It’s a hard question for many reasons. I also feel I’m being asked to measure something that cannot be measured. And I fear that I can never do her justice.
So I resort to the facts: she was the first woman to write a political column in Malta, and the first person to write in her own name rather than anonymously. She was the person who broke every major story in the country after she started writing, aged 24, in 1988, the year I, the last of her three boys, was born. She was the woman who co-founded one of the country’s daily newspapers four years later and investigated neo-Nazis, drugs and arms traffickers, presidents, prime ministers and judges.
But the facts can’t tell the whole story.
I remember my father coming home from work to find my mother, who had learnt to type at secretarial school (oh, the plans they had for her!) at her keyboard ready to bash away at her Thursday column. She suggests that, as her deadline is looming, he doesn’t interrupt her. He ignores her suggestion.
“OK, Daph. What are you writing about for tomorrow?”
A judge, she answers. A judge, it turns out, who my father, a lawyer, is due to argue in front of the following day.
“Madonna, why for tomorrow; do you have to do it for tomorrow?”
Yes, she says.
When people read about what my mother was put through in retaliation for her writing – arson attacks, death threats, our dogs poisoned, car tyres slashed, reprisals against us, her family – they assume that we grew up in a war zone.
And they are right: in some ways, Malta is a war zone.
The bomb placed under my mother’s car seat during the night of 15 October 2017 and detonated the following afternoon was not the first attempt on her life. The first had come a decade earlier.
I was doing my A levels. I was out with friends and came home at 2.30am to see a large fire at the back of the house. Strange time for a bonfire, I thought. But the smoke looked heavy and black and I could hear window panes cracking in the heat as I came closer. The house was on fire and my parents and eldest brother were asleep inside. I ran in and woke them and as we put out the fire we saw that it hadn’t yet burnt through another stack of car tyres and plastic bottles filled with petrol and placed against the living-room doors that opened on to the garden.
My mother had been reporting on a neo-Nazi group who, with the not insignificant support of Malta’s electorate, wanted to shoot and kill African refugees seeking asylum out at sea before they landed in Malta. At my Jesuit college sixth form the following Monday, people told me that it was irresponsible of my mother to have let me stay out so late. And I remember thinking: there’s a problem in this country, and it isn’t my mother.
By that point my brothers and I were used to being “Daphne’s sons”. About a year before she was murdered, she wrote:
“I have been doing this for so long that my sons, now all aged 30 or thereabouts, know nothing else. One of them was in nappies when I started writing a newspaper column, the other two in kindergarten. They grew up thinking it was completely normal to have your mother’s name all over the newspapers and on the tip of politicians’ tongues, to have your house set on fire, to have police at your gate either to guard your mother or arrest her, to have her check the underside of the car for bombs before taking you to school, to answer the home telephone to find some anonymous nutjob spouting obscenities at you when you’re only eight years old, to find parcels of human excrement in the post, to see your mother ripped to shreds on Labour Party television, portrayed as a witch in Labour Party newspapers and gossiped about endlessly and viciously by people you know, and their parents, on Facebook.”
What people didn’t see was that being one of “Daphne’s sons” was wonderful. She seemed to have all the time in the world for us – I don’t understand how, but she made it so. She would take us to the beach after school, on archaeological digs when she enrolled at the university, on picnics. She taught us to read widely, think freely and to care. To care for each other, our friends, family, our dogs, our guinea pigs, our hamsters. I often wondered why my friends’ mothers were so different to mine.
My mother, who had strong views on the church, didn’t want to send me to school for Holy Communion day, but she didn’t want me to feel left out either. I’d have gladly spent the day at home on the PlayStation with my brothers, but that wasn’t on offer. I was sent to school, in a compromise move, in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Everyone else in my whole year was dressed in traditional lacy white dresses and suits.
“Why did your mother send you in flip-flops?” a classmate asked.
“I don’t know. Why did yours put you in a white tuxedo?”
This is what makes me think that my mother was always meant to be a journalist. A priest telling her about his loneliness and how his father had left home when he was young; the bank inspector telling her how they had been asked to cover up money-laundering; the government workers revealing corruption to her.
She never betrayed a confidence even when her life was under threat. She didn’t keep notes and deleted sensitive emails and messages, something those investigating her murder wouldn’t believe until they went through our house a day after she was killed.
It was this, and a capacity for outrage at injustice that she never lost, that made my mother Malta’s moral conscience.
I don’t know if she needed a single turning point to do what she did, but if there was one it may have been the time she was first arrested, aged 19, when protesting against the government’s forced closure of schools.
A police inspector picked her up, dragged her into a van and took her to the police depot where she was held in a “pitch-black cell, with faeces-smeared walls and a metal bucket for a lavatory” for 27 hours without access to anyone. The police inspector forced her to sign a false confession, which he had written himself and which said that she had assaulted him. When she was hauled into court and charged with, among other things, assaulting the police, the magistrate immediately threw the case out for being unsupported by the evidence.
“I remember Magistrate Scicluna back in 1984 being visibly appalled to hear me describe my treatment at the hands of Inspector Farrugia,” she wrote many years later. “I, on the other hand, just counted my blessings: I had got out alive and with my limbs in one piece. Others had not.”
Soon after, my mother married one of the lawyers present that day in the magistrate’s court room. My parents didn’t meet there, but I think this episode was more a turning point for my father, Peter, than my mother.
I once caught him looking at my mother in the witness stand, in one of the 70 or so libel suits filed against her (34 of which have passed on to my family, as her heirs), smiling and in awe of the woman whose heart he had won, as she outwitted the cabinet minister who sued her and his team of lawyers, one after the other. When we left, my father turned to me and asked: “Did you see your mother?”
My parents met at a bar in St Julian’s, close to their home town of Sliema. My mother was standing by the bar, bored, and yawned. My father saw his chance and sidled up to her.
“I know – what a bloody creep,” she told me.
“She was always a bit different, your mother, you know,”
is how he remembered it.
We were happy and close growing up. My mother once described my brothers and me, during one of our fights over who took whose jeans or whatever, as an qaqoċċa, an artichoke, which in Malta are smaller and their leaves more tightly wound around the heart. And my parents, under incredible strain to protect us and themselves, were too. They talked a lot, about everything. The three boys would sit there, trying to catch up, and, as we grew older, joining in. In the evenings my father would make my mother a gin and tonic, and pour wine for himself. They loved gardening – my mother cacti, my father trees – and knew the history of every plant they touched.
I never saw my mother speak publicly, and have seen my father do so only once. At a ceremony in the European Parliament held to rename the institution’s press room in my mother’s name after her death, he said:
“My wife Daphne was an extraordinary woman, but you probably know this already because no one would go to such lengths to silence a woman who doesn’t matter. My wife was killed because she mattered, because the powerful were afraid of her and because the criminals were infuriated by her. When all legal means were exhausted and when all threats proved ineffective, there was only one solution left. My wife was executed suddenly, mercilessly and violently a few metres away from the home in which we raised our family.”
In Malta, everyone read Daphne; our surname was redundant. In a country of 475,000 people her website received 400,000 unique visitors a day, more than a million during election campaigns and a greater number than the combined readership of all Malta’s dailies. She refused media appearances and resented the interest in her life over her work, saying that things in Malta were so depressing, so predictably rotten, that she had become what passed for a celebrity there.
But the politicians, their cronies and thugs on whom she reported, made her the centre of relentless hate campaigns. The current prime minister’s main communications aide, Glenn Bedingfield, also an MP, set up a blog with the sole purpose of harassing her, asking readers to send in photos of her going about her day, photos of my brothers and me, and our father.
The harassment got so bad over the last few years of her life that she felt unable to leave the house, and began using a rental car – the one now seared into everyone’s minds as a bombed-out chassis in an arid field – rather than her own car.
The prime minister’s aide set up that blog a few days before my mother broke a story about how a senior cabinet minister, Konrad Mizzi, and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, had opened shell companies, registered in Panama, within days of their election in 2013. A group of journalists, under the banner of the Daphne Project, have since found that the companies were set to receive $150,000 a month for 18 years from a corrupt energy deal with Azerbaijan and signed with the minister’s “ministerial discretion”.
From the moment she broke this story until her murder, she didn’t just drive the news cycle, she was the news cycle, both in Malta and, because of the Panama Papers, across the European Union.
Politico named her as one of the 28 people most likely to shape Europe in 2017. How right they were. Her citation read: “A one-woman WikiLeaks, crusading against untransparency and corruption in Malta, an island nation famous for both.”
It was on the website she set up in 2008, Running Commentary, that she broke her major stories, including those on the Panama Papers. Her website allowed her the freedom to produce the satire that she wanted. Satire was unheard of in Malta but she excelled at it.
In the May before she was murdered, she wrote of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat: “It’s only a matter of time before that corrupt bastard begins quoting Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer at us again as he did in the last general election [“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace”]. To save him the bother, I’ve rewritten it for him in a contemporary version.”
Referring to Henley & Partners, the private company that has a monopoly on the sale of Maltese passports, a shadowy deal she uncovered at the start of the prime minister’s first term in 2013, she began:
“Henley, make me an instrument of your passports sales…”
I still laugh every time I read it and then feel my heart break into pieces.
Her financial journalism was pathfinding. Despite the country having turned into a financial centre over the past few years, no independent journalist really understood money, how it is laundered, moved and hidden.
She was adamant that Malta should become a member of the EU and fought fiercely for the “join” side in the successful campaign for membership in 2003.
She had grown up in a Malta that was more controlling and in a material sense poorer. A country that was totally dependent on imports had rigid import quotas. The shops contained one brand of chocolate, for example, made by a state-owned factory. It tasted like wax, she told me. Household appliances and colour televisions were impossibly expensive and handed out only to political apparatchiks. The Malta of her childhood was a near-communist state, preferring links to Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, North Korea and the Soviet Union than to western Europe.
“Over my dead body will my children be stuck on these rocks,” she had told Politico about Malta’s EU membership. Her hope was that membership would see the country democratise.
Her anger at injustice drove her writing: violence against asylum seekers and children, cabinet ministers skipping traffic queues, the destruction of Malta’s limited countryside, the abuse of public office for private gain, and misogyny. She was called a “witch”, a “whore” and “menopausal” in the course of her 30-year writing career.
A few months before she was murdered she wrote: “This morning in court: the misogyny has to be heard to be believed.” She was describing a court scene from one of the libel cases against her, a now infamous case filed by the economy minister, Chris Cardona, and his top aide, Joe Gerada, after she reported that both men had shared a prostitute at a brothel while on an official EU trip. She reported that the tone of their lawyer, also the counsel to the Labour Party and the government, “seethes with savage hatred and anger, with contempt, and above all, with extreme irritation that a woman not only opens her mouth without stroking egos (or something else), but then won’t shut up”.
“Would they be saying this, in this tone and with this attitude, would they be saying these things specifically, if I were a man?”
In that case, the economy minister persuaded the court to freeze my mother’s assets using a “precautionary warrant”, normally reserved for creditor-debtor cases and used here for the first time in Malta’s history in a libel case. The Council of Europe scolded Malta for this legal action. The government replied, in an official letter to the council, by calling my mother a “hate blogger”. Her readers crowd-funded €70,000 in a single day to help pay for her defence and allow her to keep living. She said, after the money was raised:
“The surplus, after court fees and the rest of the myriad complications are sorted, will be donated to Dar Merhba Bik, the women’s shelter. Given that my gender is a significant factor in the moral violence I experience on a daily basis as a critic of male politicians in the southern Mediterranean, I think this appropriate. It is also a cause close to my heart.”
The economy minister, who is due to be questioned by police as part of the murder investigation, dropped the case as did his aide after they failed to turn up for a single hearing following her murder. My mother died without access to her own money while the minister remains in the cabinet, and we, her heirs, have to continue fighting in court to have that money released.
The last time my mother left our house was to see her bank manager about gaining access to the funds frozen by the economy minister. She barely made it out of the lane leading up to our house off the Bidnija road when the bomb under her seat was detonated, flinging her Peugeot with her inside it into a nearby field. The car then exploded in a ball of flames.
It was in that same spot, about 20 years earlier, that my middle brother Andrew had tumbled out of a go-kart we built and grazed his shin badly. He had tried hiding it from my parents but my mother saw it. “Are you mad? Riding a go-kart down that hill – that bend. Boys, do you know how dangerous that is?”
The spot now marks where Malta’s most famous journalist, my mother, was assassinated, aged 53, on Monday 16 October 2017 at 3pm.
I was in London. Andrew and my father were at work in Valletta. Matthew was at home with my mother before she left the house. The explosion was powerful enough to shake the windows and doors of the house. “I knew it was a car bomb straight away,” Matthew, who had run out of the house barefoot, told journalists. “There was a huge ball of fire,” he said. “Like the fire of hell. It was just… awful, the sound of the horn blaring. There were body parts all over the ground.”
Matthew and I don’t speak about that afternoon. He’s been over it enough, with journalists, lawyers, police officers, and in his head. And in any case, I can’t bear it. It’s one of two scenes – the other a press photo of Andrew and my father arriving at the scene of the explosion – that shut my mind down and freeze my heart.
But I remember when Matthew called me, repeatedly, from a number that I didn’t recognise. I sent the number to my mother, asking whether she recognised it. No reply. My maternal aunt, Cora, the eldest of her three sisters, then called asking that I call Matthew right away.
“There was a bomb in her car,” he told me. I felt an eternity between every word afterwards. “I don’t think she made it. Paul, come home.”
Of course he knew that she didn’t make it. Body parts all over the ground. And in my heart so did I. But it allowed me to pretend just long enough so that I could – with my wife, Jessica, practically carrying me – make it back home.
We spent the next days at home together leaving only three times in three weeks. First to go to the morgue, to provide a DNA sample to the coroner so that he could identify my mother’s remains. So far identification was circumstantial, he explained, given the bomb was so powerful. My father suggested old fractures in her left arm and right ankle that should help, to which the coroner replied: “Ija, ħi, imma hemm ħafna fractures” (Yeah, mate, but there are a lot of fractures). Second, to travel to the European Parliament to attend a plenary debate on her assassination. And, finally, for her funeral on 3 November.
In his homily, the Archbishop of Malta told journalists “never to grow weary in your mission to be the eyes, the ears and the mouth of the people”. He then turned to my brothers and me, and said:
“As you know, whenever your mother was abroad, she had a habit of lighting a candle in church for each one of you: the silent prayer of a mother for her children… Your beloved mother died a cruel death by the hidden hand of someone that valued darkness over the light, for his actions are evil. See that you will always be the children of the light.”
We asked the prime minister, his officials, the opposition leader, and the president, all subjects of my mother’s investigations, to stay away. They did. Anġlu Farrugia, the police inspector who had arrested my mother when she was 19, now the speaker of the House of Representatives, sent flowers with his name on them. Matthew ripped them up, and kicked them away from our mother’s closed casket.
We lit three candles and Matthew read Ecclesiastes 3, which my mother once wrote was “engraved in my heart”. Wickedness in the place of justice. There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens. A time to be born and a time to die, to kill and to heal, to mourn and to dance. I don’t know when that time will come. And I don’t know that we’ll always be children of the light in what, at times, feels like complete darkness.
I left Malta a few hours after my mother’s funeral and haven’t returned since. It is safer and easier, for me, to fight our battles against the governing Labour Party and Maltese state, who continue to block a public inquiry into our mother’s death despite a legal obligation to call one, from London.
In the end, what was it all for? Everything. Her journalism was our guiding light on everything. She shaped us and our country into something better. And now that Malta has killed its Cassandra, our Daphne, it is having to face up to what she’s been trying to tell us all along.
Aged 26, her three young boys tugging at her sleeves, her husband nagging her, my mother sits at her desk overlooking the garden on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, when Malta is at its best, to compose her Sunday column. She writes:
“Fear, unfortunately, is the greatest enemy of freedom of expression – and of dialogue. Fear leads to the dangerous situation where individuals are gagged, forced to retract what they have said through some form of intimidation, or by some other means discredited… Individuals should never be nailed for exercising the legitimate right to speak their mind. We can truly call ourselves a democratic people – as opposed to a democratic government – when more of us do the same, without fearing the consequences.”
- Tribute in the New Statesman
- The Guardian did a video introduction to my mother and her work as part of their Daphne Project reporting
- Reuters special report for the Daphne Project
- Debono, J and Muscat, C (eds), “Invicta: The Life and Work of Daphne Caruana Galizia”, 2017