Magazine article The New Yorker

All He Surveys

Magazine article The New Yorker

All He Surveys

Article excerpt

Silvio Berlusconi is the Prime Minister of Italy, its first media mogul, and its richest citizen. Italians who like him--and obviously millions do--usually start with "rich." It's a word they pronounce with some reverence, because, for Berlusconi's admirers, having a leader who not only is spectacularly rich but, more to the point, came from nowhere, got rich before he got elected, and has managed to put the Italian state to work to guarantee his fortune amounts to a watershed in Italian history, something to command attention and respect, on the order of Dante or the Quattrocento. "The role of Berlusconi is to be rich--that's his job," the producer Carlo Freccero told me, about a year after he was replaced as the president of RAI-2, one of the country's three state television networks, for what could be called insufficient deference toward the Prime Minister.

Not everybody likes Silvio Berlusconi. He can be charming, courteous, and entertaining, but in his time he has been accused of many unpleasant things. Contempt for the law. Conflict of interest. Bribery. Money laundering. Plain corruption. Offhand displays of arrogance--Islam is an inferior civilization; Mussolini never killed anyone, just "sent people on holiday"--that in the retelling sound even more bizarre. Freccero says that if you love Silvio nothing about him matters but the dream of success that he's selling in his own person. And never mind if a dream called "Silvio Berlusconi" sells better in Italy than anywhere outside Italy, under the kind of scrutiny Berlusconi can't manage and the kind of ridicule he can't censor.

Berlusconi isn't simply the first mogul of the advertising and media age in Italy. He is the first to have grasped that whoever controlled its images of success could appropriate almost any amount of political power. Today, he monopolizes a huge share of the country's sources of information, which is also to say, its sources of manipulation. The list of media that he or his relatives or his proxies own, or directly or indirectly control, includes the state television networks and radio stations, three of Italy's four commercial television networks, two big publishing houses, two national newspapers, fifty magazines, the country's largest movie production-and-distribution company, and a chunk of its Internet services. That's more than fifty per cent of Italy's advertising market. Soon the list may be even longer, thanks to a draft law, now making committee rounds in parliament, that redefines the media to include a stockpot of new categories, from Web publications and publicity handouts to music and movies. If the law passes, Berlusconi's media holdings will fall well within a legal limit, and he will be able to purchase a couple of other newspapers that he apparently wants--Corriere della Sera being the most important and consequently the one he is said to covet. He has already done well by his close friend Rupert Murdoch; on July 31st, programming on nearly all the satellite hookups in Italy was switched automatically to Murdoch's Sky Italia.

Berlusconi's power over what other Italians see, read, buy, and, above all, think they think is overwhelming. And that's a fraction of his influence. At one time or another, the Prime Minister has laid siege to vast sectors of the Italian economy, among them debt financing, insurance, real estate, supermarkets, and sports. (The sports rundown, past and present, that Berlusconi gave me included not only AC Milan--one of Europe's most lucrative soccer teams and franchises--but also "a rugby team, a volleyball team, everything, in every sport, and I always won, everywhere, even ice hockey.") He is also the biggest employer in Italy. If you add the twenty-two thousand Italians he actually employs to those in the huge bureaucracies he directly or indirectly controls, you arrive at more than three million of the country's twenty-three million working people--and that's not counting the families of those people. …

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