Emperor of the Air
If you combined the political roles of Republican front-runner George W. Bush and Senate majority leader Trent Lott, the media power of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, the money of Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, and the real estate and personal arrogance of Donald Trump, you would begin to get an idea of how long a shadow Silvio Berlusconi casts over Italian public life.
It may seem incredible that the chief owner of the three largest private TV networks--and a huge print-media empire--could found his own political party, become prime minister, survive numerous criminal trials and convictions, and bounce back stronger than ever, but that is what has happened in Italy. In what is perhaps the most dramatic example of the confluence between media and politics anywhere in the world, Berlusconi is a kind of Citizen Kane on steroids and is now expanding his power on the European stage. In elections last June for the European Parliament, Berlusconi's Forza Italia ("Go, Italy!") became the largest Italian party in the legislature and, as head of the political opposition in Italy, is pushing hard for new national elections so that he can make his triumphal return as prime minister. At the same time, because of his massive media dominance, much of the Italian public remains blissfully unaware of the evidence being presented in numerous trials of Berlusconi and his closest associates on charges of political corruption, fraud and association with the Sicilian Mafia.
Berlusconi's three national TV networks, Canale 5, Rete 4 and Italia 1, control more than 90 percent of the television advertising revenue in the country and 45 percent of the audience. By entering politics, Berlusconi has effectively neutralized the other great television power, the state company RAI, since any investigation into his activities can be painted as being politically motivated. The two television groups together have a 90 percent audience share. "Since the state network is too timid to raise its voice, Berlusconi's 45 percent, in the political arena, feels more like 80 percent," says Giovanni Sartori, professor emeritus of political science at Columbia University and a longtime observer of the Italian political scene. "It is a situation without precedent in the Western world."
Television is only one part of Berlusconi's empire. His publishing conglomerate, Mondadori, is overwhelmingly the largest in the country, with more than 30 percent of the trade book market--more than twice the size of its nearest competitor. His magazine group includes Panorama, the biggest national newsweekly, and a raft of other women's and mass-market magazines whose position is roughly equivalent to that of S.I. Newhouse's Condé Nast. He has two daily newspapers, Il Giornale, the favorite of Italy's conservative classes and the fourth largest in the country, and Il Foglio, a smaller-circulation paper that serves as a kind of ideological Rottweiler, used to attack Berlusconi's enemies. His investment company, Mediolannum, is the Italian equivalent in scope to the investment firms Fidelity or Vanguard. His championship soccer team, Milan, has brought him, in a country where soccer is followed with almost religious devotion, more prominence and popularity than any property other than his television stations.
In the political realm, Berlusconi's Forza Italia holds 18 percent of the seats in Parliament and is the biggest party in the center-right opposition coalition, making Berlusconi the presumptive prime minister should the current center-left government falter. Members of Forza Italia know very well that they owe their cushy and well-paid positions to their leader, and--like the employees of his companies, which many of them already are--they fall into line when he raises his voice. Moreover, all the parties depend on Berlusconi's networks for airtime, the oxygen on which all contemporary democracies live. Politicians inimical to Berlusconi are almost invisible on his networks, while Berlusconi himself is the most visible figure on Italian TV--more so even than the elected prime minister or the president of the republic. Because Italy's state TV has a longstanding policy against running political advertisements, Berlusconi's three national networks give him a virtual monopoly on election ads. Thus while Forza Italia can advertise essentially for free on Berlusconi's networks, his political rivals are in the no-win situation of paying him or doing without TV ads entirely. "This is the only country in the world where the political parties must pay their political adversary in order to run an election campaign," says Giuseppe Giulietti, a communications expert and member of Parliament with the Left Democrats (Democratici di Sinistra), the main party of the center-left governing coalition.
In the June European Parliament elections, Forza Italia blitzed the nation with 803 national ads, about four times more than any other party. The center-left coalition ran exactly zero. Not surprisingly, the left suffered a near collapse, and Berlusconi's party, with 25 percent of the vote, won 22 seats in the European Parliament in Brussels. In the process, Forza Italia became the biggest political party in Italy.
The expansion of Berlusconi's political sway is fueling new media alliances across Europe; as in Italy, his political and economic interests are neatly dovetailing. Last year, Forza Italia was admitted to the European People's Party--the union of conservative European parties, which includes the Christian Democrats in Spain and Germany, the British Tories and France's Gaullists. At the same time, Berlusconi has struck numerous partnerships with conservative German TV magnate Leo Kirsch, who is close to the German Christian Democrats. Kirsch and Berlusconi have bought portions of each other's media empires in order to allow them to get around national antitrust laws in their own countries while retaining effective control. Together, Berlusconi and Kirsch own a television station, Telecinco, in Spain, where their political ally, the Christian Democrat José Maria Aznar, is in power. Spanish prosecutors have launched an investigation into Berlusconi's participation in the project, claiming that it violates Spanish law limiting foreign ownership of television networks to 25 percent. The prosecutors claim that Berlusconi skirted the law by bringing in a series of dummy investors, and that he actually controls 80 percent of the company and has defrauded the Spanish government out of about $40 million in taxes.