Emperor of the Air
In the five years since Berlusconi entered political life, no Italian television network, private or public, has aired a full examination of the Fininvest/Mafia connection, despite the existence of thousands of court documents and police wiretaps documenting it. The Italian people know far more about the US President's sexual relationship with a White House intern than the relationship of the most powerful man in Italy with the Mafia.
The situation persists despite a center-left government on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Forza Italia. "Every time we touch on the question of television or criminal justice, they go crazy," says Vincenzo Vita, Under-Secretary of Communications. "They have a very compact company party and we have a small and not very compact majority."
Nonetheless, Vita admits that "many people underestimated the importance of this issue." First and foremost is Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema. D'Alema calculated that the problem of conflict of interest was of secondary importance and made Berlusconi politically vulnerable, and might even be an advantage: A center-right coalition would be hobbled as long as it was led by a man who carried as much baggage as Berlusconi, with all his legal, financial and criminal justice problems.
D'Alema reached out to Berlusconi to initiate negotiations about electoral reform, which he feels is critical to stabilizing Italy's notoriously volatile shifts in political power. But, says Vittorio Foa, a member of the constituent assembly that founded the Italian republic in 1946 and a retired member of the Senate, "D'Alema proved too clever for his own good." Berlusconi dragged out the negotiations on electoral reform for three years, while gaining time and valuable concessions in the criminal justice and television arenas. He was able to refinance his company, renaming it Mediaset, getting new bank loans and selling shares to outside investors. Moreover, Berlusconi was able to prevent the arrest of trusted lieutenants such as Dell'Utri and to persuade D'Alema to make a number of changes in the criminal justice system that could be enormously beneficial to Mediaset.
After the recent European elections, Berlusconi declared that "since court sentences are read 'in the name of the Italian people,'" the Italian people had already spoken by making him the most popular politician in Italian history. Thanks to the support of approximately 25 percent of the Italian electorate, Berlusconi was insisting, essentially, that he was above the law. He likes to cite polls taken by his own polling company that show the mogul beating out Jesus Christ and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the figure most beloved of Italian children.
D'Alema and the center-left appear to have rediscovered the conflict-of-interest problem. "D'Alema has woken up," says Vita, his fellow party member. The government introduced legislation that would prohibit campaign advertising in the month before elections, establish equal-time requirements for television and block any political figure from owning substantial shares in a mass media company. Unfortunately, having allowed three years to lapse in which Berlusconi has continued to control 45 percent of the TV audience and 90 percent of the television advertising market, the center-left's new offensive appears to be more a response to its poor results in the European elections than an important battle of principle. Indeed, the center-right has already branded the measures "political revenge" for the left's recent defeat at the polls, and Berlusconi has labeled the legislation the "Save the Communists Decree." "Unfortunately, D'Alema and the left appear to be acting opportunistically--and they are," says Professor Sartori of Columbia, "but that doesn't diminish the validity of the issue." Through the fall, Berlusconi has been threatening parliamentary filibusters, popular demonstrations and a national referendum--well publicized, no doubt--to block any legislative initiatives on conflicts of interest or restrictions on the political use of television.
As for Berlusconi trying to direct European media policy, Walter Veltroni, secretary of Italy's Left Democrats, said: "We have had this embarrassment in Italy--of having the head of a political party deciding policy of the media of which he is owner--and now we have exported it to the European level.