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Home » Q&A: Paul Caruana Galizia on his new book about Malta and his mother’s killing

Q&A: Paul Caruana Galizia on his new book about Malta and his mother’s killing

Writing was a compulsion for investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Known for her candid and witty prose, she earned a loyal following in Malta, a small archipelago nation fifty miles south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.

Daphne’s work also made her no small number of enemies. Paul Caruana Galizia, her son, recalls witnessing jeering graffiti scrawled on the side of the road in retaliation for his mother’s writing. His family’s house was set on fire. Their dog was killed. Publicly, Daphne refused to be affected, writing with ever more force and conviction. Privately, her family saw the toll that the constant intimidation took on her physical and mental health. In 2017, Daphne was investigating an elaborate kickback scheme involving private business and the government when two assassins planted a bomb underneath her gray Peugeot. It exploded as she drove to the bank. She was fifty-three years old.

Daphne’s death was seismic for Malta, socially and politically. Protesters took to the streets, demanding that those responsible for the murder face justice; eventually, the prime minister was forced to resign. Following years of investigation, two men were arrested and pleaded guilty to carrying out the murder-for-hire. Each was sentenced to forty years in prison; a middleman was sentenced to fifteen years. Yorgen Fenech, a wealthy businessman, was arrested in 2019 aboard his yacht, on suspicion of masterminding the killing. He is still awaiting trial.

During the family’s campaign for justice for Daphne, Paul pivoted to a career in journalism. He joined Tortoise, a fledgling media organization in the UK, where he has likewise reported on the rich and powerful. This month, he published his first book, A Death in Malta, which reads as much as a portrait of a country as it does a reflection on the life, murder, and legacy of Daphne. Recently, Paul spoke to me from London, where he lives with his wife and son. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it that you wanted to tell this story? And why now?

The idea to write a book first came to me in 2019. There were a number of false starts, but the biggest problem was that it took me a long time to accept that I had to report on my own mother as I might on any other subject—maybe some politician or whoever. When you’re profiling someone who isn’t related to you, you’re more independent. It feels like a job. I had to track down her school friends, her boyfriends, and, of course, interview my father. There was this kind of awkwardness, so I put that kind of reporting off for months until finally I realized that it was holding up the whole book.

Once I started doing that work—learning about my mother as a young girl, as a teenager, as a young woman—the book became its own reward. I remember telling myself, Even if no one reads this book, even if it’s a total flop, I’ll at least have done this. Above all, I realized that my mother had been drowned out by all the ugly things in her life, by her own murder. I felt like she had been lost or abstracted. Of course she was a journalist and a murder victim, but she was also a really interesting person. And I wanted people to meet her in that way.

What was most challenging about writing a book about the death of your own mother?

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The most challenging part was interviewing my maternal grandparents. They were very private people and were obviously very badly affected by my mother’s murder. It was an uncomfortable thing to ask them questions about how they brought my mother up: What was she like? Was she ever difficult as a child? It took a long, long time to get into the flow of things. But the assassination itself, which I presumed would be hard to write about, turned out in a way to be the most straightforward. By the time I started writing, a lot of progress had been made on the case, and a lot of information was available in publicly accessible documents. I was able to play the more straightforward role of reporter and say, Here’s what was happening; this is the evidence. It was a total reversal between what I thought would be easy and difficult.

The book is not only about your mother and her life, but also a portrait of Malta, from long before she was even born. Where did you start with your research?

The first interviews I did were with my maternal grandparents. That made sense in my head, because they knew my mother from birth. But they were born in 1938, so their own earliest memories were of course from [World War II]. They also lived through Malta’s decolonization. [The country gained independence from the UK in 1964.] It was through them that I started thinking that the book should tell the story of Malta in parallel to my mother’s story. I began reading books and academic articles about the history and anthropology of the Mediterranean, to understand the forces that shaped not only my mother but also the country. I remember thinking, Do people really care about this history? And my editor said, The country is a character in the story—a very important one.

I ended up going quite far back in time because I felt there were very deep cultural questions that I needed to ask about why Maltese society is the way it is. Why did we develop the tribal politics that we have? Why is the family unit prized above everything? Why have our state institutions been so weak historically? I wanted to create what I hope is a coherent narrative about how early settlement patterns affected the country’s natural environment, and, in turn, how this affected the way future settlers would treat the country; why and how we were colonized and then decolonized. Those questions were all really relevant to the stories my mother worked on.

You write that, while watching a crowd of mourners after your mother’s funeral, your grandfather commented that it was the first time in his life that he felt Maltese. What do you think he meant by that?

My grandfather grew up in a family that was Anglicized; they really saw themselves as part of the British Empire. They valued speaking in English. They worked in the colonial administration. That’s the world with which they aligned themselves. But then, when decolonization started happening all over the world in the sixties, all these ideas started falling away. Like in many former colonies, the community felt set adrift, like they lost their sense of place in the world. Everything that happened in Malta after independence seemed to support my grandfather’s view that the country perhaps wasn’t ready for independence: the political experiments of the seventies, the violence in the eighties, and then, of course, his first-born daughter being killed.

After independence, life in Malta was dominated by the church and the two main political parties. People protested when those institutions called for a protest; they read the papers those institutions published. But the feeling at the funeral was a strong communal feeling—a spontaneous one. There was a group of Maltese people, not called together by one of the political parties or the church, but to express a common feeling. They began singing the Maltese national anthem, and my grandfather was very moved by that. I only fully understood what this meant in November 2019 [when Fenech was charged]. I remember standing among protesters outside Parliament and thinking, We’re all Maltese, and we’re all here because we have a sense of what we want this country to be.

Do you feel like your relationship with the country changed as you wrote this book?

It brought the country closer to me. I became genuinely fascinated by its development throughout history and full of admiration for what people involved in its history went through. My faith in Malta took a beating over the course of the murder and the fallout. But now I’ve come to see it as a strange, difficult, but in many ways wonderful place. I have pride in being from Malta, despite everything.

You write early on in the book that the limitations imposed on your mother were what made her a leading light of journalism. What was it about the social and political conditions she grew up under that made her the journalist she was?

When my mother was growing up, most women didn’t work outside the home. They were only allowed to be wives and mothers. That kind of limited life had no appeal to her. She saw writing as something she could do to escape that future and to change the country. Had she been in the UK or the US, she might have gone to university, studied journalism, and then joined a big newspaper. In Malta, because of the conservative conditions, she had to fight for everything: fight to work for a paper, fight to have her name on the column.

She was the country’s first woman to write a column and the first journalist to write under her own name; before that, [all journalists, including men] wrote anonymously out of fear of violent reprisal. She really had to develop her own idea of journalism, because there were no role models. She had to create everything from scratch: the writing style, the interviewing style, the subjects she wanted to cover. Over her thirty-year career in journalism, she never stopped innovating. She never stopped challenging people. I think that’s really extraordinary, actually. She never settled down. Our friends’ parents often asked us, Why is your mother still writing? It’s so dangerous for you boys. She should stop. And I remember thinking, Then what would she do? If she stopped writing, she wouldn’t even be our mother anymore.

During the murder investigation you decided to make a career change to become a journalist. Can you tell me about that decision?

In the months immediately after our mother’s murder, my brothers and I were campaigning all the time for the investigation. But of course we eventually had to return to work; we couldn’t afford to keep campaigning like that, and it was also unsustainable for health reasons. I had previously worked for investment funds, briefly for Facebook, and in academia. The idea of returning to any of those environments felt strange to me. I was twenty-eight when she was killed, and up to that point I had always avoided journalism because I didn’t want to be compared to my mother. But in the summer of 2018, I met James Harding, who used to be the director of BBC News. He told me he was setting up a journalism company called Tortoise and asked if I might like to try working there. I said yes. Initially, my job was to help reporters work with large datasets. But over time I began doing some reporting myself, and I found that I really loved it. It’s the first job I’ve had that actually feels like something I want to do. It just feels right. I really love my work. I think it’s an enormous privilege to do something that’s often fun, sometimes very demanding, but also useful—or at least entertaining to other people. I think that’s not a bad place to be.

I was recently speaking with a family friend who’s been a journalist for many years, and she was saying, you know, It’s a very tough industry, but it’s a whole lot better than working for a living wage. Yes.

It’s very true. You get to speak to interesting people about interesting things, and sometimes to terrible people about terrible things. But yes, like you said, it’s better than working for a living.

What impact do you think your mother’s work had on the journalistic landscape of Malta today? In what ways do you see her legacy?

After she started writing under her own name, slowly bylines began appearing in all the other papers where the writers used to publish anonymously. She also broadened the idea of what journalism should be: that it should challenge authority and not simply report what authority says and does. She introduced the idea that journalism is on the side of the public and the journalist’s duty is to the reader, not to the government or the state. She became a role model for young journalists and a more vibrant media developed around her writing. By the mid- to late nineties you started seeing columnists writing more freely.

After her murder, other journalists exposed more corruption related to the stories my mother had been working on at the time of her death. And as the investigation made progress, the public started to really see the reality of the social and political situation. In November 2019, when Fenech was arrested, it was like the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. The country was just set alight. I think people finally understood that [this kind of assassination] is not normal. Since then, the number of civil society groups has grown. And I think in Malta we have, now, a shared understanding that corruption and murder are bad and we don’t want this to happen again.

What lessons do you think journalists today can take from your mother’s life and story?

I think my mother wanted to create the journalism she thought the country needed. Her sources trusted her. She was loyal to her readers, and they respected that. She became a very important source of information for them. But no person should have to endure the kind of abuse and harassment she was subjected to. It happened over such a long period of time, like a frog in boiling water. None of us really stopped to take a cold look and say, This is crazy, and this is only going to end up in one place. If you look at it in retrospect, you can see the way the abuse intensified. You can count the number of libel cases filed against her; over time they went up, up, up, up, to forty-seven by the time she was killed. I think that’s something we should all be aware of now. If we see a journalist being singled out like that, we should really pay attention and never again let it go any further.

My brothers and I always used to say that ultimately the best way of protecting journalists who are reporting on corruption is to make sure that stories are acted upon. My mother would reveal a major corruption allegation against the government. But then it would just sit there in the public domain. Everyone would read it, but the police would never pick it up and investigate it. Nor would the courts. It left her completely exposed. And in the end, that is the reason why it was my mother who was killed rather than a police officer, a magistrate, a judge, or a politician. It was a journalist: the last functioning check on the government. That situation should never be allowed to develop.

On a more positive note, though my mother’s story ended horribly, it also shows the power of journalism to change lives and, in Malta’s case, an entire country. And that’s inspiring, I think.

Yona TR Golding is a CJR fellow.

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