Emperor of the Air | The Nation


Emperor of the Air

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Various judicial authorities saw through the ruse and tried to shut down Berlusconi's operation. When the battle came to a head and Fininvest was threatened with a court-ordered blackout, Craxi, then prime minister, issued a special decree keeping Berlusconi's television stations on the air. Berlusconi's gratitude was expressed in several ways. He made Craxi the best man at his wedding to his second wife. And prosecutors in Milan have located at least $6 million that was moved from foreign bank accounts belonging to Fininvest to bank accounts in Tunisia they insist are controlled by Craxi.

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Alexander Stille
Alexander Stille is the author of Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian-Jewish Families Under Fascism (Penguin) and...

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During the eighties, attempts were made to introduce antitrust legislation threatening Berlusconi's holdings, but the initiatives were in each case blocked by Craxi's Socialists. In 1990 Parliament passed its first major television law; the final version of the bill appeared to be tailor-made to fit Berlusconi's interests. It established that no individual could own more than three national networks, the number Berlusconi happened to own. It contained two measures that created the appearance of sacrifice on Berlusconi's part. One forced him to give up most of his share of a pay-TV satellite network, while the other established that the owner of a national TV network could not also possess a national daily newspaper. Berlusconi got around the second by "selling" his daily newspaper, the conservative Il Giornale, to his brother, Paolo. (He sold off most of his stock in the satellite TV venture to a group of investors, to some of whom he actually lent money enabling them to make the purchase.)

But the real scandal of the so-called Mammi Law, named after Communications Minister Oscar Mammi, is that Berlusconi's company Fininvest had paid off the principal drafters of the legislation. In 1993 a government official acknowledged receiving a 10 billion lire bribe (approximately $8 million at the time) for Minister Mammi and his party. Mammi's legislative aide, David Giacolone, received a personal payment of more than $300,000--which Fininvest insists was a "consulting fee" but which magistrates consider a bribe.

By 1994, when Berlusconi decided to enter politics, prosecutors had begun to discover the trail of Fininvest bribes, and Berlusconi's political protectors were either in jail, under indictment or, like Craxi, had fled the country. "If I don't enter politics, they'll tear me to pieces," he told Indro Montanelli, the editor in chief of his paper Il Giornale. Montanelli was to become one of the first victims of the conflicts of interest created by the new hybrid creature, Berlusconi-politician. Sharing a basic conservative orientation with Montanelli, Berlusconi had left him free to run the newspaper, which Montanelli himself founded. But when Il Giornale refused to endorse Berlusconi as candidate the editor found himself under siege. First there were angry calls from Berlusconi himself--even though he had officially sold the paper to his brother. Then the anchorman of one of Berlusconi's TV networks actually called for Montanelli's resignation on the air. Finally, Berlusconi entered the newsroom and insisted on addressing the staff himself, berating them for their fainthearted support. Montanelli resigned in protest after the incident and a more pliant editor was hired.

In the election campaign Berlusconi showed how powerful the synergy of media and politics can be. His campaign manager, Marcello Dell'Utri, was the head of the advertising wing of Fininvest, a company called Pubblitalia. Dell'Utri used the sales staff of the company as his electoral machine and recruited a vast number of candidates from among Berlusconi employees, consultants and business partners. Some twenty new members of the Italian Parliament were people who depended directly on Berlusconi for their daily bread. Forza Italia became known as the partito-azienda, the "company party."

Berlusconi introduced a new level of media sophistication into Italian political life. He blanketed the airwaves with catchy, slickly produced commercials and was constantly present on every network. Moreover, the Fininvest network newsbroadcasts were virtually indistinguishable from advertisements. When handling the delicate issue of political bribery, Berlusconi network news broadcasters would actually read company press releases as if they were independently prepared newscasts. (One anchorwoman told me that she was yanked off the air and berated violently when, out of professional scruple, she added the words, "according to the company," to one of these press-release broadcasts.)

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