Italy’s radical left press, once thriving, is in danger of extinction.
‘Monti is succeeding where Berlusconi failed’ read a headline line in yesterday’s radical il manifesto newspaper. The depressing news announced by the communist title was that liquidators were coming in. The state subsidy that supports the non-profit making press had been cut so much by Italy’s current and previous prime ministers that the newspaper could no longer pay its bills. The options now are closure, or sale, unless a huge financial black hole can be filled soon.
The calamity that has befallen il manifesto comes hot on the heels of the demise on January 1 of Liberazione, the newspaper of the Communist Refoundation Party. In a country that once had the largest marxist party in Western Europe, is it the end of the communist daily press?
To be sure, il manifesto, a minnow compared to capitalist media giants owned by the Berlusconi, Agnelli and De Benedetti family groups, has always had a struggle to survive in its 40-year history as an independent radical voice for millions of communists, progressives and trade unionists.
The paper originated with Il Manifesto group, a current within the Italian Communist Party (PCI)at odds with the leadership over attitudes to the Soviet Eastern Bloc and new social movements that emerged out of the industrial and social upheaval of 1960s Italy.
A monthly journal of the same name was launched in 1969 by communist journalists Rossana Rossanda and Lucio Magri who by the end of 1969 were expelled from the party and who went to co-found in 1972, the PDUP (Partito di Unità Proletaria, or Proletarian Unity party),from which they agitated for an anti-capitalist agenda, though without pretences of being a ‘vanguard’.
As the PCI began swinging to the right in the 1970s with the infamous historic compromise with the Christian Democrats, the paper acted as the party’s left conscience. Later when the PCI, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, changed its name and formally abandoned the goal of socialism, il manifesto was highly critical. And the political expression of some of its founders, the PDUP, joined with others who remained committed to socialism to form a new party, Communist Refoundation.
The paper was not sectarian, though, seeking to promote debate and unity on the Left, which now includes another communist party, PdCI (Party of Italian Communists, a split from Communist Refoundation), those on the left within the centre-left Democrats, greens, and new (mostly) progressive political movements such as the Italy of Values of former Clean Hands magistrate Antonio di Pietro.
As to the paper itself, il manifesto has gained a reputation for its bitter and sarcastic headlines, often brilliant puns and clever choice of photographs. The satirical sketches of Vauro, one of Italy’s most famous cartoonists, have added to the wide respect for the paper across political lines. And for committed internationalists, the paper’s foreign pages are second to none, with exclusive coverage from a progressive perspective from correspondents across the globe. Among them is Giuliana Sgrena, the war correspondent who was kidnapped in Iraq and who after release revealed, in 2005, that the US had used white phosphorus and napalm in Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury.
Not just a paper
The paper isn’t the only il manifesto product. The co-operative owned by its journalists and readers has spawned a range of related publishing and media ventures: in 1972, they began book publishing, which in 1994 came under the Manifestolibri brand; music publishing kicked off in 1995, with most notably the release of a number of albums by the Roman rap group Assalti Frontali; and from 1998 they began translating and distributing an Italian version of the prestigious liberal left Le Monde Diplomatique. Furthermore, they have in different periods produced a number of magazines, including, the weekly Carta, launched in 1998 with social reportage and in-depth investigations, and the Revista del Manifesto, a monthly political journal. And their website today is a lively mix of news, blogs and mulitmedia content.
The paper doesn’t just do debate and ideas. It has been the promoter of several major demonstrations, including an event in Rome organised with Liberazione in 2007 to put pressure on the centre-Left government of the time to implement its electoral programme. This was a huge success with a million descending into the streets of the capital.
But now this critical voice and cultural reference point for Italy’s radical left is in grave danger of disappearing, leaving a huge void in a country dominated by the media empire of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Threat to media pluralism
The state fund at the heart of the paper’s problems is supposed to guarantee media plurality. And director Norma Rangeri is quite clear that the move to slash it – although part of a wider assault on public spending, welfare and public services – is a deliberate political act to silence opposition in the media to the current austerity and privatising policies that are devastating the lives of millions of Italians. But, as Valentino Parlato, the founder of the paper and head of the management board overseeing the co-operative, recognised at a press conference held yesterday the paper has also lost its edge recently and could do better.
Certainly, the removal as prime minister of scandal-ridden, billionaire Berlusconi, left the paper bereft of perfect target to satirise, pillory and campaign against. Competition hurt too: from Liberazione, launched in 1995; a revitalised l’Unità, the paper founded by Antonio Gramsci in 1924 that followed the Italian Communist Party in the 1990s and noughties to New Labour-style politics but has been revamped with a campaigning edge; and a largely progressive campaigning and sharply satirical daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, launched in September 2009. And, like other titles, the drop in ad revenues, a fall in sales – from 40-50,000 in the 1980s to around 20,000 today – and explosion of rival free sources of news, information and opinion on the web, did further damage.
To its great credit, the paper and its very modestly paid workforce (all on 1,300 euros net monthly) have been fighting like mad to avoid this moment. A staff of 107 in 2006 has been cut to 74 (of which 52 journalists). And half of these workers are now temporarily laid off. To save cash, unlike all other Italian dailies, il manifesto doesn’t print in full colour, although this means it has taken a hit on advertising. All this has seen it cut costs by 20% since 2008. It also increased the cover price.
Not yet given up the ghost
But it’s not been enough. So is it arrivederci for il manifesto? It seems inevitable when you consider as many as 100 national regional and local titles are currently at risk for closure and even the most robust newspapers are suffering. Yet, the paper has not yet given up the ghost.
Yesterday the newspaper issued a call for funds from readers and supporters around the country, but also their input on how to make it a more compelling read. And there are still efforts to get the Government to relent, and release some funds. So it is not impossible that by the time the liquidators arrive to look at the books, they may be some good news. And with it, the chances that an essential daily read for Italians seeking an alternative view of society will survive.
Il Manifesto press conference 9.2.2012