Jamie Rubin: Alexander Stille, thank you for joining us.
Alexander Stille: Thanks for having me.
Jamie Rubin: We’ve just seen in our film a powerful example of how Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Italy, controls, directly or indirectly, 90 percent of the TV in Italy. We’ve seen trials stopped and charges of corruption. But what really is the threat Berlusconi poses to Italian democracy?
Alexander Stille: Well, I think in the world we live in where television is the principal source of information for most people, it really affects the balance of the democratic process. The fairness of the democratic process. And the fact that Berlusconi can really shape the way in which events are portrayed and the way he, himself, is portrayed makes a huge difference. He, for example, on his own stations which dominate 45 percent of the market —
Jamie Rubin: Those are his private stations?
Alexander Stille: His private stations. 40 percent of the sound bytes on all news programs show Berlusconi speaking to the public. On the public airwaves, he speaks more, five times more, than any other political figure. You can’t buy advertising like that. And then, of course, he’s also in a position to buy advertising. His opponents, for example, in the 1999 European elections didn’t buy any advertising at all, because the only place they could buy advertising was on his private networks. So you have an unequal competition. It’s like playing on an uneven playing field. Someone compared Berlusconi’s position to starting a soccer match with a three-goal lead. It may not be that great, but even a one-goal lead is obviously going to lead to unequal results.
Jamie Rubin: But when you look at the practical consequences of Berlusconi’s taking power in Italy, has he been good for Italy? For their economy? For their reputation in the world? What are the practical consequences of Berlusconi’s leadership ability?
Alexander Stille: Well, I think part of the problem is that because this is such a kind of personalized style of government the things on Berlusconi’s political agenda that have really received attention and energy from his party have been his personal interests. During the campaign of 2001 he talked about a lot of issues. About getting the Italian economy started, creating jobs, public work programs, etc. But the things they have thrown all of their energy into are immunity laws for Berlusconi, watering down the criminal-justice system to keep him and his associates out of trouble, and the conflict of interest law that allows him to keep his business enterprises intact. Last summer the Italian Parliament worked around the clock and was held into their summer vacation in order to pass one of these criminal-justice laws. That’s where the energy is going. It’s not going toward a lot of these other things. Everyone agrees that some of the reforms that Berlusconi has proposed and others proposed — for the Italian economy and even the Italian justice system — are needed, but they tend not to get done because the energy is going toward these other things.
So I think that having somebody who has such an incredibly high stake in the way government operates, and the way it affects his business, has a way of distorting the legislative agenda in a way that’s been very detrimental to Italy.
Jamie Rubin: But have the Berlusconi-led, Parliament-passed, laws been harmful to Italy? Have they done any harm? Or have they just been so busy protecting him that they haven’t been able to get any business done?
Alexander Stille: Well, there are a couple of ways in which I think it has harmed Italy. For example, you take the fact that the average criminal trial in Italy lasts twice as long as it did ten years ago — because of reforms that have been made to the Italian judicial system. Not all of those reforms were done under Berlusconi, but they were, for the most part, endorsed by Berlusconi and pushed by his party. So that the criminal justice system, as a whole, is being gummed up by the needs of one individual to protect himself and a lot of his closest friends in trials. And that, obviously, has a harmful effect. Everyone understands that in a modern economy — transparency, accountability, a working justice system are part of having a functioning, modern society. And one important part of Italian society is not working well. Berlusconi, of course, is in the media business, in the information business. In the new economy that we all live in, information is a huge part of the economy. He not only owns TV stations, but owns mutual fund companies. And other information businesses. If somebody has a monopoly position, and wants to keep that monopoly position, it means that you are effectively shutting out competition from other sources. And, despite the fact that Berlusconi pays a lot of “lip service” to being a free marketeer, you have nothing close to a free market in Italy in the businesses where he’s present. And he’s present almost everywhere. So I think that’s a very, very unhealthy situation for Italy as a whole. And a reason why somebody shouldn’t have so much public and private power together.
Jamie Rubin: But in the criminal justice area, is it already clear that his gumming up the criminal justice system has caused crime to increase, for example, in Italy?
Alexander Stille: Well, there are areas where it has increased. And it’s certainly true, for instance, that when you talk to prosecutors that work on Mafia cases — as I’ve done — their job is a lot harder than it was six or seven years ago. Berlusconi, for example, was accused by several Mafia witnesses of ties between his companies and members of organized crime. Berlusconi’s people then pushed for a law that would limit the use of testimony by Mafia witnesses and would greatly reduce the benefits to Mafia witnesses. That obviously — leaving aside the merits of the cases involving him — makes it much more difficult for people to gather evidence in Mafia trials. And the changes in the criminal justice system has made it very hard to win cases.
Jamie Rubin: So you would assert that the effort by Italian prosecutors to combat the Mafia, combat organized crime, and to break it up, has been harmed by Berlusconi’s role?
Alexander Stille: I would say it’s been retarded by it. And I’m not even saying that’s intentional. I’m just saying that there is a kind of “ripple effect” in the criminal-justice system that has negative effects. And that’s not to say that there aren’t genuine reforms; that there aren’t abuses of justice in Italy that Berlusconi and his people have pointed out. They do exist. But, unfortunately, I think the thing to understand is, you can’t be a defendant and re-write the justice laws of the country at the same time. Your position as an interested party causes you to make misjudgments.
Jamie Rubin: In the film you had his lawyers, his very own lawyers in his trial, going back as Parliamentarians to change the laws to his advantage. Could that happen in any other country or is that pretty unique to Italy?
Alexander Stille: Maybe somewhere in South America. But I’m not aware of it happening in any advanced democracy. It’s a very, very anomalous and peculiar situation. They literally would spend two or three days a week in Milan defending Berlusconi, in their black, lawyerly robes, and then fly back to Rome and then re-write the laws that would then short-circuit the very trials in which he was a defendant. And that happens in all sorts of areas including business areas, economic legislation.
Jamie Rubin: How has Berlusconi been able to get away with seeming to manipulate the media, the television, manipulate the Parliament. All for the sole purpose of protecting him from either criminal prosecution or from losing an election. Why have the Italians stood for this?
Alexander Stille: I think it’s important to understand that Berlusconi represents a significant chunk of the Italian electorate. There was an extremely complicated political upheaval in Italy in the early 1990s in which because of pent-up corruption in the system the traditional parties that had governed Italy for 45 years were swept out of power. And essentially put out of business by these corruption investigations that happened in the early ’90s.
Jamie Rubin: Which Berlusconi supported at the time? He was thought of as a reformer, right? At that time?
Alexander Stille: At least nominally. But anyone who knew Berlusconi’s career well, knew that he was very closely linked to these same parties. And that he would very quickly find himself the object of investigation. But, what that meant was, that you had at least 50 percent of the electorate that became politically leaderless and without representation. It was only natural that someone was going to fill this vacuum. And only right that someone would fill this vacuum. The problem was that because the whole situation was so rapid and disorderly, that the only person who was in a position to fill this void was the richest man in the country, and a person who an enormous “machine” in place. It was a corporate machine. Three private television stations. A massive advertising company that was represented all over the country. And so what happened was that the people who actually were running his company became the campaign machine. For example, 50 members in the first Berlusconi Parliament of 1994 were actually employees of his in the advertising arm of his company. So you had a company replacing these parties. But because there was an electorate that did need representation, people accepted this. Because they wanted a moderate-to-conservative person representing them. They felt that Berlusconi, because he was a successful businessman, represented something new.
Jamie Rubin: The same old Italian politics.
Alexander Stille: The same old politics. And he had a lot of the appeal that someone like Ross Perot had for many Americans when he said, Look, I’m a practical businessman. Let me under the hood of the car and I’ll fix the engine. And Berlusconi played that up very successfully. He also is a charismatic person who for many electors, has a lot of the charismatic charm that Ronald Reagan did for many Americans. He has a kind of bounce in his step and a optimism that people find attractive.
Jamie Rubin: And he has a life story. I mean, let’s face it, he was a lower-middle-class man who “made good.” A self-made entrepreneur. I mean doesn’t that appeal to the small shop owners, the small businessmen in Italy who saw him as an example that privilege isn’t required to succeed in Italy?
Alexander Stille: Sure. Of course, if you look closely at Berlusconi’s career you understand that he’s not nearly as self-made as he likes to make himself out as. He enjoyed political backing all along the way. And without that, would never have succeeded. To give you a small example: his first really big real-estate fortune was made in a development outside of Milan. It was going nowhere because the local airport planes flew over the area and no one wanted to buy the apartments. He used political influence to have the routes of the planes changed …
Jamie Rubin: That’s not just clever?
Alexander Stille: Well, clever. But there may have been some money exchanged in making that happen.
Jamie Rubin: But isn’t there an appeal he has for Italians, who have always seen politics run by the privileged classes. That he did pull himself up?
So-called from his bootstraps and made good.
Alexander Stille: Yes. Now he certainly represents part of Italy. And also, I think, it’s important to understand that the centrality of his being the head of private television is really important in ways beyond the control of information itself. There was only public TV in Italy up until the mid-1970s. And it was dominated by the political parties. He brought in an entirely different kind of new culture into Italy. He brought into Italy the culture of DALLAS, DYNASTY, BAYWATCH, WHEEL OF FORTUNE.
Jamie Rubin: And it worked.
Alexander Stille: And it worked. It sold. It produced jobs. It created kinds of entertainment that hadn’t existed. It created a series of values of success which Berlusconi incarnates. And it was part of a system of values that replaced much more ideological values, and a much more ideological society.
Jamie Rubin: Let’s talk about Berlusconi’s power over the TV. Directly or indirectly, he controls 90 percent of the viewers who watch TV in Italy — through the private channels that he owns, and the government-controlled channels. But if you’re an Italian sitting in Italy watching television, do you get objective news? Do you learn about the truth about the Italian economy, Italian politics? What’s going on in the rest of the world? I mean, are they fed propaganda or is it only when it comes to Berlusconi that the news channels get cautious?
Alexander Stille: Well, I think the problem is it’s very hard to distinguish them. When you’re running the country almost everything can reflect badly or well on you. Berlusconi was not, let’s say, the protagonist of the Iraq war, but he was an interested party. So that — for example, the portrayal of peace marches. For example, there was a huge peace march in the middle of February which dominated many Italian’s attention. It wasn’t shown on Italian TV.
Jamie Rubin: But despite all that, in Italy they were massively against the war in Iraq, right?
Alexander Stille: Yes. It wasn’t able to affect public opinion. So you could argue that even controlling TV, it’s certainly not absolute. And there’s a lot of information in Italy, but it’s primarily in written form. What I think is troubling to me is that you can say there’s a lot of freedom of information in Italy. You can find almost any point of view represented if you scour the book shops or read the the vast number of newspaper that appear every day.
But on television you don’t have that same pluralism. Television, whether we like it or not, is the way that a vast majority of Italians, a vast majority of Americans, get their news. And there there’s much much less pluralism and the control is much more total exercised by Berlusconi.
Jamie Rubin: But is it communist-style TV? Are they getting the basic truths about what’s happening in Italy or the world? Is it so much propaganda or is it just when it comes to Berlusconi’s interests, they try to protect them?
Alexander Stille: Well, to give you an idea. I mean if this matters during election coverage. And I think we all appreciate how important that is. If you watch one of Berlusconi’s channels — the anchorman on one of his channels wept with joy when Berlusconi was elected on air.
I’ve watched programs in which he’s just literally insulted the political opposition. Called them liars. Called them enemies. Called them communists. Called them all sorts of things. Berlusconi will get ten times more coverage. And I saw his main political adversary was given a little sound byte in which he was portrayed at a fish market talking about how to cook fish instead of talking about the political issues of the day. You know that may seem laughable to many people. And many Italians will tell you, oh, I actually watch that for amusement. But it’s not so funny if you consider that, for example, there are statistics that show that the people who watch Berlusconi’s channels vote overwhelmingly for his party.
And the amount of TV they watch is directly proportioned to the percentage in which they vote for Forza Italia, his party. You realize that control of television does translate into votes, and translates into power in ways that should make, I think, everyone uneasy.
Jamie Rubin: We are describing, almost, a modern-day Mussolini who controls all the levers of power: Parliament, the press. Who is able to stop prosecutions of himself. But do you believe that modern-day Italy has freedom of the press or not?
Alexander Stille: Well, I think it has a partial freedom of the press. I think that what is interesting and a little scary about Berlusconi is that he’s understood, maybe more than any politician, that if something doesn’t appear on television it doesn’t exist in our world. And so there is freedom of the press because you can find it in print form, if you look at certain newspapers or in certain books. But you won’t find it on TV. And so you have a partial freedom. At the same time, Italians are not stupid. And they do have many democratic freedoms. And if they’re really unhappy they will vote him out of office. They did vote against him in regional elections recently, which shows that they will base their votes on results. And if those results aren’t forthcoming, they eventually will distinguish between all of the stuff they’re hearing on TV and the reality they see in their own minds.
Jamie Rubin: So you’re saying that democracy’s working but it’s threatened by his power? Would that be a way of putting it?
Alexander Stille: Yes. I think it’s a partial incomplete democracy which is working very badly at the moment. And I think what is troublesome and should be of concern to all of us is that it’s setting a model for the way democracy works in our world. In which private interests are allowed to have a much greater share of public life than they have anywhere else. And I think that’s a model that people get used to that, and say, Well, if they can do that in Italy, then what’s the big deal if I do it to a lesser degree here in France? Or in England or in this country? And so I think it’s setting precedents that are unhealthy for a democracy.
Jamie Rubin: How much do you think the Berlusconi model is playing out in other parts of the world? We see Rupert Murdoch have enormous influence in the media. We’ve seen Senator Corzine from New Jersey, a self-made multi-millionaire. We’ve seen Mayor Bloomberg in New York City use his own money to run for office. Do you think Berlusconi is a uniquely Italian phenomenon? Could that happen here what you’re describing? Or are there more checks and balances in our system than in Italy?
Alexander Stille: Well, I think the thing that makes Berlusconi a really interesting, important figure is, that he crystallizes — in a very dramatic way — problems and issues that exist in all modern democracies now. In every society, including ours. Money, media, and political power are very closely connected. And the figures you mentioned, are all part of the trend in which people have figured out that the ability, let’s say, to buy TV time and bypass the usual filters between the public and political figures, are very powerful devices that people can use to attract attention, attract voters. And get influence in our society.
In Italy it exists in a much kind of nuder and cruder way. But, I think people everywhere, and this country as well, have a very dismaying feeling that politics is going over their heads, is being decided by wealthy interests that don’t take them into consideration. And are bending the legislative process in their own behalf. And so, I think Berlusconi is a very sort of interesting canary in the coal mine for all of us. He shows the way in which these issues can crystallize in a very powerful way.
Jamie Rubin: His critics we saw in the film: politicians, people from the media, judiciary, etc. Berlusconi would claim that almost all of these people have a left-of-center orientation. And that their real complaint is that a right-of-center politician is in power and has used the levers of power to advance himself. Is there something to that? Are his loudest critics from the left of center? Are there any, for example, right-of-center, major politicians who’ve been as outraged by his concentration of power in his hands in Italy?
Alexander Stille: Well, in Italy it’s inevitable that most of his critics are going to be his political opponents. But, for example, Giovanni Sartori, whom you interviewed repeatedly in your documentary, is a quite conservative commentator on many political issues. But he feels very strongly on the conflict of interest issue and has been very tough on Berlusconi on that. THE ECONOMIST magazine is hardly a left-wing community newspaper as Berlusconi alleges. They backed Bush in the Iraq war and supported Thatcher and so forth. They simply feel that democratic competition shouldn’t happen the way in which it’s happening in Italy. And someone with as much baggage, both in terms of a past of corruption and in terms of his private interests, shouldn’t be running a country. And I think it’s very important.
Unfortunately, Berlusconi’s been very successful in polarizing the discussion of himself and by using his critics of being “communist” and so forth. You know, I think it’s important for people to understand that these are issues that cut across ideological lines. Anybody who cares about the functioning of democracy should be concerned about the blurring of lines between public and private interests. And the amount of power that any individual is able to hold as Berlusconi does. And I think it’s precisely if you, in fact, are conservative, and believes in competition, you can see that this is very unhealthy. Both in terms of political competition and economic competition.
Jamie Rubin: Let’s talk about his concentration of power. It seems that he has certainly silenced one arm of the media — the television. He’s passed a law that prevents him from being prosecuted. He has control of the Parliament. What are the checks and balances left in the Italian system that prevent him from being a modern-day Mussolini?
Alexander Stille: Well, really the only checks and balances left are elections. Realistically, he has a majority in Parliament. And as long as he is prime minister during this legislature and has this majority, he can pass laws that would seem to many of us to be unconstitutional. Unconstitutional maybe in American terms. But he can — as long as he has that majority — he can force them through Parliament. There have been moments in which the Italian courts have thrown out this or that law. But they’ve not been able to effect legislation significantly. On paper, at least, there exists the office of president in Italy. The president is a sort of “figurehead” person. But does, in fact, have to sign off on major laws and can object to laws that he considered to be unconstitutional. The current President is actually a person of great integrity and stature in Italy. But has chosen to play a very low-profile role in things. And has not really confronted Berlusconi on some of these issues. So I think, realistically, nothing will change until there are elections. And then Italian voters will, if Berlusconi is seen to have fallen way beneath expectations, may vote him out of office.
Jamie Rubin: Let’s talk about his popularity. He does appeal to voters as a self-made man. He appeals to voters by polarizing the issue between the left and the right. Why do you think he has lost this recent round of local elections despite all this media power? Are Italians buying the Berlusconi line?
Alexander Stille: Berlusconi, for reasons that are not his fault, is governing in a period of world recession. There was both the bursting of the dot-com bubble combined with the effect of 9-11 which depressed business in lots of areas. And so he’s had to cope with a declining economy along with the leaders of a lot of other countries. So that’s a piece of bad luck which isn’t of his doing. He certainly hasn’t been successful in doing what he claimed he would do which is take a lot of energetic steps to get the Italian economy going. Create jobs, etc. And I think it’s partly because the fact that he does have so much at stake in the Italian economy means that he’s unlikely to pass a lot of reforms that might have that effect. For instance, many people agree that Italy needs pension reform. But a lot of his supporters are against having pension system changed in a way that would hurt them. So he decides to put off that issue. He’s actually been extremely indecisive and inactive, and ineffective in a lot of economic areas. And only energetic in the areas that regard his own personal business.
Jamie Rubin: Let’s talk a little bit about TV versus print journalism. Do you regard the newspapers, as opposed to the television, as free in Italy? And haven’t they been some of the primary critics of Berlusconi?
Alexander Stille: Well, they have, but it’s interesting. Berlusconi doesn’t much worry about newspapers or magazines that are clearly on the left. He knows that their readers will never vote for him. And that his voters will never read those papers and will discount whatever appears in them as being partisan. Where Berlusconi has dedicated his attention, are in the print media that have a broad mainstream centrist readership.
Jamie Rubin: Like we saw in the film.
Alexander Stille: IL CORRIERE DELLA SERA is the prime example. LA STAMPA, the newspaper of Turin, is the other. They are big centrists. It’s like the WASHINGTON POST and the NEW YORK TIMES here. And he has been able to exercise a lot of indirect control of those papers. Both papers are owned in part or almost entirely by the Fiat Auto company and the Agnelli family. The Fiat car company has been going through all sorts of economic troubles, as your documentary played it out. And a very important statistic that your film played it out was the fact that Fiat, while in the midst of a really dramatic crisis in which they’re laying off tens of thousands of people, actually increased their advertising on Berlusconi’s networks — his private channels. But cut them on the public channels. That tells you very clearly that keeping the good graces of the prime minister is fundamental to this business enterprise.
Alexander Stille: But can’t you read in CORRIERE DELLA SERA today, tomorrow, next week, strong criticism of Berlusconi?
Alexander Stille: From time to time. If you look at the life of IL CORRIERE, for example, I think it’s very clear that the paper, since Berlusconi came into political life, moved significantly toward the right to adapt itself. And hired a lot of political columnists who were singing in tune with Berlusconi. They didn’t fire some of the older columnists who continue to be critical of Berlusconi. And that’s why, he then, put the pressure on the ownership to fire the former editor, DeBortili.
Jamie Rubin: But are we gonna see criticism of Berlusconi in this major newspaper?
Alexander Stille: You might see criticism from time to time, but you would never, for example, see an investigative report …
Jamie Rubin: About his corruption.
Alexander Stille: Yes. The fact, for instance, that there has never been in either the CORRIERE or LA STAMPA or on any of the six main national networks, a serious examination of the charges of Berlusconi. Their attempts to say, Okay, so what’s hearsay and what’s been documented? What are the charges that hold up under close scrutiny? And what are charges that are unproven? You would think that that would happen in a naturally free press. And that has not happened in Italy. So that, as a result, the average sort of center voter doesn’t quite know what to believe. He’s hearing, day and night, the invective of Berlusconi and his people saying, These charges are all lies.
Jamie Rubin: But they know about the charges. They just don’t know about the specifics?
Alexander Stille: They know about the charges but they’ve sort of “tuned out” the specifics and no one’s taken the trouble to explain them to them. And I think, actually, if they examine them closely, they’d be quite shocked.
Jamie Rubin: Let’s talk about the specific charges of corruption and bribery that have been made against Berlusconi. Do you think the average Italian regards these charges as outrageous? Or do they somehow come to expect business leaders to bribe the tax man, for example, to avoid paying taxes?
Alexander Stille: Well, I think it’s true that one reason why there’s been a high level of toleration for Berlusconi and his legal problems is that many Italians do skirt the law. In many cases feel they’re forced to skirt the law by excessive regulation. There are something like 70,000 or 90,000 laws in Italy. And only 5,000 in France.
Jamie Rubin: Tax laws?
Alexander Stille: Just laws in general. Their life is very regulated. And one is often forced, if you want to, you know, add a bathroom to your house, getting a permit to do that is unbelievably complicated, so you don’t do it and then you’re forced to either pay an inspector to look the other way. Things like that happen all the time and that’s made people sympathetic to someone who’s maybe on a larger scale had to do that in his own business. But I think that what many Italians don’t know because it hasn’t been publicized is that the kind of bribery and the kind of corner cutting that Berlusconi and his company has done is on an entirely different scale. If you consider, for instance, that it’s been documented that the so-called antitrust that allowed Berlusconi to own three national networks was drafted by a man whose party received an $8 million under-the-table payment. That was proven in court. It was thrown out because of the statute of limitation problems that occurred.
Jamie Rubin: So he paid the official —
Alexander Stille: The company —
Jamie Rubin: — $8 million.
Alexander Stille: — to his party. And the legislative aide of this official was given a so-called $300,000 consulting fee; he was hired by Berlusconi’s company as a consultant. Prosecutors regarded this as a bribe.
Jamie Rubin: And the result was?
Alexander Stille: The result was a law that was tailor-made for Berlusconi which basically said, “Let’s see. How many networks should a private individual be able to own? How about three?” And that happens to be the number that Berlusconi already owned. Many people were pressing for limits of one station, two stations. In Spain, for example, people are not allowed to own more than 25 percent of any single network.
Jamie Rubin: And you think the average Italian doesn’t know this.
Alexander Stille: They know that he has a lot of influence and he knows some unseemly things were done. But I think they think, “Well, this has always happened. Everybody throws their weight around.” But I think that if they really knew the exact specifics of that, they in many cases would be shocked. In other trials, for instance, it’s been proven that Berlusconi’s company bribed tax inspectors who then didn’t look at books which would have revealed an enormous network of offshore accounts and under-the-table payments, which are really a central part of the company’s way of doing business. The other thing is that one of the cases in which the docket is still open is a case involving the bribing of judges. And while the paying off of tax inspectors is a common thing in Italy, the bribing of judges is a really, really serious thing. It takes it to another level. And there actually are documented evidence that show hundreds of thousands of dollars going from Berlusconi company accounts into the accounts of the offshore accounts of Berlusconi’s lawyer and into the account of a prominent sitting Rome judge. That simply shouldn’t happen and it was shown that it did.
Jamie Rubin: And that’s not being reported?
Alexander Stille: It is reported. But it’s, for example, never explained on TV. So that what you’ll get on TV is Berlusconi or one of his lawyers saying, “This is outrageous. They’ve invented an entire case and it’s based on no evidence.” And then a journalist doesn’t intervene and say, “Actually, the evidence is this and there are two ways of looking at this case.” You only get he’s been accused of bribing a judge, a contradiction of that charge by saying it’s invented, and no independent analysis of what the facts are.
Jamie Rubin: You’ve written that Italy has become almost a company town. What do you mean by that?
Alexander Stille: What I mean by that is the fact that one individual owns or controls an enormous amount of society. I, for example, am a Berlusconi man in the sense that my Italian publisher is owned by Berlusconi. When I first signed up with that publisher a number of years ago, they were an independent publisher. He took it over and, in fact, there’s a lot of evidence that bribery, the bribing of the judges, won a favorable court decision that allowed him to gain control of the biggest book publisher and magazine publisher in the country.
Jamie Rubin: So you’re a Berlusconi man.
Alexander Stille: Well, my next book might not be with their company. But I’m in the fortunate position that I live overseas and I have other sources of income. But you can imagine if you live in a country where someone controls that much, it really does affect your career possibilities. It affects your ability to earn a living. And if you consider that the numbers of Parliament in Italy for his coalition, so many of them either owe their salaries to his saying yes or no to their being on the party list or they have consulting contracts with Berlusconi —
Jamie Rubin: Huge bonuses.
Alexander Stille: Huge bonuses. They have a column in one of his magazines, a consultantship with one of his TV networks that greatly add to their salary. You know, the Italians have a saying, which is, “You don’t spit on the plate off of which you eat,” and there are a lot of Italians that are eating off of that plate and not to be underestimated as a form of control.
Jamie Rubin: You’ve also written how Italy over the 20th century has been almost a laboratory of bad ideas. Do you really think that this Berlusconi-run government is an idea that translates into other Western societies?
Alexander Stille: Well, I do think you see signs of that in our own society. If Bill Gates, for example, were to decide to be a major political force, does anyone really doubt that he could have a huge effect on our political life? You look at the recent decision of Arnold Schwarzenegger to enter the race for governorship. The fact that he is a celebrity, a TV personality, movie personality with an enormous amount of money makes him a player from one day to the next. We live in a world in which celebrity recognition, media access, and power translate very quickly into political power and indeed economic power. And I think you see those forces at work here. The Forbes phenomenon, the Perot phenomenon, are other examples where you have a weakening of political parties in our system.
Individuals deciding to dispense with political parties and to speak directly to the public through TV. We’re living in a different world. I don’t think people have fully processed how deeply television has changed the political process in our own world. Political parties have become vestiges of what they were and individuals with large amounts of money can leapfrog over that process, which can have a positive mediating effect. And so I think there are things to worry about. The fact that no political candidate in this country can mount a serious campaign without raising tens or hundreds of millions of dollars means that they’re already beholden to interests that then will make themselves known after the election. A lot of Americans feel that that’s happening and are dropping out of the political process. It’s very interesting that, for instance, both in Italy and in this country in the era of television, political participation is going down significantly. People, rightly or wrongly, feel that their votes don’t count.
Jamie Rubin: But right now in Congress, they’re rejecting attempts to allow large media figures to expand their power base by buying more and more property. So aren’t our laws more protecting against a rise of a Berlusconi in America?
Alexander Stille: I think that’s a very positive development. I think it’s also a positive development that both Republicans and Democrats have recognized the dangers of that. But it’s also important to realize that we’ve already slid a long way in the last 25 years in that direction. A lot of the public interest requirements of commercial TV have fallen by the wayside. The Fairness Doctrine was effectively eliminated. Someone like Rupert Murdoch was allowed to both own newspapers and create a national TV chain. So we have much of our media concentration in this country than we did 30 years ago. And I think it’s healthy that people in Congress have recognized that we’ve gone too far.
Jamie Rubin: But if one of these media barons tried to enter politics, we’ve developed a system, really, for how to deal with it. Namely, the divesting of their private ownership by handing over power to someone else or putting it in a blind trust. Why hasn’t Berlusconi just dealt with this big, big issue by putting the power of his private company into other hands or some blind trust or a commission of some kind?
Alexander Stille: Well, that’s clearly what should have happened. And I think the reasons why it didn’t happen are many. One of them is that there is not a culture of antitrust laws, a culture of professional ethics in Italy. So that, for example, there were not insider trading laws in Italy until recently. It was simply a way of doing business. I have good information I’m going to use and I’ll make a killing on the market. Those sort of things didn’t exist in Italy, and so there wasn’t an enormous amount of public pressure to force him to divest. And therefore, he didn’t.
The political left, in my opinion, made a colossal mistake by not making this a major issue. The President of the Republic, in my opinion, should have said, “Look, I’m the referee of the political system. I’m above the political parties. But the competition has to be fair. Therefore, you must choose. Either you are the richest man in the country …”
Jamie Rubin: Or the leader.
Alexander Stille: “… or the leader, but you have to divest yourself.” I think a blind trust is not [the answer] — that was discussed in Italy, but how blind can a trust be if everyone knows who the owner of the stations actually is?
Jamie Rubin: But they didn’t even do a blind trust.
Alexander Stille: They didn’t even do a blind trust, but he, for example, says, “Well, I don’t have anything to do with the affairs of my company. Other people run it. I don’t go to the office every day and participate in meetings and decide who’s going to run this or that program. So why should I be criticized for that?” The fact is that everybody knows that you don’t criticize Berlusconi either on public TV or on his own private networks.
Jamie Rubin: Why wasn’t he forced to sell them?
Alexander Stille: Selling them would be obvious. Well, I think it’s again because there wasn’t public pressure to do it. There wasn’t a strong political opposition to do it. I think that the center left really underestimated the importance of the issue and didn’t force it while they were, in fact, in power.
Between 1996 and 2001, they had an opportunity, particularly early on, to make that happen. And I think they should have done it in a way that would have been acceptable to the right as well as the left. They should have, for example, tried to depoliticize the public networks much more. Unfortunately, everyone in Italy when given the opportunity tries to influence the media as much as they can. And the left is as guilty of that as the right. They just don’t own all the private networks.
Jamie Rubin: Berlusconi has a curious explanation for why he doesn’t sell his companies. What is that?
Alexander Stille: Well, he’s told various people that he doesn’t sell his company because his children won’t let him. They’ve taken over the business, they love it, and they want to continue it.
Jamie Rubin: He’s just a family man.
Alexander Stille: He’s just a family man. And it seems laughable to us, but it does appeal to this very sort of family oriented, family business oriented nature of Italian life. But the fact is if you think about it, it gives you a real measure of Berlusconi the statesman that he would prefer to have the country paralyzed by a massive conflict of interest problem than displease his son and daughter. I don’t think, by the way, that’s why he’s refusing to sell his stations.
Jamie Rubin: Finally, the issue of a sitting leader being prosecuted for corruption or bribery or such crime occurred in this country and many people believed that the idea of delaying a trial until after a leader is out of office is a wise thing so it doesn’t interfere with his duties. Is that a reasonable argument?
Alexander Stille: I think there are arguments to be made for that. Even in France, for example, there were charges of corruption regarding Chirac, the President of France, and they were put on hold. He was basically given a kind of immunity from prosecution. I think the difference in Berlusconi’s case is that I think you can make a very strong case for the fact that Berlusconi entered politics in order to avoid prosecution. These investigations that were taking place in the “90s had reached the company door by the time Berlusconi decided to enter politics. He told people privately, “If I don’t enter politics, they’re going to tear me to pieces.” And he’s used the political process to avoid prosecution and then immediately was able to turn around and say, “You see? It’s a political prosecution. They are after me because I represent the right.”
Jamie Rubin: So politics was his ultimate criminal defense strategy.
Alexander Stille: Yes. And I think that many people would regard that as an unhealthy phenomenon. And moreover, there are many charges that stem from acts committed during [his term] in office. For example, he met with one of his company officials who apparently bribed tax officials. He actually went to the prime minister’s office to visit with him shortly before calling these tax inspectors. That’s the kind of thing that’s an abuse of power, misuse of public power, that should be of interest to people. There also were other alternatives other than criminal trials; for example, a parliamentary commission. It could have very well been done that someone decided to set up a bipartisan commission to say, “Okay. What are these charges? Let’s examine them with serenity and sort out slander from fact and get to the bottom of it.”
There have been parliamentary commissions when people were in office, as we know: Watergate, Whitewater, and Iran-Contra. They certainly made governing more complicated, but they didn’t stop our country from functioning. That didn’t take place. I, for example, all the way back in 1994 went to the person who was the head of a commission, who was a Berlusconi appointee. And I said, “Look, here is a series of facts that we know about contacts between organized crime and Berlusconi company officials. Wouldn’t it be better for you as a person beyond all suspicion to investigate these charges so that we can satisfy ourselves that there may be nothing to them or learn that they, in fact, are true and we can put this issue to rest?” She said, “Oh, yes. That’s a great idea, but it’s not my job to do that. Let someone else do it.” That didn’t happen and that should have happened as part of, I think, a healthy, functioning democracy.
Jamie Rubin: What is the biggest threat that Silvio Berlusconi poses to Italy today?
Alexander Stille: I think the biggest threat is a kind of erosion of democratic norms that should exist in a well-functioning democracy. I think it’s getting people used to an excessive concentration of power, the blurring of lines between public and private power, and the retarding of the maturation of democracy. Italy has been a troubled democracy for much of its history, and I think there was a possibility of there being a kind of normal alternation between left and right, the establishment of certain rules of the game. And those rules of the game have, I think, been weakened dramatically under Berlusconi, and I think that’s a real problem for Italy, but also for Europe.
Jamie Rubin: Do you think that Italy today under Silvio Berlusconi has freedom of the press?
Alexander Stille: I think it has a partial freedom of the press. I think you can see, for example, in the print media, you can find almost any opinion and the opposite of almost any opinion. There’s a wide array of newspapers across the ideological spectrum. On television, however, you see an incredible uniformity and an enormous amount of political control. And the reality of modern life is that the great majority of Italians, like the great majority of Americans, get their news almost exclusively from TV.
The fact, for instance, that there’s not been on Italian television any serious examination of the charges against Berlusconi tells you that you don’t have freedom of the press there if one thinks about the amount of air time given to President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s relationship and the almost absence of any serious inquiry into charges of a much more serious nature against Berlusconi and his closest associates. It tells you that something’s not working and the press is not free truly.
Jamie Rubin: Alexander Stille, thank you for joining us.
Alexander Stille: Thanks for having me.