Berlusconi and the Battle for the Italian Media

By Benetazzo, Piero | Nieman Reports, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Berlusconi and the Battle for the Italian Media


Benetazzo, Piero, Nieman Reports


August 15, a major Italian holiday: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi unexpectedly appears on TV. Seated behind his desk, a large pack of newspapers in front of him, he touches them, then pushes them aside with disdain. He tells the interviewer, "don't waste your time reading those headlines and articles, they're all lies." Then, he repeats exactly what is reported in those newspapers--he warns that if his government were to fall, there will be riots in the streets.

The long interview was broadcast in the early afternoon on all three state-run Radio Televisione Italiana (RAI) networks and on the three Fininvest private networks owned by Berlusconi. And it was re-broadcast on all six evening news programs.

The interview was one of the tensest moments of the media battle that characterized the first six months of the government headed by the TV tycoon-turned politician. The all-out and relentless battle has involved Italian journalists and foreign correspondents. It has been waged with harsh and often disconcerting slogans and accusations and it has raised the specter of mass firings and "purges" of journalists at the RAI networks. This summer, Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy) party and its coalition partners, the neofascist National Alliance and the market-oriented Northern League, accused the media of "conspiring" against the March 27 election results and of "undermining" the government. In trying to explain the continuing flight of foreign investors, Berlusconi accused newspapers of providing "constant disinformation." He also said foreign correspondents "breathe this air of preconceived hostility and reproduce it in their articles, giving a false and distorted image of Italy and its economy."

"Whoever speaks against our government, is going against the interests of the country at a time when we need to work serenely for the future," Berlusconi asserted.

Berlusconi, who calls himself a conservative, directed his accusations against newspaper that are anything but leftist, such as The Financial Times, The Economist and The Wall Street Journal. He accused them of harping on the conflict of interests of the magnate cum government leader, on the judicial problems of Fininvest managers (Berlusconi's own brother Paolo and three other executives are under investigation for bribery and falsified accounts) and on the government's inaction in tackling the largest public deficit in the industrialized world. For weeks this summer, the lira's value declined and the stock market continued to fall but the government didn't move. Its major concern appeared to be to seize total control of the media.

The pretorian guards of the constant onslaught against the media were members of the neofascist National Alliance. Their aggressive slogans reminded many Italian commentators of the Twenties and of Mussolini's polemic against the State. Deputy Prime Minister and National Alliance member Guiseppe Tratarella--a veteran of the infamous Saio' Republic of the final and most repressive stage of the Mussolini regime--lashed out against a "shadow government" formed by what he called "strong and obscure powers." By this he meant independent institutions such as the Bank of Italy and the Constitutional Court, but also large private industries and the newspapers they own. He accused the big newspapers of conspiring to bring down the government "in order to take over the State" and the charged that the foreign press "wants to destabilize Italy" so that, through privatization, foreign investors can "take possession of the jewels of the national economy."

The "post-fascist" (as the National Alliance characterizes itself) weekly Italia Settimanale published a list of "enemy" journalists who, it said, should be purged. Alessandra Mussolini, a National Alliance MP and granddaughter of Il Duce, said that the managing editors of all the big newspapers should step down because they belong to the past regime. …

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