While his shocking gaffes make news abroad, the Italian PM's stranglehold on TV and newspapers keeps his nation clueless
Shocked? Indignant? Hard to tell, really. Most Italians simply don't know that Silvio Berlusconi
has compared the plight of earthquake victims forced to sleep in tents
in the wintry weather of the Abruzzo region to a camping holiday.
broadcasts tactfully ignored the slip. The good man, after all, was
only trying to keep everyone's morale up. Virtually every newspaper in
the country did the same. Only the readers of the very leftwing Il
Manifesto were informed in a brief note: "Shock at 'camping weekend'
comment. But only abroad." That's it, really. Past caring. If you can
take the spectacle of your prime minister parading in front of TV
cameras, massed officialdom and one miserable homeless old lady in an
outsize fireman's helmet, you can take anything.
blunderer is news abroad, not at home. The astonishing trail of antics
and misdemeanours that Berlusconi blazed across Europe as he hopelessly
tried to squeeze into the limelight of Barack Obama left the rest of
the world gawping and most Italians apparently resigned. It's an old
story, which may puzzle outsiders but not anyone familiar with the
Trouble usually starts when Berlusconi ventures
abroad. In Moscow at the end of last year, he hailed then
president-elect Obama as "handsome, young and suntanned". (Speaking for
the many Italians who cringed, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy said she was glad
she was no longer an Italian citizen.) Back in 2003, during a debate at
the European parliament in Strasbourg, he called a German MEP "kapo",
as the guards in Nazi concentration camps were called, and said he
would put him forward for a part in a film about the camps. In the same
year he attempted to charm investors in New York with the line:
"Another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries." The list goes on.
home, however, Berlusconi's image and public appearances are minutely
managed. He chooses questions, his staff plan every outing and
appearance, cameras are positioned at what he and his aides consider
flattering angles. Remember, half the journalists in Italy work for him
and the other half know they might do so one day.
media group, Mediaset, Berlusconi and his family control three private
national television channels (the family advertising company Publitalia
supplies most of the others as well), two newspapers, a fleet of
magazines, the biggest cinema circuit, and the country's largest book
publisher. Conflict of interest? Ironed out of existence by
self-serving legislation that the former hard-pressed and short-lived
centre-left government of Romano Prodi never got round to abolishing.
Thanks to another trademark law, Berlusconi overruled the
constitutional court and legalised his virtual monopoly while
consolidating absolute political control over the public service
Even as the earthquake in the Abruzzo
continues to wreak havoc, all the top jobs in RAI are up for grabs.
Parliament has agreed on a new board of directors, and now Berlusconi
and his allies are turning their attention to the newsrooms. Every one
of the current heads of RAI's three TV networks, news programmes and
radio services will be reappointed. According to tradition, the prime
minister will pick the head of TG1, RAI's banner TV news programme. Its
current incumbent, apparently well aware of Prodi's wobbly hold on
power, was always remarkably polite to Berlusconi even when he was in
opposition. He has been guaranteed a very soft landing as editor of the
country's most important newspaper, the Corriere della Sera.
should be cause for concern to any Italian that political horse-trading
over the top media jobs in the country is so all-embracing that even
the main privately owned newspaper is thrown into the same basket as
the state broadcaster. But nobody turned a hair, and news of the
appointment was recorded with zeal by every media outlet in the country.
this situation the very notion of the media as watchdog has paled into
insignificance. There will, no doubt, be some excellent investigative
reporting on just why so many new buildings collapsed in the latest
earthquake - in spite of existing, but apparently widely flouted,
construction laws. But they will, if we are lucky, be shown late at
night on the one channel traditionally conceded to the opposition. That
is, if the new appointee thinks fit to renew the best investigative
On his return from his tour of London
and Strasbourg, Berlusconi raged publicly at the journalists who had
had the cheek of reporting on his embarrasments. "We will take steps!"
he threatened. The first step Mr Berlusconi should take, however, is
thinking more carefully before opening his mouth.
• Tana de Zulueta is a former Italian MP and board member of Articolo 21, an NGO supporting press freedoms