Evidently, the Maltese like their leaders strong, hale and tough as old tree-roots.
Conversely, Labour strategists also know that, like the ageing dominant alpha male of a troop of baboons, an older or weaker party leader will be ruthlessly deposed by a younger, stronger and more ambitious rival: vide Sir Paul Boffa, George Borg Olivier and the same Dom Mintoff, when the tables turned in 1998. Incidentally, this might also explain MaltaToday’s front page story last Sunday, which alleged that the source of the original leak about Sant’s ailment came from within the MLP itself.
Which brings us to the Nationalist Party, whose core strategy group has evidently regrouped after the initial setback, and is now discussing how best to incorporate this new vicissitude into their campaign.
Mindful of the great Maltese taboo that is ill-health, it is unlikely that the PN will want to be seen taking direct advantage of its ailing antagonist. But at the same time, the above law of macho-politics decrees that the typical Maltese voter, while sympathetic, will think twice before entrusting his future to a man who may not be 100% fighting fit.
So the obvious strategy for the PN is twofold: on the one hand, to desist from any head-on scaremongering against Alfred Sant himself – a strategy already visible on roadside billboards, which now target the party in general, “Labour”, instead of its leader.
On the other, to reinforce the impression of Sant as an unfortunate but debilitated victim of disease… although one must also be to fair to the PN, and point out how its general secretary, Joe Saliba, declined an invitation to participate in Monday’s Bondiplus, much of which was dedicated to precisely this theme.
Still, NET news has already taken the first steps down that road, and it remains debatable whether the PN is even aware of the possible pitfalls. For one thing, unless handled very carefully indeed, any exploitation of Sant’s condition will almost certainly provoke the stern disapproval of an entire category of voters, many of whom were hoping for a campaign fought on issues, rather than endless ad hominem attacks.
For another, the unsparing details which emerged last Monday now reveal that much, if not all, of the hype surrounding Sant’s alleged “frailty” is at best ungrounded. As Sant took pains to point out on Monday, he now has the professional assurance of the Royal Marsden Hospital that his state of health will not unduly shackle his ability to carry out his political commitments after all: and anyone who dares suggest otherwise will also be flying in the face of the world’s foremost cancer specialists.
Either way, in all likelihood we are about to witness the first-ever election conditioned, not by a single overriding issue such as Independence or EU membership, but by the state of health of a single, 59-year-old man.
There is a political term for situations such as these. What was it again? Ah, yes, now I remember. Sick.