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Obituary: Franco Di Bella

Franco Di Bella, journalist: born Milan 19 January 1927; Editor, Corriere della Sera 1977-81; married (one son); died Milan 20 December 1997.

"I have only ever had three masters," Franco Di Bella liked to say, "my readers, my editors and my conscience." Unfortunately for those who lived through the tumultuous years when he was editor of Italy's foremost newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, there was however a fourth master: the head of the P2 Masonic Lodge, Licio Gelli, who successfully used the paper as a mouthpiece for his subversive, anti-democratic propaganda.

Although widely respected for much of his career as a journalist's journalist, Di Bella will nevertheless go down in history as the man who allowed a national institution to be corrupted by one of the most insidious plots of post-war Italy. The P2 recruited a secret army of industrialists, politicians, intellectuals and journalists intent on overthrowing democracy and installing an authoritarian right-wing regime that would once and for all banish the Communist spectre from Italian public life.

The plot came close to realisation in the turbulent late 1970s. This was the period of Red Brigades terrorism, of the kidnap and murder of the Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro, of a thousand and one intrigues and conspiracy theories, into which the Corriere allowed itself to be sucked.

The paper ran into financial trouble in the middle of the decade but found itself unable to raise bank loans because its then editor, Piero Ottone, was considered too hostile to the perennially powerful Christian Democrats. Corriere's proprietors, the publishing house Rizzoli, dug themselves out of their hole by striking a dirty deal with Gelli: he came up with the money, Ottone was fired, and the paper's editorial line shifted starkly to the right.

Di Bella, a faithful news editor and longtime crime reporter, was the man asked to step into the editor's chair and balance the conflicting editorial and proprietorial interests.

There followed a strange, alarming period in the newspaper's history. Baffling stories would appear on the front page one day, only to disappear the next (they are now believed to have been coded messages to and from various intelligence organisations). Strident editorials, particularly during the 55 days of the Moro kidnapping, would call for a suspension of democratic rights and the round-up of suspected leftist sympathisers on sight. An interview with Gelli that had been considered tendentious and dangerous by a number of senior editors suddenly appeared in print one day occupying a whole broadsheet page.

Di Bella's role in all this has been hotly contested. His friends argue he was compromised by his position and swayed emotionally by the murder of one of his journal- ists, but did his best to curb the worst of the excesses (preventing the firing of an anti- Masonic columnist, for example). But Di Bella was himself a full member of P2 (card number 1887) and never considered the path taken by many of his erstwhile colleagues - resignation.

When the P2 scandal was made public in 1981, Franco Di Bella was forced out and never worked in mainstream journalism again. Italy is a country with a considerable capacity for forgiveness, however, and the death notices that appeared over the weekend were universally sympathetic, barely mentioning the P2 scandal at all.