APRIL 6 saw an earthquake strike the mountain town of Aquila in Italy, causing 295 deaths and destroying thousands of buildings.
No sooner had the news broken, the Silvio Berlusconi media machine moved into action.
Italy’s opposition and government quickly moved to put aside party politics and demonstrate unity over what was a veritable national tragedy.
But premier Berlusconi didn’t let this stop him putting on a good show. Displaying his characteristic flair for turning any event, including the most lethal and destructive earthquake to hit Italy in almost 30 years, into a photo opportunity, Il Cavalier’s spin machine was soon engineering a flurry of activity and announcements.
At the funeral on April 10, while the opposition stood “in silence and prayer,” as Democrat leader Dario Francheschini put it, Berlusconi was shedding tears with the mourning masses, hugging distraught old ladies, promising to punish “scavenging thieves” – and offering to host the Aquila homeless “at my home.”
This last comment at least, in any other democratic country of the world, should have been an own goal for a billionaire who has an unquantified number of luxurious residences in Italy and abroad.
But the funeral is just one scene in a film of the unfolding tragedy in the town of Abruzzo, directed by Berlusconi and beaming into millions of Italians’ homes from the three private TV channels he owns and the other three state RAI channels he controls.
It describes a story of helpless victims, heroic rescuers and a government pulling out all the stops to deliver assistance to those in need and rebuild. The timing, just two months before local and European elections in June, couldn’t have been better.
Then, a prime time TV programme had the audacity to raise some awkward questions, for example, why the initial rescue operation was so slow and why some of the buildings which should have been subject to strict anti-seismic controls collapsed so easily.
The reaction to Michele Santoro’s top-rated show Annozero broadcast, days after the earthquake on state broadcaster RAI, was swift.
“Public TV cannot behave like this,” said Berlusconi.
Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the lower house of parliament, characterised the show as “indecent.”
And right on cue, RAI, governed by a board appointed by a parliament in which Berlusconi’s coalition holds a majority, announced it was launching an internal investigation into the show.
Santoro is no stranger to attacks from Il Cavalier. He was sacked in 2002, along with another veteran broadcaster Enzo Biagi, following comments by Berlusconi that they had made “criminal use” of airtime. He was reinstated following an employment tribunal ruling.
Says fellow RAI presenter Maurizio Mannoni: “If Michele Santoro has made any errors he will pay the consequences in the usual fashion, but that the prime minister and a speaker of parliament should censure him gives me the shivers up my spine.
“Up until now, nobody has raised any criticisms in relation to the earthquake in Abruzzo.
“All the TV coverage has been full of praise of the government and politicians.
“It’s a bit, how can I say? Like an authoritarian regime. You can make a programme that may not be 100 per cent accurate, but it is not the job of politicians in power to attack a TV programme.”
Santoro doesn’t have many friends in the political establishment, including the opposition, who have also come under fire in his chat-show-cum-investigative current affairs programme.
Nevertheless, Arturo Parisi, a senior figure in the Democrats, says: “The tone of Annozero is often too loud, but the questions were pertinent.” Senate vice-president Emma Bonino says that “either the programme contained errors or was libellous, otherwise from what pulpit does the sermon come from?”
As yet no member of Berlusconi’s government or Liberty Party has pinpointed either. In fact, much of the programme was highlighting what had already been printed, without challenge, in the newspapers. But few read newspapers in Italy – all are glued to the small screen.
For many, the onslaught against Santoro is simply the latest example of Berlusconi’s inability to tolerate dissent.
In any other democratic country, the presenter would have be seen as simply doing their job. Only in Italy is this tantamount to a criminal act or political subversion.
In comments to the press this week, Fabrizio Cicchito from Berlusconi’s Liberty Party, said: “Annozero has a clear political objective. It is seeking to destabilise the political system.”
Santoro is by no means the only recent target of Berlusconi’s ire. Vauro, a Santoro collaborator and regular contributor to the independent Communist newspaper Il Manifesto, has just been suspended by RAI following apparently “offensive” cartoons.
The investigative programme Report is also under investigation by RAI, following a public attack on it by Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti for criticisms it contained about a flagship welfare measure.
Further evidence of the continuing conflict of interest between the billionaire’s dual role as media tycoon and Italian prime minister came as it transpired that a meeting between members of Berlusconi’s ruling Liberty Party to decide senior appointments at the state broadcaster was held on April 17 at the media magnate’s private residence Palazzo Grazioli in Rome.
Despite his stranglehold over the means of mass communication, for now Berlusconi has not yet won his battle against the remaining dissenters in the media.
Santoro ignored calls from ministers for a “corrective” follow-up show this week and yet far from deserting the presenter, a record 5.3 million people tuned in to see him.
Just batting for himself?
Since the onset of the financial and economic crisis, Silvio Berlusconi has run to the defence of troubled Italian firms faced with potential takeover by foreign investors.
Measures planned include increasing the proportion of shares a quoted company can buy and hold from 10 per cent to 20 per cent, increasing the capacity of major shareholders to boost their holding in a company and reducing the size of a packet of acquired shares that could come to the attention of the stock market watchdog.
The “Italianness” of companies in the peninsular is a relatively new concern for a self-confessed economic “libertarian” who was happy to stand by while speculators ran riot on the Milan bourse during the good times, asset-stripping at the cost of jobs and manufacturing. This has won him support at home, from left and right.
But there is more than a touch of self-interest in this. These measures are ostensibly about defending “national champions” Eni, Enel, Fiat and Telecom, but it is the premier’s concern for his very own Mediaset that is at the heart of this initiative.
Berlusconi, who personally holds a 40 per cent stake in Mediaset, the company that controls three national TV channels and an advertising giant, has watched as Mediaset’s share price halved since May last year and the value of the company fallen to just a third of what it was two years ago – which makes it a potentially appetising target for hungry foreign investors.
In short, far from batting for Italy, Berlusconi is simply batting for himself.
To be fair, Berlusconi has been quite transparent about this. In October last year at a now legendary press conference, he said: “Have confidence – buy shares in Eni, Enel and Mediaset.”
This clearly didn’t work, so he moved onto plan B. According to La Repubblica newspaper, contacts were made in January between Gianni Letta, Berlusconi’s right hand man – a former employee and now undersecretary of state to the premier – and the president of Italy’s stockmarket watchdog, Consob, Lamberto Cardia.
Two months later, Cardia set out in the top-selling Panorama magazine – also part of the Berlusconi family’s business empire – the outline of the plan to protect corporate Italy.
A week later, in a statement announcing flagging annual results, Mediaset announceed that it was buying its own shares to the legal maximum of 10 per cent.
A day later, on March 18, two members of Berlusconi’s Liberty Party presented measures in the form an amendment to a bill that would allow Mediaset to break through this cap in the future and take other forms of corporate self-defence.
On March 31, Berlusconi admitted to having spoken personally to the president of Consob, saying Cardia is “in agreement” with the measures. This was not reported, even in the financial press. But, according to La Repubblica, “it is the smoking gun of the latest case of conflict of interest.”
The measures have now been approved by parliament. Again, a step that would be a scandal in any other democratic country has passed without comment.