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The other side of what, exactly? - Michela Spiteri

I have written several articles on the subject of underage/under the influence/reckless driving, and my views on the subject must now be well-known. Every columnist has a hobby horse – a sore point or two – and this is definitely one of mine. But today’s article is about something quite different.

I’ll begin with the words of presenter Peppi Azzopardi on Xarabank, about a fortnight ago, when he introduced the interview given by Liam Debono’s mother and grandmother. Here’s what he said, roughly translated:

“This is by no means an exercise in obliterating or condoning what happened to the policeman Simon Schembri: that was an atrocity which no one here is trying to justify. Neither are we saying that Liam Debono is guilty – he has not yet been found guilty and is still innocent. We are simply here to tell the other side of the story…”

I watched the interview. And I watched it not once, but twice, just to make sure I hadn’t missed “the other side of the story” that Azzopardi had so magnanimously promised his viewers.

You would think that any ‘other side’ of this story, as told by a loving mother would be an act of selfless atonement – her chance  to portray Liam in as favourable a light as possible, while acknowledging that she may not have always been the most shining of examples.    

Certainly, his mother Charlotte Zammit should have managed that sort of self-reproach easily enough when she admitted to an almost embarrassed Azzopardi that she was a recovering drug addict. But funnily enough, all that was brushed aside, as was the passing reference to the put-upon eldest daughter who, it seemed, covered for her mother’s refusal, inability or failure to look after the other children. Interestingly, the exact number of dependent children was never actually established, and no invasive, uncomfortable or searching questions were ever put to Zammit.

A mother’s instinct, surely, is to protect, at any cost, her children before herself

Such questions, not in themselves unreasonable, might have included: How many children do you have, and with how many partners? Have you brought up all these children yourself? Have they always lived with you? And if you once had a chronic drug problem, do you expect us to believe that you never asked your underage son to drive you to the detox, not even in a moment of weakness?

Neither was Zammit asked whether she had ever visited her son in prison or  followed his proceedings in court, and no reference either was made to Debono’s father. 

You may not think these points imme­diately relevant, and perhaps you take the view that I’m being moralistic, prurient and judgemental.

In all honesty, I am rarely conscious of being judgemental. But I do feel strongly about things. And one such thing is that a mother whose son is standing trial for attempted murder should face such intrusive questions if she chooses to be interviewed on national television and talk freely about her son’s troubled life and rake up his past and refute his claims.

We are all products of our respective upbringings and experiences. Children in secure and stable families (with a mother and a father present) are likely to cope much better than those who are exposed to domestic and social conflict, not to mention parental alienation or estrangement. In such situations, social, emotional and cognitive skills are likely to suffer irreparably. 

But the gloves never really came off. An interview which, I imagine, was primarily intended to humanise Debono and counter the  callous media portrayal, became more about Ms Zammit setting the record –her record – straight. In other words her chance to purge herself and  tell us once again that, contrary to what her son had told a Court under oath, she had never given him drugs.  I won’t even attempt to unpick truth from falsehood here, but I will say this: that while Debono was under oath, Zammit was not. And that, perhaps, is neither here nor there. Besides, I’m far more exercised by the implications of a mother clearing her own name in this way, even at the risk of harming her own son, exposing him to further pre-trial prejudice and impinging on his right to silence. Of course, Zammit could argue she was defending her ‘reputation’ since it was Debono who first broke silence and chose to mention her.   But he did that in Court as part of a solemn court process. She on the other hand told tales out of court. Besides, a mother's instinct, surely, is to protect, at any cost, her children before herself.

My initial reaction to the interview was that it did more harm than good and therefore defeated its purpose. I felt it was in bad taste and found it offensive and unfair, which is why I decided to write about it. Having done that, I have changed my mind and come to the conclusion that the interview probably served a very useful, almost cathartic, purpose.  Because if we had any doubts as to what sort of support Debono lacked when growing up, or the toxicity of that mother-son relationship, the interview was an eye-opener. The ‘other side of the story’ was really about what Debono’s mother herself lacked: a primal maternal instinct. That does not (and can not) condone or justify her son’s actions, whatever they may be. But it might explain them. In his hour of need, and when push came to shove, his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, was incapable of suffering in silence or turning the other cheek. She turned to the media instead and basically called her son a liar. That’s now on record.

michelaspiteri@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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