Friday, July 18, 2003


There have been times over the last few years when it has been difficult to sell stories on conflict of interest. “No doubt terribly important in abstract terms,” sighs the editor. “But what does it matter in real terms to our readers?” Then he challenges, “Give me examples of how Mr. Berlusconi has profited or other people lost because of his position. Then let’s talk.”

These last two years have seen a few plums but now we are in the middle of a major harvest.

For starters, a month and a half ago, the government’s tax amnesty law (condono) put €162 million into Mediaset hands, mostly directly to the Berlusconi family. While they were not the only ones to benefit, last year Silvio Berlusconi himself had said that he would not even apply for the amnesty.

A month ago, the Prime Minister was given immunity from prosecution. The bill was rushed through Parliament so that he would not lose face by possibly being given a guilty verdict while sitting as European Union President. In theory, of course, there are four other beneficiaries of the law even if none are on trial at the moment.

The third, latest and biggest conflict of interest is directly beneficial to the Prime Minister.

The Gasparri Bill is being fought over in the Senate at the moment and, unless it undergoes major re-working when it returns to the Chamber, it will in practice protect the Prime Minister’s broadcasting empire from regulation and allow him to expand into other fields. The danger is primarily for freedom of information and secondly in the consolidation of Italy’s broadcasting cartel to the detriment of other players in broadcasting and print.

Minister of Communications, Alleanza Nazionale’s Maurizio Gasparri maintains that his bill will liberalise and regulate broadcasting and act as an anti-trust barrier in the field. Since about 1990, Italian media have been in increasing need of overall regulation, undergoing stopgap and sometimes contradictory legislation and Constitutional Court sentences. Despite its promise, the Gasparri bill does not fulfill its declared aims.

In practice, the areas where Mr. Berlusconi’s Mediaset is acting illegally or at least irregularly will become explicitly legal and the present anti-trust limits that prevent the extension of Mediaset will be expanded so that the Prime Minister’s company will have an even greater share of the market. As added extras, the bill also damages the print media and puts the public broadcaster (RAI) even more under government control.

No wonder there is a major demonstration planned for Tuesday 22 July in piazza Navona outside the Senate. It is the day of the final vote but also the anniversary of President Ciampi’s speech appealing for pluralism in the media.

Mediaset’s most immediate problem is how to keep its Rete4 on the ground. In 1994 the Constitutional Court declared that no single company could own more than two terrestrial channels. Last year they reiterated the decision that Rete4 should move onto satellite (90% of Italian television is analogue terrestrial so changing would mean losing most of the audience). Apart from being the home of the fawning Emilio Fede (who spends most of the news adoring Berlusconi, Mediaset’s precursor of Comical Ali), Rete4 has an audience share of over a million and is a good earner.

The bill would allow Rete4 to stay terrestrial.

The other main regulator, the 1997 Broadcasting Law (usually called the Maccanico after the then minister) caps the market share of publicity to 30%. By almost any calculation Mediaset is above that limit but each year has appealed and discussed the findings so has never had to sell any of its assets. The new bill reduces the share to 20% but vastly increases the definition of the “market.” Today, the “market” is made up of publicity, license fees and subscriptions to pay-TV. Tomorrow, when the law passes, it will include almost all media: print, books, cinema, public relations and promotional material as well. In practice, it will be a universe impossible to calculate. Nonetheless, the Mediaset CEO Fedele Confalonieri has reckoned that it is around €25-27 bn. and Mediaset’s turnover between €3.5 and €4 bn., meaning that, instead of slimming the company down, the new law will allow Mediaset to expand by another €1.5bn.

One and a half billion euros means they could take on the Sky publicity concession, they could buy an existing newspaper or found their own and, in addition, they could buy up any number or smaller local papers.

Mediaset could do this also thanks to the end of cross-ownership prohibition. At the moment a broadcaster cannot own a newspaper and vice versa. The new bill allows cross-ownership, in theory a liberalising measure. In practice, as Giovanni Sartori pointed out “big fish eat little ones, not the other way around” (Corriere della Sera 16/7). There are no newspapers big enough to go into the broadcasting business, but Mediaset can easily move into print.

These are the big battle lines, but on the edge of the conflict there is the dominance of television over print in Italy for publicity, above all, but also for audience and information. The new bill will consolidate RAI’s position even though it will be partially privatised. Salvatore Bragantini argues that it just strengthens the RAI-Mediaset duopoly (Corriere della Sera 9/7). Not surprisingly it has been Mediaset’s press office that has been busy at damage control over the last few days - they are very conscious that the bill is to their almost exclusive advantage, but do not want it to be presented as such.

Obviously the centre-left criticises the Gasparri bill, the Margherita’s Paolo Gentiloni states, “1990 to 2003 has been the story of an endless chase for a solution to the problem; now a highly concentrated market is being accepted.”

But others too are worried.

Enzo Cheli, President of the Communications Authority, said in his annual report last week that “pluralism in television was unsatisfactory”. He maintained that present legislation is ambiguous and that there is a need for “clear laws that respect the Constitution”. And the President of Italian Publishers’ Association, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo said, “This is a law that goes against the pluralism called for by the President and Speakers of the Parliament”.

It is another move towards the concentration of power and wealth in Italy and there are no prizes for guessing to whose advantage.

Contact James Walston at

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

The Berlusconi reality show

A week into Italy’s presidency of the EU, there are two fundamental keys to understanding Silvio Berlusconi’s disastrous debut on 2 July. The first is the personal, almost psychological insight that the explosion gave us. Here is a man who is unable to control his anger and pique, who is unable to take harsh criticism but has learnt that he can vent his anger less dangerously by covering it with a veneer of “humour”.

The second key is in the actual words which provoked Berlusconi’s insults. The brouhaha which followed the “Nazi” attack has nicely obfuscated the substance of Martin Schulz’s initial attack which covered a number of important issues both for Mr. Berlusconi personally and for Europe.

First, the events: on Wednesday 2 July, Mr. Berlusconi delivered the opening speech of the Italian presidency to the European Parliament. It was 11 pages long and covered the semester’s agenda. Almost all of it was predictable and uncontroversial: agreement in the Convention leading to the signature of a European Constitution; preparation for next year’s enlargement of the EU and planning for further enlargement; a major public works and infrastructure programme to relaunch the Union’s flagging economy; cooperation on security measures to combat terrorism and illegal immigration.

He did not go into detail about the constitution which would certainly have rubbed someone up the wrong way. He did not mention enlarging the EU to include Russia and Israel as he had before. Only the very vigilant noticed a couple of omissions which were more substantial; no reference to combating racism at the same time as illegal immigration and no mention of confiscation of criminals’ assets as part of the Union-wide justice deal. Both points were in previous EU policy statements.

One of the replies came from Martin Schulz, head of the European Socialist Party group at the EP. Schulz asked Mr. Berlusconi explicit questions on all these issues which are European problems certainly not just Italian ones. The language was tough but Parliamentary and the substance of the criticism was wholly relevant to the European Parliament.

Instead of replying to the criticism or avoiding the questions as most politicians do, Berlusconi went for the man, not the ball. The attack had been against Berlusconi’s political and judicial position and his statement of European objectives and was couched in Parliamentary language. The counterattack was personal and unparliamentary.

Now the whys.

First the personal side. In 1993 Berlusconi exploded with real anger when a foreign journalist pressed him at a press conference he was giving with Gianfranco Fini, then candidate for mayor of Rome. Since then he has kept his temper under control but only by smiling while he delivers the insult as he did last Wednesday. As CEO of Fininvest, as leader of Forza Italia and the House of Liberties and as Prime Minister, he is unused to being criticised and when someone dares, Berlusconi lashes out against the presumed lesè majesté. On top of this, he has little sense of function and role. If I swear at a motorist who tries to knock me off the road, it is maybe uncontrolled behaviour but acceptable for most people. If I swear at a student who is being provocative, that is wholly improper. It is wholly improper for the President of the EU to insult an MEP in the Parliament and then refuse to apologise. But Mr. Berlusconi still insists that he is the injured party.

On the substance side, the issues are serious. As Mario Pirani pointed out (Repubblica 4 July ‘03: 1&17) it was not only Schulz’s immunity taunts which maddened Berlusconi but the very clear questions about him and his allies. EU statements about controlling illegal immigration have always been accompanied by proposals for measures to curb racism. Berlusconi’s speech had no such reference while his Minister for Reforms, Umberto Bossi, has been making some very offensive remarks which would not be tolerated from Le Pen or Haider, let alone a member of the cabinet of the EU’s presidency.

Directly relevant to Berlusconi were the questions on EU cooperation over justice. Roberto Castelli, the Leghista Minister of Justice said in Il Giornale (30 June) that there was a “wide-ranging plot” against Berlusconi which included the proposals for cooperation on European justice: “the European arrest warrant, freezing and confiscation of goods belonging to physical or legal entities”. “It is not difficult,” Castelli added allusively, “to imagine which Italian company will be the first to be investigated.” He presumably meant Berlusconi’s Mediaset.

The underlying intentions behind the measures are to deal with cross-border crime both normal and political: mafia, drugs, money laundering and international terrorism. For Castelli and implicitly Berlusconi to think that all this fuss is just in order to get Mediaset is not so much paranoia as arrogance. But Berlusconi’s over-reaction and “Nazi” insult do show how close to bone Shulz went.

For the next 5 months and 3 weeks, Europe will be looking very carefully at any, but any, measure which might benefit the EU’s President and his companies.

If all this talk about conflict of interest and parliamentary insults bore you, go to the Italian presidency’s website where the really pressing issues are analysed and debated. There is a section called Vostre opinioni; given events in the first week, one might expect an interesting and heated exchange. No way. There is only one subject that you can express your opinion on - the burning issue which divides the continent - should there be a one euro note? Happily for decision-makers, the 2,730 who responded showed near consensus, 50.51% in favour, 47.69 against and the rest don’t know.

Next week:
“Now is the time to bury bad news… about news” or how to bounce through media reform when everyone is looking the other way.


God bless Silvio: why the left needs Berlusconi.


Scandals in politics: what is the Telekom Serbia scandal all about?
Welcome to the latest contribution to comment on Italian politics. The International Herald Tribune’s Italy Daily supplement provided a good forum for opinions on politics and much more and italpolblog will be at least a partial substitute.

For the moment at least we will not be able to provide ID’s summary of events but I hope that in the not too distant future we’ll have daily postings of political goings-on in the country. Until then, there will be weekly articles on current issues by me, James Walston, and others, both orphans from ID and new commentators.

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Thursday, July 03, 2003

Welcome to a forum for new insights to Italian politics with me, James Walston, a professor of international relations at the American University of Rome. Last month saw the end of Italy Weekly, published in conjunction with the International Herald Tribune, and now we have our first editorial comment in English on Italian politics on this blog.