Attacking the Left – Character Assassination

Throughout the decades, the polarisation of partisan politics in Malta was intentionally fuelled by the political parties and the establishment and became embedded as a veritable share of our nation’s psyche. The fact that we are of Mediterranean stock, with easily noticed geographic norms and mores which further underline our innate love of drama, naturally gives a juicier background to politicking in Malta.

History shows that our political parties quickly adapted their campaigns by means of excessive use of character assassination in order to put in bad light their competitors. This unscrupulous methodology sometimes produced short term favourable results for the perpetrators. And it is certainly not a modern phenomenon. In the early twentieth century, Labour was purposely attacked as being communist, therefore unchristian, with its red colour negatively referred to as the colour of blood. This form of propaganda continued well into the late decades of the twentieth century. One merely has to keep in mind that whilst America was preparing to send its men on the moon, half of Malta was interdicted by the church for merely reading a left wing newspaper or for voting labour.

However, the art of character assassination is indeed the vilest of the political ‘tools’ which were, and still are, used in order to score political points. Throughout history, Labour’s leaders were ferociously torn apart by conservative propaganda and projected in such a manner that they literally became a surreal stereotype of something that they certainly were not. Naturally, Labour’s most important leader Dom Mintoff took the brunt of such hostile character assassination. From chants of ‘crucify him’ in mass meetings to the written erotic fetish of wishing to pee on his tomb and drink champagne on his demise – this by a blogger who is at the moment being depicted as saint-like and supposedly Malta’s equivalent to Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. But character assassination did not stop there.

In the early twentieth century, Labour was purposely attacked as being communist, therefore unchristian, with its red colour negatively referred to as the colour of blood.

I personally lived through the period when Mintoff’s successor, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, was brutally transformed by means of conservative propaganda into a violent, thuggish, stupid and dangerous man. This was indeed so far off the mark of the real Karmenu; a non-violent pacifist totally dedicated to aiding the needy and underprivileged within society whose expertise in industrial law made him one of the most sought after university lecturers of all time on the subject.

And so on and so forth. All left wing leaders had their characters viciously assassinated. The right in Malta always believed its own rhetoric that they are indeed the rightful leaders of this nation and that anyone else is not worthy of such positions. The maxim ‘don’t get high on your own supply’ never worked for the conservatives here. In propaganda, this personalisation is carried out by a communicator with a political agenda, and it is done in a rather simplistic manner. The textbook description is indeed enough to justify the charge that the local conservative forces have been violently efficient in welding this political tool. Character assassination is thus the:

Negative personalisation or dehumanisation of people or things attributes undesirable and decidedly non-virtuous attributes worthy of censure; provoking disgust, outrage, enmity; robbing people of essential humanity; makes them seem evil, crazy, uncultured or stupid. (Patrick, 2012, p. 143)

At this stage, one needs to differentiate between political marketing and political propaganda. Like political marketing, propaganda is an act of communication and relies on eliciting an emotional response from its target audience, but is inherently deceptive in some form. Nor is there any intention to build and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. That being said, propaganda comes in many shapes and forms, and not all of it is harmful in nature.

The right in Malta always believed its own rhetoric that they are indeed the rightful leaders of this nation and that anyone else is not worthy of such positions.

It is possible to recognise examples of propaganda by its persuasive function, sizeable target audience, representation of a specific group’s agenda, and use of fallacious reasoning and/or emotional appeals. Its intention is to affect the thoughts and/or behaviour of the target audience in a manner that benefits the communicator. Thus, the issue is one of influence: the messenger seeks to affect his target audience in some pre-determined manner. To stand a chance of success, this requires a specific and methodical approach.

The four stratagems of influence are:

  1. Create a climate that is conducive to the communicator’s message, enabling him or her to take control of the situation via pre-persuasion. This establishes “common knowledge” and what “everybody knows.”
  2. Establish source credibility. To do this, “the communicator needs to appear likeable or authoritative or trustworthy or possessed of any other attribute that would facilitate persuasion.”
  3. Construct and deliver a message that focuses the audience’s attention on what the communicator wants.
  4. Seek to control the emotions of the target audience: “Arouse an emotion and then offer the target a way of responding to that emotion that just happens to be the desired course of action.”

The four stratagems above are indeed the main reason why the conservatives in Malta have lost their lustre with the electorate when it comes to character assassination. They underline precisely why wide swathes of previously right and centrist leaning voters switched to Labour and remain there to date.

Let us quickly analyse the four points mentioned above. In a nutshell:

  1. The Nationalist Party has lost its hold on media and communication (brain drain, lack of financial resources, bitter infighting, etc) and therefore could and cannot mount a pre-persuasive message. Moreover, Labour has, in this last decade, literally taken the momentum of innovative ideas and initiatives from the right, with the latter caught bewildered and not able to mount a proper strategy of reply.
  2. The Nationalist Party has lost its right to establish source credibility. It is still projected with the same faces that walked and trampled on the electorate up to 2013 and little or no cathartic rejuvenation within its ranks has been felt by the electorate.
  3. What the communicator (ie the Nationalist Party) wants is totally out of synch with what the electorate wants and has been so now for many years. The art of listening to the voters and getting the message is apparently not at all within the capability of the present conservative party.
  4. The Nationalist Party cannot control the emotions of the electorate simply because it cannot even control its own big guns. Years of bitter infighting, clans of politicians with different agendas and different styles and indeed different political objectives have totally cluttered the party’s broader image making it totally unattractive and unelectable.
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