Orwell had it right. It is not enough to obey Big Brother. You must love him, too. On June 11, rejecting proposals for reform put to them in a referendum, the Italians allowed TV tycoon Silvio Berlusconi to keep his Fininvest empire, with its three television networks–watched by about half the national audience. In a fit of masochism, they also authorized Berlusconi to interrupt TV films or plays with an unlimited number of commercials. Finally, they voted for the partial privatization of Italy’s public television, the RAI.
Paradoxically, the way the verdict was reached showed how badly the proposed controls were needed. With the RAI–whose top leadership had been changed during Berlusconi’s stint in office–remaining neutral, Fininvest could mobilize all its resources m a fantastic propaganda campaign, running numerous spots and showcasing its top performers. The object was to persuade the Italians that should the reforms be carried out, they would be deprived of their favorite soap operas, game shows or sporting events. The real issue was the desirability of one media mogul wielding so much political power. The campaign confirmed the danger.
To describe the situation as Orwellian may be overdramatic. The Italians did not respond as one to the call. Normally very heavy voters, on this occasion they approached U.S. levels of abstention. Only 57 percent of those eligible went to the polls and roughly the same proportion voted in favor of Berlusconi. Considering the extraordinary propaganda effort, that showing is not too impressive. Besides, the referendum is not the end of the matter. The Italian Constitutional Court decided that no individual is entitled to own three networks at the same time, and Berlusconi is apparently negotiating some change in ownership. The day after his win, he claimed that for the sake of “clarity” he would divest the bulk of his shares. Rumor has it that a consortium headed by the Saudi Prince al-Walid bin Talal and including a German group and Time Warner as junior partners will purchase Fininvest, but no one seriously believes that Berlusconi will give up the controlling interest in the firm on which his political power rests.
In any event, the referendum has altered the situation. The parliamentary commission dealing with the monopolistic aspects of television is bound to be affected by the popular verdict. Above all, the political climate has changed. In mid-May, the regional elections having shown a clear swing to the left, Berlusconi’s position was threatened. He had lost the premiership the previous December, when he was deserted by Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League. And his leadership was being questioned by closer allies, including neo-Fascist Gianfranco Fini, who were pondering the wisdom of his tactics of virulent “anticommunism,” so obviously at odds with its target, the very moderate ex-Communist Democratic Party of the Left. Today, having demonstrated once again the power of his propaganda machine, he is back in charge, and is readying his coalition for a general election this fall.
For the left, it is a defeat self-inflicted. Its leading party, the P.D.S., did not fight this battle on the principle that so much power in the hands of one man is undemocratic. It could not because it was seeking a deal with Berlusconi almost to the very end. Thus, while one side was not fully mobilized, the other was in a perfect position to demonstrate the political power of television in our society. Yet the matter cannot be reduced to one of mistaken tacics. Berlusconi’s electoral victory last year was the outcome of some fifteen years of intellectual retreat by the left, during which the Italians were taught that private is beautiful, profit virtuous and money the only real criterion of achievement. To put it differently, it was the result of the ideological domination–hegemony, to use the right word in Gramsci’s country–of the right. Unless the left learns how to tackle the unlimited power of money and the commercialization of culture, even if it gains office it will merely make its contribution to our Orwellian future. Although it takes a specific form in Italy because of Berlusconi’s control of the media, the problem is not limited to that country, or indeed to that side of the Atlantic.