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The end of the Silvio show?

In the run-up to the Italian elections, things are hotting up under prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi's feet. By Gabriella Vitiello

When Umberto Eco goes on TV, viewer levels skyrocket. Five million people watched the famous semiotician and writer on channel 3 of the state-owned broadcaster Rai at the beginning of February, when he appeared as guest on Fabio Fazio's show "Que tempo fa". The programme's blend of intelligent talk, satire and weather forecasts also says a lot about the social climate. The tremendous popularity of the show with Umberto Eco must have had Silvio Berlusconi seething with envy. Spurred on by poor showings in the polls, Berlusconi has just ended a four-week TV marathon. He appeared twice as often as all other leading politicians taken together, although in the political talk show "Porta a Porta" he was only asked half as many questions as his opponent Romano Prodi. On his whirlwind tour, Berlusconi appeared on state-owned and private broadcasters. No matter where you zapped, the prime minister was there to greet you, live, taped or as a rerun, advertising on his own behalf although the election campaign officially began only on February 11. Berlusconi even hired a personal director for one broadcast. In another he was cheered on by youthful claqueurs, while in a third his former government spokesman asked the questions.

Umberto Eco agreed to the rare television appearance because his new book has just come out in Italy. It is no accident that "A passo di gambero – Guerre calde e populismo mediatico (At a prawn's pace – hot wars and media populism) appeared punctually for the election campaign. Eco is widely regarded as an unrelenting critic of telecracy à la Berlusconi. He had originally promised his publisher a collection of philosophical and semiological essays, Eco said on "Que tempo fa". But in view of the parliamentary elections slated for April 9, it seemed more pressing to publish a collection of his essays, articles and lectures on politics and the media in the "Bush-Berlusconi era" from the years 2000 – 2005. The country is running backwards, he says, like prawns on the seabed. The law on federalism is a case in point, which in Eco's view takes the country back to before the unification of 1861. And in football stadia across the country the "Roman salute" which Eco was obliged to carry out as a ten-year-old under fascism is once more in vogue. "In the last five years, Italy has started down the road to perdition. If we keep it up we will soon become a third world country," Eco had prophesied in Corriere della Sera.

According to Eco, the new development which has resulted in the "Italian laboratory" is Berlusconi's "media-populistic regime". Berlusconi's Italy is like a dictatorship that has been spared the trouble of creating one. With the aid of television, the prime minister can circumvent parliament and addresses himself directly to the people, who he sees as his sole legitimating force. But as Eco explains, the "people" does not exist. Berlusconi's sentence "'I will only be judged by the people' bespeaks a populism based on the fiction that only the people can justify actions." Eco counters with reference to an important tenet of communications theory: "The mass media do not create opinions, they simply strengthen existing ones." For that reason, Berlusconi's potential for manipulation will reach its limits at some point, Eco explains: once electors decide to vote him out of office, the television won't be of any help to him. On his travels Eco is provided with ample proof that the "Italian situation" is causing worries abroad. Yet the pats on the shoulder are more humbling than comforting. Although they are meant to signal solidarity, for Eco they are not at all altruistic. "I always say to people in other countries: you pretend to be worried about us, but in fact you're just afraid something like what's going on here could also happen to you."

Sabina Guzzanti

Filmmaker Sabina Guzzanti had similar experiences when presenting her documentary film "Viva Zapatero" at international festivals. The film deals with her encounter with censorship in the state broadcaster Rai: "People see my film as a thriller when I show it abroad, a nightmare that could also happen there," the satirist said in an interview with the daily newspaper il manifesto. "Viva Zapatero" recently won the Italian documentary film prize "Il nastro d'argento". For Guzzanti, the award comes as an unexpected success and a belated triumph against Rai, which took her satirical programme "RaiOT" off the air in Autumn 2003 after just one of six planned episodes had been shown. In "RaiOT" – Guzzanti settles old scores with the Italian media establishment, poking fun at anything from tailor-made laws for Berlusconi's Mediaset group to the concentration of advertising revenues to the system of information manipulation which no one has spoken out against – apart from a couple of comedians. Rai's executive board justified its decision to stop RaiOT at the time by saying that Mediaset had planned to charge the state television broadcaster with slander, and would demand compensation for damages caused when its stock market value sank after the first programme was broadcast.

"Viva Zapatero" documents Guzzanti's personal quest to discover the causes, circumstances and consequences of the censorship she suffered. Particularly horrifying is one scene showing the comedian with a microphone in her hand, asking members of Rai's executive board for statements. The Italian judiciary had decided on all counts that RaiOT in no way defamed Mediaset, and that it simply portrayed the facts. But Guzzanti receives no answer when she asks whether RaiOT would be able to resume broadcasting. With arrogant, disdainful looks, the upper echelons of Rai leave her standing there without a word. The Italian press, on the contrary – and not just on the right wing – refused to discuss the facts of the case, accusing Guzzanti of confusing satire with information. And so, they argued, there was no offence against the freedom of opinion because in any event a satire programme is not allowed to cover news.

Episode one of Guzzanti's "RaiOT"

Guzzanti also gave interviews with satirists and journalists abroad. There the most puzzlement was caused by the fact that there was no rebellion in Italy against this censorship. Even representatives of the Italian opposition concentrated their criticism on Guzzanti, instead of speaking out against Berlusconi and his henchmen. For this reason she is sceptical about a return to freedom of expression should the centre-left coalition win the elections. Until now there have been no specific suggestions of ways to stop the amalgamation of politics and TV in Italy, where Rai's executive board is nominated exclusively by politicians. In her blog, Sabina Guzzanti published a draft law on the subject, based on the model of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Immediately after his election the Spanish premier pushed through the independence of television.

For the official election campaign, the politicians have reserved the TV stage exclusively for themselves. The so-called "par condicio law" stipulates that as of February 11 this year, only politicians may speak about politics on state and public TV – and then only when the power balance between opposition and majority is even and both sides are given the same speaking time. Journalists, comedians, writers and filmmakers are banned from talking about politics on TV. Civil society has to keep its mouth shut on the TV piazza until the elections are over, no matter whether the issue is cuts in cultural funding, problems in the heath service or environmental damage.

The documentary film by Enrico Deaglio, director of the weekly newspaper diario, and journalist Beppe Cremagnani is coming out as if on cue. "Quando c'era Silvio. Storia del periodo berlusconiano" (The time with Silvio. The story of the Berlusconi era) combines a look back over the epoch with a farewell to the prime minister. The documentary comes out on DVD on March 1 and will be distributed via diario, the nationwide network of the Feltrinelli bookshops as well as in video rental stores. Deaglio did ask Rai's third channel whether there was any interest in the film but he received no answer.

"Quando c'era Silvio" combines reportage elements with journalistic research and grotesque scenes a la Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11", refreshing the memory of thirty years of Italian history and presenting a number of previously unreleased documents and interviews. The film begins with Berlusconi's tomb. Berlusconi is taking Gorbachev on a tour of his mausoleum in his villa in Arcore, which the Russian clearly finds tasteless in the extreme. Deaglio and Cremagnani show aspects of the Silvio story which the major national newspapers ignore as if they were not their problem, and which Rai prefers to keep shut away in its archives. Among them is the full version of Berlusconi's speech in Strasbourg at the start of the EU presidency, which culminated in his calling Martin Schulz, German SPD Member of the European Parliament, a "concentration camp guard".

Scene from Deaglio and Cremagnani's "Quando c'era Silvio"

The ninety-minute documentary on the prime minister, who has trebled his fortune since entering politics, and who after five years in office is clearly far richer again than he was at the start of his term – centres on Berlusconi's alleged business relationship with Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia. Two of Berlusconi's aides and colleagues have been charged with having Cosa Nostra contacts. The Senator Marcello dell'Utri, who was sentenced by the Court of First Instance to a nine-year prison sentence in 2004, is today selecting the candidates for Forza Italia's electoral list. During the trial of dell'Utri, the witness Berlusconi made good use of his right to silence when questioned by the judge. Shame and unease characterise journalist Fabrizio Calvi's interview with Sicilian judge Paolo Borsellino in the spring of 1992. Calvi asks Borsellino whether it is normal for Cosa Nostra to be interested in Berlusconi. The judge replies sixty days before his murder: "It is normal that the owner of substantial amounts of money will look for ways to use this money, and this goes for money laundering as well as the revenues this money can generate." Deaglio and Cremagnani hope that their film will be "a hit". (Here an interview with Deaglio in Corriere della sera.)

And film director Nanni Moretti will be bringing Berlusconi to the big screen. After a period of political involvement in the non-parliamentary opposition movement Girotondi, the filmmaker has returned to his old profession. "Il Caimano" (The cayman) will come out in Italian cinemas on March 24. In it Moretti tells of the desperate attempt of a young woman film director to make a film about Berlusconi, but who is unable to find any actors prepared to take on the part. When the sole aspirant to the explosive role backs out after his initial acceptance, the film becomes increasingly mysterious and surreal. Moretti is loathe to reveal any more at the moment. But he assures that "Il Caimano" will touch a nerve and raise doubts. (Here an interview with Moretti in L'Espresso.)

Many people would be only too happy to say goodbye to the Berlusconi era after the election in two months' time. Like Enrico Deglio, other artists, journalists and intellectuals would love to talk about their media prime minister in the past tense, and start analysing the past twelve years. The daily newspaper La Repubblica recently ran an article on new facets in the history of Berlusconi the businessman. In Milan a manifesto surfaced which Berlusconi had sent out to thirty top managers of his Fininvest company. The brochure dates back to 1991 and bristles with fascist ideology and dictatorial world improvement fantasies. It shows that despite claims to the contrary, Berlusconi did not first enter the political arena in 1994. In fact, three years beforehand he had drawn up the outlines of a preliminary political manifesto. The texts in the pamphlet are addressed to confidantes and friends, many of whom like the former minister for culture, Giuliano Urbani, are still busying away in his orbit.

One of the texts on the role of the media was written by Baget Bozzo, Forza Italia ideologue and aesthetics professor. He explains that the reality represented in television is an interpretation but at the same time objective: "The world will become the one we see in television." Yet control of the media was apparently not Berlusconi's idea. The Fininvest pamphlet also reveals parallels with the guidelines of the secret Freemasons' lodge Propaganda 2 (P2), which Berlusconi joined in 1978 as member 1816 (more). The industrialist and ex-fascist Licio Gelli founded P2 to group together the most powerful representatives of society's elite and thus gain control over all the corridors of power: generals, secret agents, journalists, industrialists and bankers, many of whom had Mafia contacts. The aim of the secret lodge was to stage a coup that would prevent the communists getting into power. In 1981, the public prosecutors stopped P2s right-wing conspiratorial machinations. In recent years Gelli has told the press that Berlusconi got most of his political ideas from him. But articles on the subject have not triggered a public debate. They are but ephemera in the daily media grind, and historians who might be able shed some public light on this epoch have no voice in today's Italy.

A 12-year conflict of interest between the media czar and the politician Berlusconi has dulled Italy's memory. For this reason a number of journalists, artists and intellectuals are calling for Italians to think back to 1996, when the centre-left government did not push through jurisdiction to prevent this conflict of interest, contrary to its promises. To this day, none of the politicians responsible are particularly willing to talk about this grave institutional error. And instead of distancing themselves from Berlusconi's TV madness (something they constantly purported to be doing), the leading opposition politicians were always only too delighted to appear on the popular TV shows.

The consequences of this conflict of interest are seen everywhere. One of them is the tailoring of the TV duel to Berlusconi's needs in the run-up to the elections. Rai's parliamentary supervisory committee has stipulated that the prime minister will twice face the centre-left candidate, Romano Prodi, in the middle of March and the beginning of April. Five years ago, Berlusconi did everything in his power not to have to appear against his opponent Francesco Rutelli. Now he has suddenly redoubled his willingness to speak, meeting Prodi as both the leader of the centre-right alliance and as the head of Forza Italia. But there will be no regulation of how long the candidates can speak and it will be forbidden to directly contradict one another's claims. Berlusconi's apoplectic outbursts will therefore go unchecked. The preposterous conclusion of the TV election campaign and the grand finale of the one-man-Silvio show is the so-called press conference to be given by the prime minister two days before the elections, to gather up all the undecided voters into the fold.

The journalists Gianni Barbacetto (homepage) und Giacomo Papi have already published their ideas in diario on what Italian TV might look like post Silvio, if the centre-left alliance Unione wins. The restructuring of the media landscape is complicated and demands more than anything plenty of gumption. The TV and media chapter in the Unione's election manifesto sounds promising, but it is rather vague and constitutes just three percent of the entire manifesto (pages 259ff of the pdf document). The centre-left politicians promise they are not planning a new party-political parcelling of Rai like that which has been in effect for decades, but there is no guarantee they will actually free television from the clutches of politics. And for a meaningful change to take place, it would mean passing a law similar to that laid out in Sabina Guzzanti's blog.

Barbacetto and Papi are doubtful whether a centre-left government is capable or even willing to stand up to the powerful Mediaset lobby, which has supporters even among its own ranks. Breaking through the monopoly position of Berlusconi's Mediaset would be protracted and complicated because Berlusconi controls not only television channels, publishing companies, print-media and cinema distribution, but also advertising revenues and, thanks to the media law passed by his government, the sale of decoders for terrestrial digital television. The 'Gasparri law' (named after the minister for communication) has also secured Mediaset a future growth of about one billion euros. A future government would also have to address conflict of interest questions, establish an efficient and independent control body against potential breaches and agree on the number of frequencies and channels a company can occupy and own.

But the future of TV lies elsewhere, Barbacetto and Papi explain in their article. In the long term, everything will be transmitted via satellite and telephone cables, and Berlusconi is already waiting in the wings, dreaming of taking over the Italian Telecom, the future power house for TV. If he succeeds, he will remain the Italian media mogul for years to come. A serious media reform would therefore have to establish a clear division between the owner or licensee of a channel and the content provider. The Unione manifest lists this intention. Whether Prodi and his allies are genuinely capable of cutting through the dense thicket of politics, technology, lobbies, market and television channels will be revealed in two months' time.


The article was originally published in German on the Perlentaucher website on February 23, 2006.

Gabriella Vitiello is a native of Wiesbaden, and works as a freelance journalist in Naples.

Translation: jab, lp. - let's talk european