In Italy, Farce or Tragedy?
This year, Berlusconi gave journalists plenty to work with, from his bickering with his wife to his bickering with the courts. But is he muffling Italian journalism at the same time?
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has long had a reputation as one of the world's most charismatic and irreverent politicians -- known for his grandiosity, absurd gaffes, and sustained devotion to la dolce vita. But we might look back on 2009 as the year when his behavior finally turned the corner into farce. The self-made billionaire, now in his third term at the helm of Europe's fourth-largest economy, landed smack in the center of sex and payoff scandals ludicrous even by his own opera buffa standards. There were Mafioso and mistresses and prostitutes and teenagers, nude photos and possibly orgies -- all dutifully reported by a riveted press. But 2009, there were also signs of that symbiotic media relationship heading awry, suggesting that soon, farce might become something more tragic.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has long had a reputation as one of the world’s most charismatic and irreverent politicians — known for his grandiosity, absurd gaffes, and sustained devotion to la dolce vita. But we might look back on 2009 as the year when his behavior finally turned the corner into farce. The self-made billionaire, now in his third term at the helm of Europe’s fourth-largest economy, landed smack in the center of sex and payoff scandals ludicrous even by his own opera buffa standards. There were Mafioso and mistresses and prostitutes and teenagers, nude photos and possibly orgies — all dutifully reported by a riveted press. But 2009, there were also signs of that symbiotic media relationship heading awry, suggesting that soon, farce might become something more tragic.
Berlusconi’s media saturation is reaching Britney Spears-type highs, his orange face plastered across newsstands from Rome to Beijing. Consider, for instance, the constant coverage of his three ongoing corruption trials. This month, a mafia strongman alleged that for years Berlusconi — who owns an enormous media, publishing, and financial conglomerate — had been the banker to the Sicilian mob. In February, David Mills, the former husband of a British parliamentarian, received 54 months in jail for accepting a $600,000 bribe to lie for Berlusconi in a court of law (a charge Il Cavaliere, as he is known in the Italian press, will have to answer). These travails ginned up hundreds of articles a month.
But in 2009, the bigger stories centered elsewhere in Berlusconi’s pants than his wallet. In April — just in time for the L’Aquila G-8 conference — Italy buzzed with the news that the prime minister had attended the 18th birthday party of an aspiring glamour model, Noemi Letizia. She later gave an interview revealing that she calls Berlusconi "papi" or "daddy" and said that he told her he would take care of her career.
This earned Berlusconi public reprimands from his wife and the Roman Catholic Church, further stoking the media fire. Veronica Lario, who has been married to Berlusconi for nearly 20 years, said she could no longer live with his "cavorting with minors." (A few months later the tabloids reported that advisers had encouraged him to seek treatment for sex addiction.) She filed for divorce, topping it off by publishing an open letter deriding his choice of buxom, young, unqualified women (for example, a Miss Italy contestant) for posts in the European parliament.
Berlusconi did not deign to correct the church, which published an editorial castigating his unbecoming behavior. But he did take to the press to bash his wife and offer a shrugging sort of apologia: "I am not a saint. You’ve all understood that."
This was just one of several such incidents. A few weeks after the glamour model/jilted wife brouhaha, the Spanish newspaper El Pais printed photographs of numerous women sunning themselves topless at Berlusconi’s mansion in Sardinia — along with former Czech Republic Prime Minister Mirek Topolank, who prefers sunbathing nude.
In the fall came the publication of Gradisca, Presidente — or Take Your Pleasure, Prime Minister, a book by a former high-end prostitute, Patrizia D’Addario. She reveals that she engaged in relations with the prime minister on the night of Barack Obama’s election and participated in, well, sexy parties at his residence as well. "I’d found myself in a harem," she wrote of one encounter. "He was on the couch and all of us, 20 girls, were at his disposition…. Having been an escort I thought I’d seen a few things, but this I’d never seen. 20 women for one man." In response, Berlusconi scoffed that he had brought a "new morality" to Italian politics. (Indeed.)
And the year ended with a bang. On Dec. 13, a mentally unstable man, Massimo Tartaglia, bashed Berlusconi’s face with a statuette of Milan’s cathedral during a meet-and-greet. Berlusconi — famously vain, the recipient of a face-lift, cosmetic surgery on his eyes, and hairplugs — broke his nose and some teeth, and spent a few days in the hospital after the attack. The press ate it up, publishing reports on everything from his condition to the brisk trade in the offending statuettes after the incident.
Of course, sordid behavior and media frenzies aren’t new for Berlusconi. What changed this year was that Berlusconi went on the offensive, biting back at the international press and even bringing in a legion of public-relations advisers to spin foreign media outlets.
For years, the prime minister has had a reputation for controlling the press he owns, and threatening and harassing news organizations that investigate or publish critical statements about him. Most famously, in 2008, he lost a libel battle to The Economist after it wrote that he was unfit for office. But as the press mania reached a fever pitch in 2009, Berlusconi’s harassment and meddling has increased in turn.
Uniquely in the Western world, the Italian prime minister controls much of his country’s media, through outright ownership of private outlets and through governmental oversight of state-run institutions. This means he personally is at the helm of at least half Italy’s television stations, as well as dozens of other news outlets and publishers. Italy watchers have noted that in this most outrageous year outlets owned or controlled by Berlusconi tended to go light on the prime minister — barely mentioning his divorce and the conditions preceding it, for instance.
Those Berlusconi does not directly control, he often threatened or sued — whether Italian or foreign. In 2009 alone, Berlusconi has filed cases against El Pais, Le Nouvel Observateur, La Repubblica (which only published a list of unanswered questions about Berlusconi’s affairs, not an investigation), and L’Unità (for $4.3 million). Berlusconi has also threatened to sue Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., saying that its negative coverage of him has its roots in a business dispute.
Furthermore, this spring, Berlusconi’s government hired a legion of journalists and media advisers to "bombard [the international press] with accurate and positive news." A government minister explained, "There’s an anti-Italian alliance in this country working against Italy, with the unique aim of discrediting and destroying the prime minister" — ignoring the fact that the prime minister discredits himself rather handily.
Again, as with all of Berlusconi’s behavior this year, the press manipulation itself is nothing new, but the scale is unprecedented. And it has many worried. This summer, Freedom House, a non-profit organization, downgraded Italy’s press status from "free" to "partly free" — making it the only Western European country save for Turkey with that classification. The group cited "the increased use of courts and libel laws to limit free speech, heightened physical and extralegal intimidation of journalists … and concerns over concentration of media ownership" as the reason.
And in October, the venerable organization Reporters Without Borders — which lobbies for the release of kidnapped journalists — announced that it was considering adding Berlusconi to its list of Predators of Press Freedom. "Not content with trying to impose a positive and upbeat coverage of his activities on the state-owned media and the media owned by his Mediaset press empire," the organization wrote, "Berlusconi is now trying to dictate the coverage of the independent Italian media and international media." He would join on the list, for instance, the leader of the Burmese military junta.
All of which paints the press farce in a more tragic light. Given the ostentatiously cavalier behavior of the prime minister — the court dates and the louche lifestyle, termed Berlusconismo in Italy — a fourth estate becomes particularly crucial. For, in Italy, what’s needed isn’t freedom to cover the prostitutes and the scandals more obsessively. It’s the freedom to cover without fear of recrimination the courts, editorial meddling, harassment, and failures of governance. With Berlusconi’s radioactively tanned fingers pulling all strings, it is difficult to find the farce very funny.
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