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Making sense of Italy’s Second Republic: when politics become a soap opera

Over the last decades, the Italian media has become a scene for the soap opera of Italian politics. Will Beppe Grillo's recent electoral successes, partly due to his heavy use of social media, put paid to the media-politics status quo in Italy?

Annalisa Cappellini Francesco Grillo
8 April 2013
Demotix/Massimo Valicchia. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Massimo Valicchia. All rights reserved.

Foreigners tend to use two main narratives to tell the story of contemporary Italian politics: the first is that Berlusconi, having mainly dominated the last twenty years, is the principal agent responsible for the decline Italy endures; the second is that Berlusconi has seized power primarily through - and thanks to - his media empire

Both narratives are an oversimplification that risk preventing both the comprehension of what has recently happened in Italy and the reasons why this story might be repeated elsewhere in Europe. Moreover, through these narratives, any lessons that we may eventually learn for the future do not appear completely clear.

It's not just about Berlusconi

Fact: it is not true that Berlusconi is the only one to be blamed; in the past twenty years the centre-right has been in charge for ten years, whereas the remaining ten have been split between the centre left (seven years) and two technocratic governments (Dini and Monti).

It is also not correct to claim that the control of the media is enough in itself to win general elections. By looking at the last two decades, one clear trajectory emerges: whoever has won one general election has lost the subsequent one. This fact also means that whoever was in control of the state-owned television (RAI, which reaches half of the Italian audience) has then lost power. Berlusconi lost three times when he was incumbent (his control of TV then being theoretically at its height); the centre left lost three times when, on the contrary, its influence on the media was higher.

Berlusconi is, surely, responsible for many of Italy’s problems, but he is not the only one to be blamed. To control the media and more specifically TV can represent a huge barrier to the entry of competitors in the political arena, but it is not enough to win.

The true story is, thus, slightly different from the narratives that have been mainstreamed for such a long time: the reality is that in the last two decades, Italy has been dominated by what economists call a duopoly.

As a recent paper by think tank Vision put it, two coalitions, even two ideologies that are apparently opposite: on one side those who have allowed the construction of one of the most bureaucratic and intrusive states in Europe, and on the other side those that have grown hostile to any rule and any solidarity with their fellow citizens. 

As a result of this opposition, any additional layer of red tape and any additional tax feeds rebellion towards the state; any further news of tax evasion and any new episode of corruption automatically becomes a justification for introducing even tighter state controls over an increasingly fragmented society. One excess calls for a reaction, which goes in the opposite direction and with the same intensity as in some law of physics. The media have been boringly used for representing this never-ending trench warfare, whereas in fact neither of the two competitors did have any real interest in finishing its opponent off. The reluctance of the centre left to pass a law on conflicts of interest when it was in power and the ability of the centre right to forget its original promises to cut public expenditures and to lower taxes are all examples of an unspoken, even unconscious complicity.

While Berlusconi alone did not have the monopoly, what is true is that these two enemies combined had, in fact, the total control of the media for twenty years.

Dallas politics

The story line that replaced normal politics in Italy seems in many aspects to be inspired by old school soap operas such as Dallas or The Bold and the Beautiful. Coincidentally, these were also one of the main keys to explaining the success of the first Italian commercial TV channel-  the Berlusconi owned Canale 5 - at the beginning of the eighties.

The mechanism that makes soap opera such a particular product is simple; stories are conceived so that every time you watch one episode, it seems that the entire virtual world is going to collapse. And yet, if you leave the story for a few months (or even years), when you go back to it you realize that nothing has changed. J.R. and Ridge (Berlusconi) are still at the centre stage and their enemies and friends rotate around them. Moreover, the soap opera model successfully triggers a viewer identification mechanism with the protagonist, naturally raising admiration and support.

However, while Berlusconi invented the model, nobody tried to propose a different agenda, and most politicians were quite happy to take part in the soap opera of Italian politics.  In the meantime, no space was left to take care of real life problems: the ordinary people also ended up trapped in the “Truman Show”, and even less media space remained for real debates on the elaboration of possible solutions.

When the media changes, so do politics.

This has been the real story of politics and media used as a political tool during the long season of the Italian decline.

But this February, after the last general election, something changed. The duopoly was broken by a third party called the Five Star Movement. The media, once again, was pivotal to this political transformation when social networks became the trigger for change. The control the centre right and centre left could have exercised on traditional media became much less relevant when a new, free and independent type of media emerged. A media that apparently cannot be controlled by anybody – but can be successfully used by tech-savvy activists such as Grillo, whose blog has been the best read in Italy for years.

Grillo has conquered the central stage of the political arena by revealing the nature of the hidden and unspoken alliance between the two traditional competitors, and their overall incapability and unwillingness to deal with Italy’s structural problems. He broke the original game by explicitly refusing to take part in any TV programmes - and threatening to expel from the Five Star Movement any of his comrades who would have accepted the offer to take part in talk shows broadcast by RAI or MEDIASET (Berlusconi's media group).

Yet, TV is neither uninfluential, nor dead. Berlusconi’s impressive comeback in the last weeks of the political campaign has offered the mirror image of Grillo’s strategy, as it was completely focused on TV and disregarded any substantial use of the Internet.

Both Grillo and Berlusconi, however, made very clear choices and they both understood that in order to win it is strategic to concentrate scarce resources – money for Grillo, his own personal time for Berlusconi – on one precise target.

Berlusconi and Grillo are thus taking over the stage; once again two opposite and yet complementary strategies for the use of media and political messages appeared to monopolize Italian political life. In this apparently revolutionized political arena there is, however, one player who doesn't seem to have found a clear positioning - and who looks like it's limiting itself to reacting to its competitors’ moves. The political apathy shown by the (centre left) Democratic Party may lead to the creation of a new duopoly and the extinction of the very same Democratic Party.

Who controls the media – and does it even matter anymore?

From our perspective, the key issue is not so much the quality, or type, of media that dominates in Italy, but the type of leadership that Italy (and Europe) have witnessed so far.

Either we had technocrats governing with the assumption that change cannot be popular and that after all complex societies probably cannot afford democracy; or we had populists telling people what they want to hear, politicians capable of raising problems but not of proposing any solutions.

Italy and Europe would need a new generation of leaders that are visionary enough to raise expectations that can mobilize, but also pragmatic enough to take care of the smallest details that in the end can kill even the grandest of plans. Leaders with enough courage to face problems who are clearly capable of speaking to and also confronting people.  Europe and Italy finally deserve some courageous, responsible and accountable leaders. The use of media will then follow, and that's how the media will find its place in the new era of politics that is from all the signs just about to open up.

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