Censorship late-Berlusconi-style

Propaganda damages a person or institution by contrasting them with those thought to be morally, ethically and politically superior. But the latest Italian smear campaigns aim instead to downgrade the victim’s reputation to the same level of the person or institution that he or she is trying to criticize.
Michele Monni
5 December 2010

After numerous attempts during his political career on the part of Mr. Berlusconi to use injunctions to gag any conceivable criticism raised against his political and personal behaviour, or that of the government and its modus operandi, including the attempt to press charges against a national newspaper (La Repubblica) and the creation of a bill aimed at preventing the publication of police wiretapping by the press - it seems that it has been necessary for the media tycoon and his acolytes to change their tactics of late, in order to maintain their grip over Italy, and to shut down even the feeblest cry of protest.

By openly (ferociously) attacking specific newspapers and TV shows as well as well-respected members of civil society who have dared to criticise his policy or demeanour, Prime Minister Berlusconi has inevitably shown his weak side, allowing his detractors to reinforce the notion of a reckless prince, unable to take criticism, who regards himself as untouchable thanks to the power invested in him by the vox populi.

The first sign of a different approach surfaced in the Boffo affair. Dino Boffo, editor of the daily - Avvenire - owned by the Italian Bishops' conference, dared to criticize Berlusconi for his involvement in the infamous call girls’ scandal. Swiftly, the newspaper Il Giornale, which belongs to Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo, published a front page story accusing Mr Boffo in 2004 of having paid a fine for harassing a woman the paper claimed was the wife of his homosexual lover. Boffo denied the allegation, but after a few days, resigned his post at Avvenire in September 2009.

Nothing Il Giornale published was new. The sentence was first disclosed by a blogger in 2005, and reported on by another Berlusconi publication, the news magazine, Panorama, to little effect. So why bring this up again after five years? The paper's editor, Vittorio Feltri said he was launching a campaign to "unmask the moralisers" - a reference to the fact that Avvenire, as might be expected of a Catholic daily, had written a couple of editorials criticising Silvio Berlusconi for his controversial private life. Avvenire, a very influential voice, especially amongst the Catholic electorate, a constituency Berlusconi has always considered fundamental for his political success, was promptly silenced.


The second case in which this new ‘media guerrilla tactic’ was deployed has engulfed the Italian media all summer: this time it was the same newspaper, Il Giornale, and the President of the chamber of deputies, Gianfranco Fini. Dating from the split within the main government party (PdL) which led to the creation of a new political entity (FLi) headed by Mr Fini, the newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother engaged itself in a massive smear campaign aimed at undermining the political persona of Mr Fini and his growing popularity amongst the Italian electorate. Il Giornale claimed that it had proof of an allegedly shady property deal linking Fini and the family of his partner, Elisabetta Tulliani. Eventually, Tulliani's brother, Giancarlo, was found to be renting a flat in Monte Carlo belonging to Fini's former party, the ‘post-fascist’ National Alliance. The flat, allegedly sold at below-market value, was said to belong to an offshore company registered in the Caribbean island of St Lucia, ascribable to Giancarlo Tulliani.

The magistrates’ investigation by a Roman court had cleared Fini of any accusations regarding this case less than one month previously. Why then did Il Giornale highlight a case that no other established newspaper considered remotely newsworthy? What it ensured was that throughout the summer (when newspaper and magazine circulation in Italy is high, thanks to the holidays) Fini-gate had been cunningly spun by every media outlet, newspaper, magazine and television station linked with the Prime Minister. Fini had objected to Berlusconi’s attempt to pass through government a notorious bill that prevented phone tapping of members of parliament, that if passed was to apply retroactively, in order to protect Berlusconi from ongoing investigations. The attempt to discredit the President of the lower chamber aimed specifically at hitting his credibility on the same terrain: ethics, respect for the law and the exploitation of his position in order to gain benefits. By doing that, Il Giornale spearheaded the campaigning cry that even Berlusconi’s most senior critic was guilty of misconduct, inoculating the public with the idea that there are ‘no saints’ in Italian politics. The smear campaign served also to divert attention from what was truly at stake in the row between two of highest officials in the Italian state.

Berlusconi has often been depicted as a medieval prince for the scorn with which he relates to other state bodies and independent media. However, a book must be missing from his library. In chapter 3 of The Prince, Machiavelli states:

One has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

In fact it was Fini, who has not yet withdrawn his support from the government but bides his time while he increases the electoral support for his party, who emerged the stronger from this round of the political/media struggle. He poses a continuous threat as a Sword of Damocles suspended above Berlusconi’s throne.

Nevertheless, Il Giornale, faithful to Mao Zedong’s motto Strike one to educate one hundred, has continued to chase witches by mudslinging any independent voice who dares to criticize or question the Prime Minister and government’s management of the country.

This incessant fixation with his opponents has prompted an official investigation carried out by Milan magistrates after allegations that the newspaper, Il Giornale, was now preparing to smear Emma Marcegaglia, highly-respected head of the country's industry employers' association (Confindustria), in retaliation for her questioning of the government's handling of Italy's limping economy. Miss Marcegaglia supposedly got wind of the smear campaign and informed magistrates, who authorised police to monitor the telephones of senior executives. As a result of the intercepted calls and mobile-phone text-messages, police searched the homes of the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Alessandro Sallusti, and deputy editor, Nicola Porro, both of whom were placed under investigation.

According to the magistrates, Mr Porro sent a text message to Miss Marcegaglia's press officer, Rinaldo Arpisella in which he wrote: "Hello Rinaldo, tomorrow there's going to be a big judicial piece on the business dealings of the Marcegaglia family." A few minutes later they spoke on the telephone, with Mr Porro recorded as saying: "Now we're going to have some real fun and for the next 20 days we'll give Marcegaglia a hard time like she's never seen before." He said that the newspaper was shifting the attention of its "bloodhounds" from Monte Carlo to Mantua. Monte Carlo was a reference to Mr Fini's involvement in an allegedly suspicious property purchase, while Mantua is the base for Miss Marcegaglia's business empire.

The media at large

If Il Giornale seems to have its hands somewhat tied as a result, Berlusconi’s influence over Italian media at large continues undisturbed. Apart from his three television channels (Canale 5, Italia 1 and Rete 4) which don’t even try to conceal their constant backing for government policies, public broadcaster RAI, and specifically the flagship news bulletin TG1, have recently been harshly criticised by Italy’s communications watchdog, Agcom. According to the independent regulatory body, TG1 devotes too much space to Government MPs. TGI’s director, Augusto Minzolini, was described as a “pro-government stooge” following a series of editorials openly supportive of the Prime Minister.  On top of that, viewers of TG1 are in freefall, which is causing advertisement revenue to plummet as  Minzolini editorials lose what credibility they once had amongst Italian viewers.

Over the last month the attack on the free and independent media has not let up, as demonstrated by the attempt to suspend two of the most well-respected TV news shows broadcasted by RAI, Annozero and Report. Berlusconi maintains his huge influence over public television through its General Director, Mauro Masi, a former member of Berlusconi's conservative cabinet. Masi started smearing the shows as too leftwing and biased against members of government a priori on ideological grounds.

In response, Michele Santoro who hosts Italy's top current affairs show, Annozero, stated that director Masi, in refusing to sign contracts for his contributors and co-authors, was obviously trying to sabotage the programme. In speaking of the row with the director, Santoro described Masi as incompetent and euphemistically told him to “get lost”. As a result Masi issued a two-week suspension from the broadcast which created uproar and disbelief amongst viewers and opposition parties alike. The programme was not blocked, but once again the cunning technique delivered to the public the idea of biased and unbalanced information aimed at harming the government and the Prime Minister. That got through clearly enough. 

Recently, the highly-regarded journalist Milena Gabanelli, whose Report news show has raised questions about whether Berlusconi circumvented bank laws to buy his Caribbean real estate, has been accused of misconduct by the Prime Minister’s lawyer, Mr. Ghedini, who stated to the press that Report had broadcast a totally false reconstruction of the Antigua investment and that Mrs Gabanelli would be sued in a civil court.  Gabanelli, for her part, invited the Prime Minister to explain his side of the story to the public, a request which Berlusconi did not deign to answer.

Once again the envelope was pushed to its limit, leaving the Italian public divided along basic ideological lines: those who see Berlusconi as an evil entity with shady connections with the Mafia, only interested in gaining more power and benefits for himself, and those who cheer him on as a champion of Liberalism and anti-communism, the only convincing option in the “political market-place”. Radicalising the way in which Italians look at the Prime Minister has long been a successful method employed by PdL spin doctors for dividing public opinion and therefore diverting the attention from the lack of Realpolitik that has characterised his governments.  By doing that, public discourse has inevitably been downgraded to the mere psychomachia between good and evil - from whatever point of view you look at it. Any attempt by the media to introduce a structured critique of government policies is immediately dismissed as ideologically biased, as though challenging and questioning politicians was inherently misplaced.

The last notable occasion on which this technique was deployed was in response to the creation of a new current affairs programme aired on RAI’s third channel. The four-episode feature, Vieni via con me (Come away with me), by Fabio Fazio, who also hosts one of the most successful chat show on the public television (Che tempo che fa), and Roberto Saviano the famous writer sentenced to death by the Camorra after his book Gomorrah was released in 2006, was supposed to touch, amongst other issues, on the latest sex scandal (the case of the 17-year old Moroccan who attended Berlusconi’s secret parties) involving the Prime Minister, the suspected relationship between organised crime and senior members of parliament and last but not least “dulcis in fundo” - an in-depth investigation into the infamous smear campaign technique witnessed over the last few months.

Amongst the guests of the first episode (aired on Monday, November 7) were Oscar-winning comedian, Roberto Benigni, and world-famous conductor Claudio Abbado. Any TV producer in Italy and beyond would have traded his mother for the prospect of casting such a rare panel, if you consider that Benigni has not performed on television for the last 15 years, alongside the well-known reluctance of maestro Abbado to appear on the small screen - not to mention the chance to see Saviano speaking about the Mafia and the law on one of his rare appearances on the mainstream media since he was forced to live under police protection four years’ ago by constant threats meted out to him by the Neapolitan mafia.

RAI’s General Director, again backed by Il Giornale and Libero, another rightwing pro-government newspaper, started raising questions about the costs and contents of the programme early on. Saviano, in an interview with La7 news said that at first Director Masi asked for a reduction from four to two episodes. Then he suggested moving the broadcasting day to Wednesday – when everybody knows Champions League matches are broadcast – and subsequently, to Monday, knowing that Big Brother, aired by a TV competitor, would substantially curtail the programme’s audience. In response to the claim that the programme was too expensive (even if it had raised advertising more than enough to cover its production costs) and that the guests’ fees were too high, Benigni and Abbado decided to participate for free, even paying their own travel expenses. The first episode, aired on the November 7, broke all RAI Tre audience records with more than 7.5 million viewers peaking to 9 million during Benigni’s sketch on the Italian PM’s agitated sex life.

Despite the success of the programme, the attempt to smear independent voices has in part succeeded in spreading false and inaccurate innuendo regarding the compensation and motivations of guests and presenters, distorting contributors’ statements and conveying to the public the idea that Saviano himself was moved by political and economic interests, rather than professional and ethical ones.

This is a powerful technique, a mantra that if cunningly employed and repeated on a vast scale, can achieve impressive results over time in a culture such as ours. Success lies not in censoring any particular programme or newspaper but simply in spreading suspicion and mistrust as far as the horizon. This must not to be confused with mere propaganda. It does not have the same characteristics. But it does have the same ends. It is a discrediting tactic, specifically aimed at prominent figures within the civil society and politics who have one common denominator - that they have harshly criticised the Government or the Prime Minister. Propaganda damages a person or institution by contrasting them with those thought to be morally, ethically and politically superior. But this particular type of smear campaign aims instead to downgrade the victim’s reputation to the same level of the person or institution that he or she is trying to criticize – as if to say, ‘you talk the talk but you don’t walk the walk.’

This kind of operation inflicts its harm twice over. On one hand it undermines the idea of free speech by weakening to its foundations the concept of an open public discourse. On the other, it spreads the notion amongst the Italian people (already suspicious, disenchanted and dissatisfied thanks to the appalling behaviour of so many politicians), that there is no alternative. If even one of the most respected spokesmen of civil society, like Roberto Saviano, is finally no less biased than the people he is criticising, maybe, the public thinks, Berlusconi and his government is the lesser evil after all, as good as it is going to get. 

When scholars and historians try to portray this particular period of Italy’s Byzantine politics it will be interesting see how the Berlusconi saga is depicted. How will they define the man who praised Mussolini, thrived on making racist and homophobic jokes, a man who in his seventies underwent several plastic surgery operations to appeal more to his electorate, the owner of one of the biggest media empires in Europe, a man investigated for corruption, fraud and links with the Mafia, a man, using the words of a great Italian journalist, Enzo Biagi, “that would grow some titties and replace the female presenters of the shows broadcasted on his own televisions if he could”? 

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