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Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was funny and brave – and it made her enemies

Remembering the Maltese journalist killed by a car bomb, minutes after she warned about "crooks". 

I first met Daphne Caruana Galizia in 1990, when I was serving a posting in the British High Commission in Malta. Before I met her, I had read her articles in the Sunday Times of Malta. She was quite simply the most entertaining read in Maltese journalism at that time – direct, conversational, witty, but also serious and intensely focused when some abuse or injustice took her attention. The kind of writer you buy the paper for, and leaf through to find her piece as you turn away from the newsstand. She was already a household name in Malta, by sheer talent, despite being only in her mid-twenties.

When I met Daphne in person, she made an even stronger impression. She was tall and and beautiful, but in a way that came from the force of her personality at least as much as from her appearance. She was always elegantly dressed, but it was in conversation that she really sparkled. Her intelligence fizzed. One moment she would be pressing her argument on some point of politics or social analysis, deadly earnest and full of intensity, and then the corner of her mouth would start to curl into a grin at some absurdity or oblique comment, and within seconds she would be leaning forward, shaking with laughter.

Even then, she had made enemies. Her writing style was often strident, blunt and personal. It was strong stuff, and some people, perhaps especially pompous middle-aged men with an excessive sense of their own importance, did not like it, especially if they were the target. There was more than a small element of misogyny in those reactions. As the years went on, she made more enemies, but none of the hostility dented her determination. She campaigned against domestic abuse, and against hypocrisy and corruption among politicians, latterly in her own blog.

Maltese politics is febrile and strongly partisan. Libel actions came and went; some were dropped; others succeeded, but the damages were paid within hours by public donations. Then, in 2015, she broke the news (derived from the leaks of the Panama Papers) that two prominent Maltese politicians, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, owned secret companies in Panama. Later they came under suspicion of financial irregularities in connection with those companies; in particular, that money had been channeled to them from the government of Azerbaijan (Mizzi and Schembri deny any wrongdoing and responded to the allegations by suing for libel). The Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, was suspected of involvement also (he also denied it). Further revelations from Daphne emerged in April 2017 and precipitated a general election in June this year, but Muscat was re-elected.

In recent weeks, Daphne received death threats. At 2.35 pm on 16 October 2017 she posted a further report about Schembri, ending with the words "There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate." Minutes later, as she drove away from her house near Bidnija, in the Maltese countryside, a car bomb exploded, killing her. Her son Matthew rushed to the burning car, but Daphne was already dead. Later he wrote on Facebook:

My mother was assassinated because she stood between the rule of law and those who sought to violate it, like many strong journalists. But she was also targeted because she was the only person doing so. This is what happens when the institutions of the state are incapacitated: the last person left standing is often a journalist. Which makes her the first person left dead.

Daphne was the best kind of journalist, the best kind of person; supremely brave, passionate, unstoppable in the pursuit of injustice, but also a listener, balanced and ready to hear arguments from whichever side. And kind. She had to make some hard choices in her own life, and her integrity was huge. But so was her sense of humour. Her savage killing cries to the heavens for justice. But her spirit cannot be killed, and will live on, in memory, in all who had the good fortune to know her and her work.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game