There is a crack that has opened all of a sudden between Silvio Berlusconi and his voters, between the prime minister's mythological image and reality.
It is nothing more than a crack, in a wall of consensus that is very high and very robust. But it is an important crack and one that is growing. It showed up in the European elections last month (the prime minister had announced that he would bag 45 per cent of the vote, he ended up with 35 per cent); it widened with the Church having to take a stand against his behaviour. What happens now?
For the first time, the prime minister is on the defensive. He has to operate according to an agenda that is not his and over which he has no control; he is feeling the pressure from the international media; and he is being forced to speak about his troubles every time he appears in public.
How come, our foreign friends ask us, Italy is not reacting like any other Western democracy? Why has the crack not become a chasm?
First of all, one might reply, the majority of Italians know nothing about the scrapes their leader has got himself into in the past few days. I think the English know more about his troubles than the Italians, for example, and come to mention it the Spanish and Germans too. In Italy, the television channels have done nothing to cover this affair, despite the fact that it revolves around sex, money and power, all ingredients that would interest their viewers.
You have to remember of course, that Berlusconi – as well as being the head of the government and the biggest party in the country – controls the entire universe of Italian television. He owns three private television channels, because he never felt duty-bound to get rid of them on entering politics; and the three public stations over which the party in power, whether left or right, has always exerted control. But the current monopoly of mainstream television is without precedent. It has led to the elimination of the modern agora, that public space for information and debate in which the delicate free market of consensus develops in the West.
Just consider the fact that 73 per cent of Italians (according to data from Censis research institute) made up their minds about who to vote for in the last elections through the television, and you have a concrete idea of what conflict of interest means.
The new element that the latest scandal has exposed is that the television monopoly does not only guarantee a favourable presentation of the prime minister, it can actually cancel out reality, prevent things from becoming part of the public consciousness. This week, the week of the escort tapes, six prime-time TV news bulletins did not let their viewers know what the Spanish, the English and the Germans were able to read about in their papers.
The Italian bulletins eventually include Berlusconi's exasperated reaction to the news, but without ever explaining what that news was, what he was reacting to. "I am not a saint," the prime minister said on Wednesday after the recordings of the night he spent at his home with the escort, Patrizia D'Addario, emerged. This headline finally made it on to TG1 (flagship news programme of the Rai state network) and TG5 (the main news programme of the Mediaset empire owned by Berlusconi) but their viewers had been told nothing about the tapes that prompted it.
In some senses, George Orwell has already said it all: "And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past', ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'" But there is something more subtle going on Italy. Fifteen years ago, the Left lost its cultural hegemony, that is to say the capacity to promote its values through cinema, television, glossy magazines, through the debate in newspapers and academic circles. The Right has become the ringmaster of the new hegemony and it is culture on a different scale.
The country no longer has a public opinion, capable of reacting autonomously or making spontaneous judgements. On the contrary, Italians are immersed in a "common understanding", which is something else altogether. It is Berlusconi who is the great architect of this "common understanding" and at the same time the interpreter of its success.
As far as the latest news is concerned, the new hegemony has imprisoned the opposition in a web, using tried and tested defences: the protection of privacy, the belittling of gossip, and a clear distinction between the professional and the personal.
But there is nothing private about a statesman who turned his own family photo album into a manifesto and sent it to 50 million Italians, who recounted his life story as the destiny of the nation. And there is nothing private about his wife Veronica Lario's denunciation that highlighted a general political problem: the trashy exchange of a young woman's favours for a place on the list of electoral candidates. There is, in short, a fundamental problem: Berlusconi has kept Italy in a state of high tension for 15 years. Using emotions is the most effective way of introducing a modern populism. This is a populism that asks citizens to mobilise, not so they can get involved in public debate, but so they can anoint the leader with their vote. He then thinks that he alone can solve the country's problems, with no need for the system of checks and balances typical of a modern state, that this direct coronation by the people makes his power neater and above all others.
In this state of permanent tension, you have the Berlusconian phalanx who don't want to know or hear about the troubles of the cavaliere (the knight), yet are engaged in a perennial defence of their leader. It's a story of a power that is very strong but has shaky foundations, a power ready to transform every criticism into "campaigning", "manoeuvring", even "plotting" and "subversion". A power which is curiously abusive and uncertain, as if it lacked an absolute legitimacy despite the consensus, a power which might be ready to destroy the temple to save itself from the ruins.
If – as Berlusconi said publicly this week – we are seeing an act of subversion at the heart of European democracy, what has the prime minister done to thwart it? What networks of persuasion, of threats, of blackmail have emerged in the past days around who knows, who saw, who participated? How does he use the secret services and the state security apparatus towards the witnesses who are recounting his troubles, the newspapers who are publishing their investigations and the magistrates who are prosecuting?
All this explains perhaps why the crack has not become a chasm. And yet, and yet, the smiling superficiality of a power that considered itself invulnerable has been broken. And all the while Berlusconi continues with his lies, faced with a series of questions that he doesn't know how to answer, because he can't.
Escortgate: Extracts from the sex tapes
Silvio: I'm going to take a shower too. And if you finish before me, wait for me on the big bed.
Patrizia: Which bed? Putin's?
Patrizia: Oh, how cute! The one with the curtains.
Patrizia: You know how long it's been since I had sex like I had with you tonight. It's several months, since I broke with my boyfriend.
Silvio: May I? You should have sex with yourself. You should touch yourself often.
THE MORNING AFTER
Silvio: Everything good?
Patrizia: Yes, you?
Silvio: Me, yes. I've worked a lot ... and I don't seem too tired.
Patrizia: Ah, me neither ... It's just my voice that's gone.
Silvio: Eh, how come? We didn't scream.
View from the streets 'I'm not that bothered'
Giordano Mastura, 50, a newsagent from Milan
"We all know what Berlusconi is like. He's so rich and powerful, he does what he likes. If this had happened anywhere else in Europe, the leader would have resigned by now. But he's a billionaire, he controls the media. It means that Italy's like a third-world country. I wish there was something positive to vote for, rather than just voting to get rid of him."
Fabio Vassallo, 33, a TV writer from Naples
"Setting aside my disgust... it seemed like a script from an Italian comedy – especially with the 'Putin's bed' stuff. I liked the soundtrack in the background playing the old Italian musical number 'Zoccole zoccole zoccole' – which in that song means 'rats' but can also mean 'whores'. It was just perfect. But I suppose it makes the country look like a joke, as well."
Claudio Bianco, 46, an optician from Milan
"I didn't even know about the tapes. I didn't see anything on the TV, but that's not a surprise as Berlusconi controls most of that. It's embarrassing for Italy... but even in the next election I don't think I'll vote. Getting rid of Berlusconi wouldn't change much for Italy because the left is so weak."
Giuseppe Flagella, 29, a travel agent from Foggia
"I don't think much of him, but the papers should pay more attention to other things. If he can get away with bribing people, why should he have to quit for what he does in his private life? People are more worried about jobs and finances than what he gets up to at night."
Enrico Dessiri, 30, a graphic designer from Turin
"The sex tapes are really amusing, but I don't think he should resign because of them. Why should he? Because of something he's done in his personal life? Absolutely not. He's not done anything illegal – lots of men his age, with his money, would do similar things. I think the reaction of some people is hypocritical. It's probably being used by his opponents as a way to attack him, because they've failed trying other things."
Silvia Cuoco, 46, waitress, from Milan
"I'm not that bothered about the sex tapes. Though I'm sure Berlusconi is – for someone like him it must be humiliating that everyone knows he has to pay for sex. Who cares what he does in his private life? I'm more concerned that he can't be prosecuted for more serious things, such as corruption, because of the immunity law. But he's also a hypocrite because he supports Family Day and he's against civil partnerships, but then he goes with prostitutes."
Elena Mereghetti, 35, a housewife from Milan
"Sure, all this stuff has damaged Italy's reputation abroad. But I don't think most Italians care. For us a sex scandal isn't such a big deal – even if some foreigners might find that a bit hard to believe. Here you don't quit if you're found guilty of corruption or association with the Mafia. We're fed up with the scandals about his private life. Tell us something we don't know."
Wally Pezzotta, 50, a teacher from Piacenza
"It has become embarrassing. Italy's seen as a joke. It's as if he's still on that cruise ship, flirting with the ladies. In fact he's only doing what he's always done – playing the clown. But come the next election, people will still vote for him because they're stupid, and because the opposition is so weak."
As told to Michael DayReuse content