Italian media workers stir a wasp's nest

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The Independent Online
THE SENSATIONAL departure of the head of Italy's first channel television news this week has raised hopes for an end to political control of the airwaves.

Like much else in Italy, RAI, a rough equivalent of the BBC, is firmly in the hands of the political parties. They milk it not for money (though there are corruption investigations) but for lucrative jobs-for-the-boys and, above all, for propaganda purposes.

The first channel radio and television news programmes present events as the Christian Democrats would like them to be seen, the second channels reflect the Socialists' views, and the third - the newest - belong to the former Communists. Only they have given a broader and fairer picture of the news, and been rewarded with audiences that often rivalled those of the bigger channels.

But the political earthquake that is breaking up the old party system is also shaking RAI. After strikes, protests and a much- publicised vote of no-confidence by his journalists, and a threat by the best-known ones not to appear on the nation's screens at all until he went, Bruno Vespa, head of television's first channel news, finally resigned. There is ferment on the other channels too.

Mr Vespa, whose name means wasp in Italian, has been replaced by Albino Longhi, regarded as more independent but not new, since he had the job from 1982- 1987. 'We have still a long way to go,' sighs Lilli Gruber, a leader of the journalists' rebellion.

Anyone who relied entirely on the television first or second channels for news would be only dimly aware, for instance, of the remarkable advance of the Northern League, and even less informed about the reasons for it. Although it is the fourth biggest party, its leader, Umberto Bossi, is rarely seen or even mentioned, except in a negative context.

'They think that if they do not mention them they will go away,' complains Ms Gruber. 'It is so short-sighted. If a public service does not have a minimum of respect for democratic rules it is finished. We have got to be impartial, accurate, complete, we have to respect all points of view and all strata of society.'

Mr Vespa insists that he has rarely had phone calls from the Christian Democrats about his programmes. 'They don't need to phone,' retorts Lucio Cataldi, foreign editor of the second radio news. 'Just the fact of belonging to a certain side guarantees that you represent their interests.' Nevertheless, some of the 1,500 journalists are independent, such as Mr Cataldi himself - but they end up censoring themselves. The atmosphere at RAI resembles a wasp's nest and journalists with political labels who are now fighting for editorial freedom are being branded turncoats and opportunists.

Many people believe RAI needs a top-to-bottom reform but the embattled parties could never agree. The board, whose term of office has long since expired, is carrying on as a caretaker, unable to tackle the massive debt which threatens the corporation's future and that of bloated staff - 13,000 employees, many of them 'friends, acquaintainces, nephews, children and aunts' of politicians, as one journalist jokes.

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