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Italy: The Family Business

The Patrimonial Ambitions of Silvio B”

by Paul Ginsborg
New Left Review 21, May–June 2003


On January 26, 1994, Silvio Berlusconi—the country’s richest man, owner of a vast real estate, publishing, financial, and media empire—appeared simultaneously on the three private TV networks he owns and announced that he was founding a new political party and running for prime minister. Berlusconi’s sudden appearance in the living rooms of most Italians, commandeering the airwaves for what sounded like a presidential address, created the bizarre sensation that he was somehow already prime minister even though the campaign was just beginning. It began to seem inevitable that he would be elected, and he was.

Instead of creating a million jobs as he promised in his first campaign for prime minister, Berlusconi seemed more interested in taking over the state broadcasting system. As evidence of systematic bribery of officials and political payoffs by some of his companies emerged, Berlusconi began to dedicate much of his energies to trying to derail an investigation into his corrupt practices, including paying off judges in a civil case involving a corporate takeover. His fractious coalition fell apart; he was indicted on bribery charges and his government fell after only eight months.

Although he had to wait more than six years to return as prime minister, Berlusconi was not really out of power. His party, Forza Italia (Go, Italy!), a name taken from the soccer slogan chanted at Italy’s national soccer games, remained the largest party in parliament and he has continued to expand his power base, protecting his monopoly of television, weakening the Italian judiciary, and remaining Italy’s most visible, audible, and powerful politician, not least by personally employing thousands of Italians who help him achieve his political ambitions.

For example, fifty deputies elected to parliament on Berlusconi’s original Forza Italia list in 1994 worked for his advertising company, Publitalia, while dozens of others were employed by other Berlusconi companies or owed their livelihood to him in one way or another, working as lawyers, consultants, television stars, or journalists, or holding contracts as contributors to his vast network of newspapers, magazines, and TV stations. Those of Berlusconi’s associates who were at greatest risk of winding up in jail in the various investigations into his business dealings were elected to parliament so that they could enjoy immunity from arrest. Few of them, busy with their outside jobs, bothered to show up at the meetings of the national assembly—until their trials began, at which point they claimed they needed to attend every session of parliament as a way of dragging out court proceedings by years.

In his first government, Berlusconi appointed as minister of the budget Giulio Tremonti, his own corporate tax attorney, who drafted a law that gave Berlusconi’s companies a tax write-off of 250 billion lire (then about $150 million). The law was supposedly designed to encourage new investment, but Berlusconi’s company Fininvest—now called Mediaset—simply shifted its assets from one Berlusconi company to another. When the write-off was challenged, Tremonti insisted that it was entirely consistent with the law he had written.

All these people, in a country in which being a member of parliament is itself an extremely lucrative sinecure, are acutely aware of owing their good fortune to the generosity and power of the supreme leader. “To personalize the [2001] campaign Berlusconi insisted that his should be the only face on Forza Italia’s” campaign posters, Paul Ginsborg writes in his excellent new book, Italy and Its Discontents:

His face was everywhere—on huge roadside posters, in the atriums of railway stations, on election bunting running down whole streets, as in the popular quarters of Naples. Forza Italia candidates were instructed not to put their own faces on posters, but always that of their leader.

This was a radical change for a country which, after the fall of Fascism, had a fragmented political system in which the country’s several parties mattered more than personalities.

Although he vowed during the 2001 election campaign to address the conflicts of interest posed by his holding so much public and private power simultaneously, Berlusconi has steadfastly refused to divest himself of any part of his financial and media empire. Instead, he passed a law stating that “mere ownership” does not pose a conflict of interest with public office. Berlusconi then had his children run his television empire while his brother and wife own his two daily newspapers.

Berlusconi’s solution to the problem of being prime minister and a defendant in numerous criminal trials is to decriminalize many of the offenses of which he and his closest associates are accused. They include accounting fraud and illegally exporting capital. But he has also passed strict bank secrecy laws so that his codefendants could have courts exclude evidence uncovered by prosecutors of millions of dollars in bribes made by Berlusconi’s Mediaset group, which owns his television stations and magazines, among much else. Various mafia witnesses have testified about ties between Cosa Nostra and the Mediaset company. By way of response, Forza Italia has slashed benefits for the witness protection program and imposed limits on the use of mafia testimony.

Berlusconi has also endorsed judicial reforms that have literally doubled the time it takes to try criminal cases in Italy. As a result, many prosecutions have been canceled for having outlasted the statute of limitations, including cases on appeal in which Berlusconi himself was convicted at trial.

An opposition politician half-jokingly suggested last year that rather than tear apart the entire criminal justice system piece by piece for the sake of one defendant, why didn’t they just pass a law saying that the laws didn’t apply to Berlusconi and his friends? This is, in effect, what the Italian government did this summer when it passed a law that exempts Berlusconi and five other high-level members of his government from prosecution so long as they hold office.

These laws have been drafted by legislators who also serve as Berlusconi’s defense lawyers in his corruption trials in Milan. Berlusconi’s two chief lawyers are members of the Justice Commission of the Italian parliament, and one of them is its president. Thus in his corruption case Berlusconi’s lawyers fly from Rome to Milan to defend their client in court; then they fly back to Rome where, as members of parliament, they have helped write the legislation that has gotten their client off the hook.

Berlusconi owes much of his success to his near-total control of the Italian mass media, on which he often complains that he is the victim of a vicious witch hunt. Berlusconi’s three private channels have a 45 percent share of the television audience, equal to that of the three public channels, giving him direct or indirect control of 90 percent of Italian television. On his own networks, according to recent data from the Media Research Observatory at the University of Pavia, Berlusconi himself accounted for more than 40 percent of all statements by political figures and for between 15 and 20 percent on the state-owned networks. He thus has been quoted five times more than any other political figure. Moreover, he has been purging the state networks of the few journalists who have dared to criticize him on the air.

Earlier this summer, Berlusconi succeeded in pressuring the owners of the country’s largest and most authoritative newspaper, Corriere della Sera, to fire its editor. Although the paper is hardly opposed to Berlusconi—indeed it had already drifted notably to the right in order to adapt to the Berlusconi era—its editor, Ferruccio De Bortoli, continued to publish columnists who, from time to time, dared to criticize the prime minister. De Bortoli himself was sacked after he alluded, in an editorial, to pressures being brought to bear on him from the Berlusconi camp.


How did things reach this point? Several recent books published in Italy and overseas have tried to explain why Berlusconi has acquired such power. In his lively book The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones, a young British journalist who now lives in Parma, tends to see cheating, bending and breaking the rules, and the rule of the strong over the weak as endemic to Italian life—whether in politics or in the Italian soccer league, where, he writes, highly financed teams like Berlusconi’s AC Milan and the Agnelli family’s Juventus receive special treatment from referees. Jones’s firsthand narrative is fresh and lively and captures some of the contradictions of life under Berlusconi. But he tends, at times, to draw overbroad generalizations from his personal experience. Italy, he believes, is primarily a visual culture, particularly vulnerable to the seductions of Berlusconi’s videocracy. He also writes that Italians are especially obsessed with money, making them peculiarly vulnerable to the charms of a billionaire: “In the end it’s obvious that the nation’s richest man will become, almost subliminally, the country’s most seductive politician.” I am not sure Italians are more obsessed with wealth than other Europeans or Americans.

Jones also goes too far when he equates Berlusconi with Mussolini, writing that the principal difference between them is that one harangued the crowds from a stone balcony, the other from a TV studio. But Jones’s freewheeling style also allows him to state simple truths that some observers overlook. “By now,” he writes, “the most convincing explanation, albeit the most mundane, for Berlusconi’s political appeal is the simple fact that he controls three television channels.” For a while it became fashionable in Italy to dismiss as hopelessly simplistic the idea of television as the secret to Berlusconi’s power. But Jones writes, “Having a politician who owns three television channels turns any election into the equivalent of a football match in which one team kicks off with a three-goal advantage. Victory for the other side, even a draw, is extremely unlikely.” Still, Berlusconi lost an election in 1996 against Romano Prodi, despite his suffocating control over television. If owning all three private television stations gives Berlusconi only a one-goal advantage, that is still an unacceptable advantage in a democracy.

Paul Ginsborg, a British historian who teaches at the University of Florence, has a very different approach. A scholar with thirty years’ experience in Italy and the author of perhaps the best history of contemporary Italy in English or Italian, Ginsborg is a careful scholar whose left-of-center sympathies don’t prevent him from examining fairly the evidence he assembles. His book Italy and Its Discontents is both an attempt to update his earlier History of Contemporary Italy (published in 1990) as well as a broad meditation on the nature of Italian society. Italy and Its Discontents is a useful corrective to Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy, as well as to the temptation (for some writers, including this one) to see Berlusconi as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rolled into one.

Ginsborg is acutely aware of how much better off most Italians are than they were when the country lay in ruins at the end of Fascism, and not just materially. Italy soon became a country divided by the cold war, with a blocked political system. A Catholic party held power and a Communist Party was in permanent opposition. The polarized political situation and Italy’s chaotic and uneven economic development helped produce outbreaks of both right-wing and left-wing terrorism. Italy today is a prosperous, relatively well-educated society, in which a far greater proportion of the population has access to higher education, foreign travel, and diverse sources of information. Women, formerly subjugated in a patriarchal world heavily conditioned by the Catholic Church, have expanded their opportunities immeasurably. While acknowledging the “oligopolistic ownership of the mass media,” Ginsborg argues that too much emphasis on this

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