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August 21st, 2003
The Prime Minister and the Press
Does Berlusconi Threaten Italian Democracy?

By Crispian Balmer
August 1, 2003

Marco Travaglio, an investigative journalist in Italy. Photo by Bruno Sorrentino.

On a balmy night in May, Italian soccer team AC Milan won Europe’s prestigious Champions League final in Manchester, England. The match was shown live on Italy’s Canale 5 television station and was watched by a record 20 million people. This in turn generated record-breaking advertising revenues for the broadcaster. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was one of the lucky few who managed to see the game from the stadium, and every so often his smiling face flashed up on TV screens around the country.

He had every reason to smile. He owns AC Milan, he owns Canale 5 and he also owns the company that placed the advertising.

It is difficult to overstate the influence Berlusconi has on everyday Italian life. Besides running the country, he also enjoys direct and indirect control over 90 percent of national television, he has built up Italy’s biggest publishing house, controls its biggest film distribution network, and has major interests in the financial services and real estate sectors.

You might think that such a vast array of responsibilities would more than satisfy Berlusconi. Well, you would be wrong. The billionaire businessman-cum-politician thinks that the office of prime minister in Italy does not carry enough authority and is pushing to rewrite the constitution accordingly. In a way, he is right.

Born from the rubble of World War Two, the Italian constitution was specifically designed to weaken the power of the executive and prevent the rise of another strongman, such as fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

As prime minister, Berlusconi cannot fire his ministers, cannot dissolve parliament, and is at the mercy of junior coalition partners who can bring the government down at any moment if they don’t get their way. Berlusconi stands on the right of the Italian political center — he believes strongly in free markets and rails against communism at any opportunity — yet his four-party coalition includes the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale and the populist Lega Nord.

Much of what happens depends on Berlusconi’s force of character to get things done and, predictably, he has to waste a lot of time and energy cajoling his disparate band of erstwhile friends.

This anemic political structure has given Italy 58 governments in less than 60 years; most constitutional experts, such as Giovanni Sartori, agree that it needs strengthening. “But it would be very difficult to press ahead with this while Berlusconi is still on the scene. He already has excessive powers thanks to his media empire,” says Sartori.

Center-left opposition parties are also wary of tackling change. They argue that Berlusconi has proved a master at manipulating the existing system, convincing his coalition partners to pass a series of laws that have protected him from graft-busting magistrates investigating his far-flung business interests.

One law made it more difficult for magistrates to obtain financial documents from abroad needed for their inquires; another largely decriminalized fraudulent bookkeeping; a third gave the prime minister legal immunity and automatically halted a trial where Berlusconi was charged with bribing judges during a 1980s corporate takeover battle.

Parliament is now working on a bill to shake up the domestic media market and modify anti-trust restrictions. This will allow greater competition to enter the sector, but it will also allow Berlusconi’s family-controlled Mediaset company — of which Berlusconi ceded day-to-day management upon entering politics in 1994 — to expand to radio and newspapers, further extending its reach into the heart of Italian life.

When Berlusconi swept to power in 2001 he promised to enact a law within 100 days that would resolve the conflict between his business interests and his political might. He offered no specific proposals, but at the time acknowledged that his vast private holdings — which would be affected by nearly any legislation connected with Italian business — should be addressed. (The bribery trial, mentioned above, was relevant during his campaign and remains so today.)

Two years later, the bill still languishes in parliament. It is due to move onto the statute books in the autumn but in its current form it should not give Berlusconi sleepless nights. It will not make him sell off any of his assets, or even place them in a so-called blind trust where others take charge of the holdings. If the competition regulator decides that he is favoring his interests, it cannot fine him but only refer the matter to parliament — where his handsome majority will decide his fate.

The government insists that this, and the other laws it has drafted, are sound pieces of legislation that bring Italy up to date with what is going on in other countries. It also says that Berlusconi has been persecuted by politically motivated magistrates and that he has needed protection from overzealous investigations.

During his two years in office, Berlusconi has forged close friendships with President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also worked hard to strengthen Italy’s ties with Israel. But in his own backyard, Europe, the habitually bronzed Berlusconi is viewed with unease, not to say dislike.

“This is not a man whose hand we would willingly shake,” wrote German newspaper BERLINER ZEITUNG when Italy took over the presidency of the European Union in July. “A man of very questionable integrity,” wrote Britain’s ECONOMIST magazine. “A threat to liberal democracy,” thundered France’s LIBERATION daily.

Most Italians disagree. Wary of the traditional ruling class, voters here have been won over by Berlusconi’s can-do attitude. Despite gaffes on the international stage, a faltering economy, and constant bickering within his center-right coalition, Berlusconi remains the country’s most popular politician, according to at least one recent opinion poll.

Opposition leaders say his control of the media has much to do with this, insuring that he gets more positive coverage than his rivals.

Besides owning three of Italy’s seven terrestrial television channels, Berlusconi also has a say in the running of Italy’s state television, RAI, which operates another three channels.

When he publicly criticized two of RAI’s most senior journalists in 2002, they were rapidly taken off the air. When he caused international outrage in July 2003 by comparing a German lawmaker to a Nazi concentration camp commander — a comment Berlusconi made on the floor of the European Parliament, immediately after making his first speech as president of the European Union — RAI’s main evening news program failed to show the incident.

“Italy no longer enjoys the same freedom of press that we have in other European countries,” said Robert Menard, secretary general of Paris-based watchdog Reporters without Borders. “Indeed, the situation in Italy is now worse than in a number of African countries.”

But Italian television is not the cowed creature that some people make it out to be. The nightly news program on Berlusconi’s most-watched channel (Canale 5) has established a reputation for independence. The government is the butt of jokes on satirical shows, and the editorial line on one of RAI’s three channels is openly pro-opposition. (Yet political satire is one thing, and unfettered criticism is another; Berlusconi is treated very respectfully by the news programs, and none of his Mediaset channels have been known to pursue journalistic investigations of its patron’s affairs.)

Most mainstream newspapers also tend to be critical of the government, including influential daily CORRIERE DELLA SERA, which often portrays the diminutive prime minister as a grinning, high-heeled Napoleon in a series of withering front-page cartoons.

Displaying his usual brand of self-deprecating wit, Berlusconi told a group of reporters recently that on the advice of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher he had decided to cut down on his newspaper reading: “I asked for only positive articles to be shown to me. Nothing arrived for two weeks.”

Berlusconi is undoubtedly fun. He has an engaging charm and disarming spontaneity that make people who meet him feel for the space of a handshake that they are at the center of his stellar universe.

It is a great gift and one that has undoubtedly helped Berlusconi become the richest man in Italy. But experience has shown that he can’t charm away all his problems.

His first government ruled for just a few months in 1994 before it collapsed under the weight of internal feuding. His second coalition is also growing increasingly argumentative and looks unlikely to survive its full five-year term. Against this unpromising political backdrop, Italy’s economy is skirting with recession and its industrial star is on the wane.

Berlusconi portrays himself in a quasi-religious light, repeating time and again that he has made enormous sacrifices on Italy’s behalf. During one famous chat show appearance, Berlusconi turned to the host and asked him to smell his cologne: “What do you think that scent is?” he asked before giving his own answer: “It’s the smell of sanctity.”

Berlusconi might see himself as some sort of new age prophet, but the jury is still out on whether he is a false one or not.

Crispian Balmer is the Chief Correspondent, Italy, for Reuters.

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