Not so long ago, the battle lines in Italy seemed so simple. The goodies were a fearless and resourceful judiciary battling against corruption in public life, while the baddies were the exponents of a rotten political class whose crimes appeared to be catching up with them.
No longer. To judge by a spectacular new scandal, as well as a spate of recent court cases, Italy's anti-corruption magistrates have lost much of their credibility with a public that only two or three years ago was lionising them as heroes.
The balance of power which briefly tipped in their favour in the early 1990s has swung firmly back into the hands of the allies of the man the Milan "Clean Hands" team have been vainly trying to nail for the past two years, the media tycoon turned politician Silvio Berlusconi.
The tangentopoli anti-corruption drive which toppled the old political order has long since run its course, and in its place has come a highly complex confrontation pitting magistrates against politicians, magistrates against other magistrates, and politicians against politicians.
The latest scandal, coming at the start of a general election campaign, is perhaps quintessential. Last Tuesday, the senior judge responsible for preliminary hearings in Rome, Renato Squillante, was slung in jail on charges that he accepted bribes from Mr Berlusconi's Fininvest empire in the late 1980s in exchange for favourable court judgments.
This was already the makings of political dynamite. Then it turned out that Mr Squillante's chief accuser was a recent girlfriend of Vittorio Dotti, the parliamentary floor leader of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
But then the obfuscation set in. Why were magistrates in Milan gunning for one of their colleagues in Rome? Was Mr Dotti really unconnected, as he claimed, to the revelations of his former companion, Stefania Ariosto, or were the charges against Judge Squillante merely a dirty piece of political scheming against a rival Berlusconi confidant, the former defence minister Cesare Previti?
Within a few days every aspect of the case had been deftly thrown into doubt by the Berlusconi camp. Mr Dotti was thrown out of Forza Italia as a traitor and forced to retire from politics after trying in vain to join the centre-left. Ms Ariosto was painted as a fantasist, a political groupie who had flirted with Mr Previti as well as Mr Dotti in the past. As for Mr Squillante, he was vigorously defended by a number of respected public figures.
Three years ago, such an affair would have quickly claimed multiple political victims. Now, however, it has sunk into a mire of polemical mud-slinging. And far from condemning Mr Berlusconi and his friends, voters appear to be ignoring the affair altogether, and indeed opinion polls show the centre-right alliance headed by Forza Italia edging ahead in public favour. This is a remarkable triumph for Mr Berlusconi, who was forced to resign as prime minister 16 months ago because of judicial problems. He is at present on trial for tax fraud; but these days the more judicial mud is thrown at him, the more sympathy he appears to attract.
How did the judiciary lose its teeth in so dramatic a fashion? Part of it is the fault of a legal system in which rhetoric often wins out over plain facts, not least because juries do not exist. Judges shoulder vast responsibilities on their own and are thus peculiarly vulnerable to the temptations of corruption.
Part of it is the fault of magistrates who have flirted dangerously with the dictates of party politics by investigating the activities of their colleagues. Antonio Di Pietro, the most famous member of the "Clean Hands" team who resigned in December 1994 complaining of political manipulation, has since been accused of accepting financial favours and abusing his position to help out friends. One by one the charges have been dropped; now the magistrate who has pursued him is himself under investigation.
The constitutional separation of politics and justice is becoming dangerously blurred in other ways too. Magistrates and judges are standing for parliament in next month's elections. Moreover, every tiniest act of the judiciary is now open for political scrutiny.
When the Independent reported recently on the failure by prosecutors to nail the serial killer known as the Monster of Florence, the Berlusconi family newspaper Il Giornale praised me for my supposed exposure of the rottenness of the judiciary as a whole. I had intended no point-scoring, but Il Giornale found it convenient to twist my article for its own purposes.
This in Italy is known as strumentalizzazione, the manipulation of people and information in the interests of power. Strumentalizzazione is now spreading in the Italian judiciary; as election time approaches, it risks seriously compromising the country as a whole.Reuse content