Stop blaming Italians for Berlusconi
It's not voters' admiration for a Casanova prime minister that keeps Berlusconi in power – it's his control of the media
There is a crucial missing point in the foreign media coverage of the Berlusconi scandal. The farcical state of Italian politics should not just be blamed on Italian citizens on the assumption that every electorate deserves the type of leader it selects. Instead, the nature of the Italian media and information system should be scrutinised more carefully.
The Italian media do not allow public opinion to be formed in an objective and impartial way. We could blame Italians for their leader only if the delicate mechanisms that govern Italian democracy were not distorted by a biased, irresponsible media. Rather, we should blame its "mediocracy"; that is, the dangerous entanglement of power and media that has been afflicting the country for decades.
The mammoth media power that Berlusconi has built his empire on is unimaginable in any other western democracy. If we overlook his immense and unchallenged power over public opinion, his articulate propaganda machine, we won't be able to explain why Italians have fallen asleep instead of reacting to the regime.
Since the 1980s, Berlusconi's family has controlled Italy's top three commercial national TV channels. Since 1988, the constitutional court has recognised this commercial monopoly as unconstitutional, but nothing has been done about it. When in power, Berlusconi has also maintained a tight grasp on Italian public service television, Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI). In fact, RAI has never been a totally independent public service broadcaster, but has always been subject to the distribution of posts and power according to political affiliation. The reforms adopted to reformulate RAI's accountability, independence and supervision have never succeeded.
The Berlusconi family controls the most important publishing companies in Italy (such as Mondadori) as well as the most important liberal-centre right daily newspaper, Il Giornale, and other magazines. However, as Berlusconi has made it clear very often: "Italians don't read newspapers. Just Italian journalists do so." This remark is certainly true: just 20% of the Italian population reads newspapers.
So how does Berlusconi's war room secure a brainwashed public opinion? It's very simple.
Sometimes the initiative comes directly from the leader. For example, at the most important meeting of the Industrial Association in Italy in June 2009, Berlusconi urged businesses not to advertise in newspapers critical of his handling of the economy – such as the daily newspaper La Repubblica. In January 2011, the prime minister was allowed to speak to the nation on Italian public television for 160 minutes, uninterrupted. During this speech, Berlusconi fiercely attacked the magistrates prosecuting him by describing them as threats to the democratic functioning of the country.
The government-appointed managers of RAI have frequently tried to impose content restrictions – and have often succeeded. Before the last local elections, the government thwarted the possibility of the most popular political talk shows on RAI keeping their regular formats during the campaign. Some days ago, another official memo from RAI's management imposed new constraints on the coverage of political events, not just on political shows and investigative programmes, but also on political satire. These pressures are not just confined to RAI's management, but also extend to the communication authority (Agcom) that should supervise the communication system. In March 2010, newspapers published phone taps ordered by prosecutors in the town of Trani, where Berlusconi was coercing members of Agcom to shut down specific political talk shows.
What is even more alarming is the constant spin and censorship on all Italian news reports coming from RAI and from Berlusconi's commercial TV monopoly. The recent demonstrations that have broken out in several Italian cities have not even been mentioned by the majority of TV news reports. It has been alleged by La Repubblica that the chief editor of Berlusconi's family newspaper, the news director of the Mediaset empire and the directors of Berlusconi's magazines have all been summoned to a crucial meeting at the government's headquarters in Rome to plan the spin for the days to come.
Most of the work of the propaganda machine is obviously concentrated on television. Often it involves telling editors to spread the same, consistent message: that the magistrates are illegitimately prosecuting the prime minster, that the critical newspapers are publishing lies and that the electorate – il popolo – has given Berlusconi the mandate to rule, and therefore il popolo is his only natural judge. Montesquieu would rightly be rolling in his grave.
So what is then left for Italian people to ascertain? How can they secure an unbiased public opinion, brainwashed as they are by their own videocracy? Certainly, they could start reading newspapers. But why should they do so when for decades they have been told that newspapers are owned by communists and spread lies?
The Italian democratic emergency is not due to Italian admiration for a Casanova prime minster, as we so often read in the foreign media. It is due to Berlusconi's unconstitutional media empire and his efficient, unchallenged propaganda machine.