Berlusconi consolidates his rule over the Italian air waves

The former prime minister is planning a ruthless media strategy for the next elections, writes Andrew Gumbel in Rome
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The Independent Online
Nobody knows when Italy's next general elections will be, but the campaign has already started and it is not a pretty sight. The mudslinging is not out on the stump, or even in parliament, but at the most sensitive point of a media-obsessed society - on television.

Turn on the box these days and in between the trashy game shows and Hollywood mini-series you witness examples of broadcasting that do not resemble programmes so much as a furious settling of political scores.

Television is both the forum and the main subject of debate. At heart, of course, is the power enjoyed by the former prime minister and television king Silvio Berlusconi, who not only owns the country's three private networks but is also extending his influence over the state broadcaster RAI. But to suggest that Mr Berlusconi's empire is even an issue is to stir up a political storm of rare intensity.

Any time RAI journalists try to complain about the increasing number of Berlusconi acolytes in key editorial positions, they are lambasted as left-wing propagandists. By the same token, any time those acolytes challenge the format or agenda of a RAI programme they are accused of political interference and censorship.

Communication is breaking down altogether. "It's getting harder to work under these conditions. The atmosphere has turned to civil war," said Lilli Gruber, anchorwoman on the RAI1 evening news.

An example. The other night the evening news on RAI3 gave generous space to the Northern League leader Umberto Bossi as he denounced Mr Berlusconi's empire as "an instrument with which to reconstruct the Fascist party".

Later that evening, on Mr Berlusconi's Canale 5, Mr Bossi's words were replayed, but with a subtitle across the bottom of the screen that said: "Any excuse will do to damage our liberty, and yours - think about it."

Canale 5 was then accused of producing an illicit political advert for Mr Berlusconi. Mr Berlusconi retorted that RAI was being held hostage by a minority of leftists who owed their careers to old-style party "clientelism". He accused certain RAI journalists of spreading "libel and insults" about him. And so it went on.

To the untrained eye, it can be hard to tell who is more outrageous, Mr Berlusconi or his detractors. But on closer inspection it turns out the left-wing "subversives" are some of the most respected journalists in the country. Not so long ago it would have seemed absurd to describe Enzo Biagi, one of the mildest political interviewers anywhere, as a left- wing "lackey" whose £400,000-a-year salary is a waste of taxpayers' money. Yet he is attacked in such terms almost daily. What is going on?

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Mr Berlusconi is using every weapon he can to win the hearts and minds of the nation's viewers, particularly now he is no longer prime minister and has to fight for his political future. Although Mr Berlusconi has never been directly responsible for nominations in public television, four of the five members of RAI's governing body are nevertheless supporters of his. So, too, are the directors and news directors of two of the three RAI channels.

Ten days ago RAI's governing body announced 50 new appointments in political and other news divisions, and has indicated it will make 70 more changes soon. Nearly all the new appointees are supporters either of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia or the far-right National Alliance.

Meanwhile, several serious news programmes have disappeared from RAI's schedule; those that survived have gone down-market to resemble Mr Berlusconi's private Fininvest channels. Many rank-and-file journalists are outraged. "We are no longer performing a public service. What we are seeing is a military occupation," Ms Gruber said. "Berlusconi promised at the last elections that he would not touch so much as a pot plant at the RAI. Well, the plants are the only things he has left alone.''

The main television journalists' union has passed unanimous votes of no-confidence in the news directors of both RAI 1 and RAI 2. It also successfully lobbied parliament into passing a motion of its own withdrawing confidence in RAI's governing body. And yet for the moment nothing has changed.

In frustration Ms Gruber and some of her more prominent colleagues have taken to the streets with an initiative called, "Licence-payer, raise your voice". They have organised rallies and meetings and collected more than 300,000 signatures demanding proper anti-trust legislation in the media and a review of the rules governing the RAI.

They have also compiled a dossier of what they see as political interference in news broadcasts over the past two months. Last week, for example, the National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini complained that RAI 1 had not sent out a crew to follow him on his trip to London and Paris. The very next day Mr Fini was featured prominently on the evening news and questioned by the most obsequious of interviewers.

The new RAI bosses argue that audiences are increasing, and that new appointments are necessary to weed out time-servers and political appointees left over from the bad old days of clientelism.

It is certainly true that most important jobs at the RAI were traditionally carved up along political lines. But in the Seventies and Eighties jobs were divided between the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Communists; now they seem to come from one political family only.

"The old system was feudal and abhorrent and I always attacked it. But at least competence was taken into consideration alongside party loyalty. Now competence is seen as an optional extra," Ms Gruber said.

With new parliamentary elections looming as early as June, Prime Minister Lamberto Dini's interim government has just drafted new legislation on political access to the media, banning malicious advertising and offering equal airtime to party leaders. But the new bill appears to please nobody and does nothing to address the fundamental issue of ownership - partly because Mr Dini's administration does not have the clout to push through such a measure.