For years, backed by Mr De Benedetti, l'Espresso had attacked the corrupt and rotten political system that has now come crashing down. He too was an outsider, an industrialist who was above it all, a sharp and independent critic of the political establishment that detested him. Then, after denying that he had ever paid bribes, Mr De Benedetti went to the magistrates last week and confessed that Olivetti had paid nearly 20bn lire (pounds 8.9m), charging that the politicians had held him to ransom.
The news came as a shock to l'Espresso and the equally combative daily La Repubblica, of which he is also the major shareholder. And it was a gift to their opponents. 'No one, not even (Eugenio) Scalfari (editor of La Repubblica) can any longer claim the monopoly of truth, of public morality, of political correctness,' rejoiced l'Espresso's bitter rival, Panorama. As for l'Espresso, its credibility was 'zero'.
'He should not have authorised the payment. Not for any reason, not he who has always made transparency and respect for the rules his motto as entrepreneur and citizen,' wrote Claudio Rinaldi, l'Espresso's editor and a friend of Mr De Benedetti, in this week's edition. Its cover bears a huge caricature of Mr De Benedetti and the words 'Us and Him'.
'L'Espresso, the paper most consistently committed to denouncing the misdeeds of tangentopoli (the corruption scandals) has the duty to express this opinion as it has done about so many other industrialists involved in the scandals.'
Even more anguished were the outspoken questions put by l'Espresso's deputy editor, Giampaolo Pansa, in what was billed as a 'face to face' with its publisher, known as l'ingegnere (the engineer). 'Why did you do it?' Mr Pansa asked. 'We are asking you because you are the publisher and had a greater duty than others seeing that you are the main shareholder in newspapers who have not ceased to . . . fight political corruption.'
'Have these papers ever been asked by me to tread softly on this issue? No, and you know it,' was the reply, 'just as you know . . . about the infinite pressure that I was under from the political world to stop you writing what you were writing . . .'
'You should have denounced the parties' racket in your newspapers. Instead you were silent and inactive.'
'You did not know the infinite number of cases in which we did resist pressure. Far, far more numerous than those few in which we - rightly or wrongly - saw fit to give in . . .'
'You have not replied to my question. Why did you not denounce the political racket in your newspapers?'
'You want the truth? No one would have believed us. They would have said 'here is the Red Ingegnere accusing the government parties'. And no other entrepreneur would have joined in the denunciation. Don't you agree?'
'Many people think . . . you should give up.'
'I will give up my work at Olivetti the day I think I am no longer useful to Olivetti.'
An ironic and illuminating footnote was provided by Giorgio La Malfa, former leader of the Republican party which has been fighting for a clean-up of public morals. 'Why,' he asked in an interview with l'Espresso this week, 'did they (big industrialists) do it? They had the strength and means to start press campaigns and appeal to public opinion.' Mr La Malfa has since received notification he too is under investigation for receiving stolen funds.Reuse content