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.