May 17 2013

Intimate Fusion: Media and Political Power in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy

By John Lloyd and Ferdinando Giugliano (reposted from openDemocracy)

Key to the politics of public discourse about the crisis are media structures and their relationship with politics across Europe’s diverse media environments. This repost is the first in an occasional series exploring this structural backdrop to the Euro Crisis in the Press.

The common view that Berlusconi’s omnipresence in Italy’s political life was facilitated by his control of the media is only partially true. Relations between Italian media and politics have, in fact, a much more complicated history tracing back to decades before the Cavaliere’s reign.

Berlusconi-comizioThere is no such thing as “clean hands” in journalism. It is, always and everywhere, a compromised profession. The issue with journalists is: how large are the compromises? How far do they stop journalists doing their most important work – which they themselves define as exercising the function of a guardian of truth, of clean government and corporate behaviour, and of a provider of the information and analysis necessarily available to citizens, allowing them to be full citizens. That is not all, or even most, of the world that journalists create: but it is the civic reason for their existence, in Italy as elsewhere in the world.

No system of ownership can dispense entirely with compromise. Neither public (on the differing models of the BBC, or RAI), nor cooperative, nor trust, nor private, nor state, nor party ownership can reliably deliver a journalism which will look at the events of the world without some bias. Owners are one problem: the best that can be done is to be clear about the nature of ownership, and the constraints and influence which money, politics, party advantage and state policy dictate. Journalists are the other problem: and the best that can be done is for the journalist to be clear about his or her opinions if s/he is opinionated – or to be rigorous about objectivity if s/he is being objective. Unlike some of the most distinguished Italian journalists, we believe objectivity in journalism to be valuable, and a service to society: it may not ever be wholly obtainable but, like the ideal of human perfection posited by the great religions, is a quality to be striven for.

Two of the grandest figures in Italian newspaper journalism of the post-war period believed that objectivity was not relevant to the journalism they practised, and the newspapers they created and edited. Both thought, instead, that journalism should be militant; that it take a strong ideological position, be clear about it and promote it. Objectivity was not just unobtainable: it was irrelevant – worse, it was dishonest. Indro Montanelli, for decades the most distinguished journalist of the right, resigned from Italy’s paper of record, Corriere della Sera, in 1974 because he found its editorial line too accommodating to the communists: he founded Il Giornale as an explicitly and principled anti-Communist, liberal-conservative paper. Later, when Silvio Berlusconi became his proprietor and when the media tycoon, after some years of allowing Montanelli considerable independence, decided to “come down to the field” of politics, he left the editor’s chair rather than accommodate himself to what he saw as the increasing intolerability of his owner’s demands – and spent much of the rest of his life passionately opposing the new leader of the Italian political right.

Eugenio Scalfari, on the left, prepared his equally audacious launch of La Repubblica in the same vein, dismissing any efforts to be fair, balanced, neutral or objective, scorning “an illusory political neutrality” in favour of a journalism which was clearly – clearly is the important word – engaged, which had “explicitly chosen a side”. He was, he wrote, moving journalism from “the passive to the active voice”.

The debate over objectivity in journalism is at least a century old, erupting time and again, especially since the last war when efforts to found public service broadcasters with a neutral approach to their subjects – potentially including the state and the government of the day – were started in earnest. At root, as especially Scalfari makes clear, is the question of whether or not there can (or should) be an objective and neutral journalism: and he, as many Italian journalists, argues that it is impossible.

This seems to us to be one of the central elements in Italian journalism of the post war period. The Italian media cannot but be deeply affected by the power of the political parties – and their influence over the way in which politics, and much else, is reported is greater than in most other democratic countries. But the polemical gusto and diversity of the political and media scene, as refracted through the powerful lenses of the politics of the past two decades, does not properly serve the democratic commitments of the media (nor, for that matter, politics itself).

It does not because the structure of post-war Italian journalism has been subordinated to political opinion and party power, and has thus too little evolved a journalism whose goal is to produce not only a diversity of view (which it must do, and in Italy does) but also an at least skeletal version of the truth and a capacity to analyse and investigate in depth, and regularly, especially on the mass medium, TV. Truth must exist for journalism to work as a profession, and to make the democratic claims for itself which it does. If it does not, then everything is opinion: and in Italian journalism, too much is opinion, too little is a careful piecing together of evidence leading to a solidly based revelation.

That is not because Italian journalists cannot do such journalism: indeed, a few do. But the premium, and often the demand from editors and proprietors, is for a journalism which fits itself to a pre-existing ideological mould. The journalism which privileges careful inquiry and a neutral approach – open to facts taking the inquiry in any direction – has not been seen as possible by some of the most distinguished practitioners, or desirable by either private owners, or the state. Many of the leading journalists of Italy deplore this – but often resort to a fatalistic, “it’s not in our genes”, resignation; or say it is an Anglo Saxon habit, not comfortable in Latin countries.

The public broadcaster is, in many states, the medium which sees it as a duty to strive for neutrality and to present programmes in depth. But in Italy, the public broadcaster has long had a fatal flaw. Radiotelevisione Italiana, or RAI, has for some decades operated a system known as lottizzazione (derived from the word lotto, which in one of its meanings signifies the division of land into plots): it has, since the mid seventies, assigned the three main channels to different political groups. RAI 1 serves the government, and the dominant party within it; RAI 2 is allied to the largest party supporting the dominant party in government; and RAI 3 to the left, which had meant to the powerful Communist Party and now to the less powerful Democratic Party together with the other parties of the left.

Developed at a time when the Christian Democrats were dominant, the Socialist Party was in support and the Communist Party was in permanent opposition, lottizzazione worked in the way it was intended to: it replaced the almost total hegemony of the ruling Christian Democratic party with a pluralistic system, in which the main political forces got a piece of the televisual action, but the government kept the most popular channels. It since ceased to work, since elections do not deliver a permanent centrist government dominated by the Christian Democrats, but have for the past twenty years alternated between blocs of the right and the left, and at present cannot produce a government at all. Thus in the event of a left government, the left coalition in theory controls all three terrestrial channels. However, even in the period of Christian Democrat domination, the outcome was a malign one for journalism: it meant that journalists in the most powerful and popular news medium in Italy had to fit themselves, not in the first place to the discovery of the facts, but to the exigencies of political masters. The senior posts in RAI were filled frequently by those who worked for Christian Democrat publications, and from the public relations offices of ministers. Journalists had to display loyalty to the party, and could be removed by it if they did not.

The foundation of Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset channels was permitted by a political intervention on the part of the then Prime Minister, the Socialist Benito Craxi, rammed through at the cost of defections from his government to serve the interests of his close friend, Berlusconi – who had created a then-prohibited nationwide network in defiance of the law. Berlusconi, who had been relatively hands-off in the first years of his TV network and of his ownership of Il Giornale, a paper of the centre right, changed decisively on taking the decision to enter politics and create his own, centre-right party. His media were then mobilized in his support. That they should serve Berlusconi’s political as well as commercial interests was seen as outrageous by many: but the grounds for the outrage had been weakened by lottizzazione.

Thus since the early 1990s, television channels both state-owned and private, were almost entirely captured by political forces. The press was, in part, convinced that its role was to be overtly politically engaged: where it was less so – as in major newspapers like Corriere della Sera of Milan and La Stampa of Turin – their coverage was moderated by the need of the owners to remain on good terms with a government which controlled so much of the economy. In these two decades the traditional right-left division in the press was made much more acute and polemically aggressive, while new techniques borrowed from tabloid practice and scandal and celebrity journalism came to play a large role in political coverage.

It is not the case – as Berlusconi has often said he believes – that the media are biased against him: as we will see, he has the most powerful medium, television, working largely for him, though even there with important exceptions. But it is certainly the case that there are and have been many exposés, analyses and pieces of reportage which show the Prime Minister in an unfavourable light – as well as the thousands of pieces done by foreign media readily available, often translated into Italian. And RAI, throughout his premierships, continued to have a majority of talk shows which were biased towards, or strongly of, the left, a particular source of the Prime Minister’s disgust.

There have been many trials – none of which ended in his conviction, but most of which put into the public domain damaging allegations which were often dismissed only on a technicality (usually because they fell foul of the statute of limitations). Italian journalism has many faults, but it certainly did enough to ensure that the Prime Minister would have been finished politically in another country. The point is less the quality of the journalism, more the huge success in the media sphere which Berlusconi had enjoyed before and during his descent into the field of politics – successes which made him a vastly wealthy man, and which spread a new kind of media experience through Italian society which, under his tutelage, changed from one which watched TV less than other nations into one which leads the TV viewing pack.

It’s the judgment of one of the most acute writers on Italy’s politics and media, the Italo-American Alexander Stille, that Berlusconi “would not have lasted a year with an aggressive and capable press” (1) It’s an important conclusion, but is only partly true. The press, and the media generally, are often aggressively anti-Berlusconi. All of Italian journalism in the age of Silvio Berlusconi is not his slave, nor have many journalists shied away from trying to hold him to account. On most visits to an Italian bookshop, you can find a new book on Berlusconi, usually critical, usually packed with details as to why it is so, and usually written by a journalist. The issue is not aggression – but capability.

Capability in journalism comes from three elements which must both be present for it to have an effect. First, it must believe that it can tell the truth – actually, an adequate sketch of it – and do so with enough success to lead the public to trust its results, no matter what their political or other views are. Second, as well as being able to produce such testimony, it must have an audience receptive to it – which in this case means that a large enough part of that audience prizes and attends to the civic nature of journalism, its ability and right to illuminate areas hidden from view by the powers that be, because they do not wish the public to know of their actions and their plans.

Third and crucially, people with power – politicians, public oficials, corporate leaders, heads of non governmental organisations and institutions, including the media themselves – must be open to challenge from journalism: and when a scandal, a lie, a wrong or a crime is revealed and proven, those involved must suffer the consequences and be willing and able to submit the malefactors to examination and punishment if the revelation proves to have a basis. Journalism only has an effect when the objects of its investigations, especially those in power, can be shamed by revelations of their delinquency and when others in power act on the evidence provided. Capability does not only lie with journalism: it needs an answering capability in the public, and in the power structures of the society in which it works. In every society that necessary, if usually implicit, relationship needs constant care.

In Italy now, it needs radical repair. In another judgment, that of the biographer of Machiavelli, Maurizio Viroli (2) writes that “Berlusconi is surely unfit to govern a democratic republic, but we Italians, we must face it, are unfit for liberty”. Viroli’s view, at the end of a decade dominated by a figure as careless of governance and truth as Berlusconi has been and yet sustained in government by a plurality of votes – is understandable. Once again, however, we disagree: Italians have, to be sure, shown themselves en masse too indifferent to free citizens’ responsibilities: and the manouevres of the parties after the February 2013 general election produced three more or less equal party-blocs, unable to agree to coalesce round a common programme, has been dispriting. But they are as fitted to assume them as other Europeans, given the will.

In the course of his politico-media reign, Berlusconi had ensured that journalism’s power was heavily diluted, its voice confined. This was due to the weight of the control he exerted when Prime Minister over both his own commercial channels and the public channels; to the uncompromising nature of the battles waged by the newspapers which are for and against him and which he and his supporters in the news media encouraged; and the lack of a strong broadcast tradition of analysis, revelatory journalism and carefully balanced reporting which they did nothing to improve and much to make worse. It has meant that journalism had been put on the back foot for almost twenty years, at a time when the large changes in style and substance which the Prime Minister introduced into the polity of his country called out for close reporting.


1: The Sack of Rome; Alexander Stille; Penguin Press, 2006.

2: La Liberta dei Servi, Laterza, 2010 trans as The Liberty of Servants; Princeton; 2012

This is the introduction to “Intimate Fusion: Media and political power in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy” by Ferdinando Giugliano and John Lloyd. The book will be published by Feltrinelli in mid-April 2013. Thanks go to the authors and the publisher for letting us reproduce it here.

This piece has been reposted and originally appeared on openDemocracy.

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