Silvio: the next episode

Even though Silvio Berlusconi's political reign may be drawing to a close, his media legacy will live on
November 17, 2010
Look at me: Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy has invented a new political movement—mediaocracy

Part of the spectator appeal of Italian politics is its multidimensional chess aspect. Players move in complex, sinuous fashion, appearing to retreat, striking suddenly. In their bestselling 2007 book, journalists Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella identified the political caste, La Casta, as an elite that takes only occasional account of those who elect it and pay for its salaries, bulletproof cars, luxurious offices and tennis lessons. Now, though, the rising discontent of the base is moving pieces on the board.

In November, in the wake of allegations about Silvio Berlusconi’s private life and abuses of office, Gianfranco Fini, leader of the post-Fascist Alleanza Nationale and former coalition partner to Berlusconi’s Popola della Liberta, called for the prime minister’s resignation. Fini, without his erstwhile partner’s money or media, has proved himself the grandmaster: surviving a minor (by Italian standards) property scandal pushed hard by the Berlusconi media, and articulating the base’s loss of attachment to the 21st century’s foremost political and media host. With this turn in the tide, three myths—sustained by Berlusconi’s showmanship and chutzpah and, it must be said, some initial successes—lose their potency.

The first is that Berlusconi can sort things out—most recently, the refuse crisis in Naples where piles of rubbish mounted up in 2008; the bankruptcy of Alitalia; and the effects of the earthquake in l’Aquila. His claims in these matters are increasingly seen as threadbare. The rubbish in and around the south’s former capital is mounting up again. Alitalia’s chief executive has been quoted as saying the airline must merge with Air France—a conclusion reached by the previous Italian government, which Berlusconi opposed, helping him to win the election in 2008. And the citizens of l’Aquila have complained that the much-vaunted reconstruction is stalled.

The second myth is to do with Berlusconi’s billions; that they mean he has no need of corruption, and that he can make Italians richer because he knows how to create wealth. In fact corruption in Italy, on all international indices, is as bad or worse then ever, and the economy is stagnating. Sharp cuts are being made to services, schools and universities; the exodus of the talented young continues. The successes—the revival of Fiat’s fortunes, and the continuing strength of Italy in textiles, fashion and food—are not of Berlusconi’s making. Indeed, the biggest charge against him is that, focused on protecting himself, he has done little to free up the economy.

The third myth is that he has created a workable coalition of the centre right, and given Italy stable, two-bloc government. The Fini defection has torpedoed this: Berlusconi now relies on the Northern League, whose ultra-federalist agenda may provoke a crisis between the ailing south and the rich north. Besides, what price stability if the parliament will pass no laws to relieve the nation’s sclerosis?

None of this is decisive: Berlusconi’s wealth and media may enable him to survive; the main party of the left, the Partito Democratico, is weak; he has many allies, nationally and locally. But this seems like the endgame, and the moves now are in the open, under the eye of an electorate apparently finally wakened from a long sleep.

Their awakening means Berlusconi’s political legacy is uncertain, but his media one will be long lasting. Italy has pioneered some of the most influential political movements of the 20th century, including fascism, Euro-federalism and Eurocommunism. Under Berlusconi, it has made another one: mediaocracy.

Mediaocracy, or rule by media, works in both democratic and authoritarian states. Berlusconi’s version is an extreme model—reliant on the lack of conflict of interest legislation (and culture) in Italy. This has produced a dominant politician who owns the three major commercial television channels, the biggest publisher, advertising business, magazine empire and, when in power, has control over the state television and radio corporation, RAI.

Versions of this model have now started to take root elsewhere. Berlusconi’s friend Nicolas Sarkozy has evolved a strategy dubbed “Sarkoberlusconism” by the French sociologist Pierre Musso. Through his close alliances with the main French television channel owners, and magazine and newspaper proprietors, Sarkozy seeks to imitate Berlusconi’s control of the national narrative. In Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2001-2006, ran a similarly populist regime with the aid of his large media holdings—though, in his case, he had substantial achievements in poverty reduction to set against accusations of corruption.

Meanwhile Berlusconi’s closer friend, Vladimir Putin, has, like him, grasped that control of television is all—and that newspapers can be left alone.

In South Africa, too, the increasingly authoritarian-sounding ANC government has ensured that the public broadcaster, SABC, reflects their agenda. ANC attacks on the feisty independent newspapers grow in volume, and through Atul Gupta, a wealthy supporter of President Zuma, they have sought to establish a pro-ANC daily, New Age—presently plagued by internal disputes, with its launch delayed.

Non-politician media moguls, of course, also try to extend their influence over politics: Rupert Murdoch is the grandmaster here. They are the other leg of the scissors closing over efforts to retain the idea and practice of independent journalism.

The Italian scholar Paolo Mancini argues that the period in which the dominant media ideology of “objective journalism” is now coming to a close. Media are returning to their 19th-century roots as political players—propelled by politicians, media moguls and, in Italy’s case, by the man who unites both in one. In this, Berlusconi is certainly the grandmaster.