Profile: A slick show of force: Patricia Clough on the media mogul who is hoping to fill the power vacuum on Italy's right

Click to follow
ITALIANS are being wooed by an Image. An Image of dynamism, efficiency, decisiveness and experience which can banish the Communist menace and turn Italy into a clean, modern country based on profit, the free market, competition and family values. Vote for this Image, the message implies, and Italy can be efficient, successful and immensely rich.

The image is of Silvio Berlusconi, and it is very seductive. Is he not the great Italian success story - the entrepreneur who in 20 years worked his way up from nothing to become the richest man in the land and the head of one of the world's biggest media and publishing empires? Who better to sort out the mess left by decades of corrupt and inefficient politicians and achieve a 'new Italian miracle'?

The Image was launched on the country's television screens last week with all the skill the Berlusconi marketing and public relations wizards could muster. Viewers saw the great man at his desk

in a navy double-breasted suit, crisp shirt and dark tie, with his clean, American-style looks, short haircut and radiant smile. Behind him books, suggesting depth and culture, photographs of his children, the dominant tones warm and reassuring. Even, it is said,

a nylon stocking pulled over the camera to soften contours and erase wrinkles.

It was a pre-recorded videotape circulated to all television news channels. No press conference, with the danger of unpleasant or unexpected questions. No public audience which might heckle or react unpredictably.

Berlusconi has plunged into politics in much the same way he built up his empire. He spotted a gap in the market - in this case the absence on the shambolic right of an attractive, possibly unifying leader to counter the stronger left, and the desire among the public, after a surfeit of disastrous politics, for an energetic and experienced person to Get Things Done.

His aim identified, he set about achieving it with his typical passion and determination, setting up his political machine, Forza Italia (Come on, Italy), echoing the soccer fans' cry and also implying Italian strength.

It was this instinct that started him off in real estate in the late 1960s. The son of a bank director, qualified in law and architecture, he moved in when Italy's chaotic, unregulated post-war building boom was giving way to large- scale, planned estates and suburbs. The construction industry, comprising mostly small firms, was not geared for the change. Berlusconi had neither capital nor a building firm, but he raised cash, bought land, got plans accepted, built two satellite surburbs for Milan and sold them for a fortune.

His secret? According to a study by the Milan University architecture faculty, 'on the one hand, privileged relations with the financial world, on the other, privileged relations with some political figures'. Of which more later.

In the meantime he had become fascinated by television. In those days the state-owned RAI, a stodgy political tool of the ruling parties, had the nationwide broadcasting monopoly but the law said nothing about local stations - a state of affairs that spawned myriad commercial transmitters, many operating from people's kitchens. Berlusconi had 1,200, but ran them as one, sending videos all over the country by motorbike to be transmitted simultaneously, creating the illusion of a single channel.

He imported cheap American soaps, variety, old serials, winning viewers from the RAI channels by the million, and with them highly lucrative advertising. Now, he owns three of Italy's six nationwide channels and is known as Sua Emittenza - His Transmittance.

At the same time he is able to preside over one of the largest magazine and book publishing empires in Europe, the biggest publicity brokering firm and the biggest supermarket chain in the country, financial, insurance and real estate operations and, to top it all, the current soccer champions, AC Milan. Regulations that could limit his media power were not introduced until 1990 and even then seemed almost tailor-made for him - though he was forced to transfer ownership of his daily newspaper, Il Giornale Nuovo, to his brother, Paolo.

Unable to expand his television interests much further in Italy, he dreamed of a European, even a world, television empire. But here the Berlusconi magic was only partly successful. He was frozen out of Britain, where he had planned a Channel 5, reduced to a minority holding in France's La Cinq channel, but also holds stakes in Germany's TeleFunf and Spain's TeleCinco. Nevertheless, for this energetic 57-year-old, there is still time.

HIS SUCCESS has brought him the distinguished title of Cavaliere del Lavoro - Knight of Work - a government honour shared by the likes of Gianni Agnelli and Leopoldo Pirelli. His riches have brought him a tycoon's lifestyle, with his headquarters in an 18th- century villa outside Milan complete with indoor pool from which swimmers can watch all his channels at once on huge television screens, a collection of valuable paintings and its own chapel. Extrovert, gregarious and a great believer in 'human relations', he invites his senior staff to soirees where, in a throw-back to a youthful stint as a nightclub crooner, he is apt to burst into song.

The greatest accolade is to be invited to accompany him to watch Milan play. He forms tight friendships: some of his top executives are close friends from school or his nightclub days. He has a beautiful but self-effacing wife (his second), five children and a very Italian attachment to his extended family.

What drives Berlusconi, apart from his undoubted talents, is his ego. He sees himself as the saviour of his country and, in the months when he was seemingly making up his mind about entering politics, declared he was struggling with himself in the garden of Gethsemane, and hoping that the 'bitter chalice' would pass from him.

But why this venture into a very risky and unfamiliar field that could cost him dear in money and prestige? He says: 'I do not want to live in an illiberal country governed by immature forces and men closely linked to a politically and economically bankrupt past'. He means the former Communists.

Opponents say his motives are murkier. We know now that it has been virtually impossible for an Italian entrepreneur to do business in the public sphere without political friends and paying huge bribes. It could have been his radiant smile and personal charm that secured changes to regional development plans or which let him keep the virtual monopoly on nationwide commercial television. But Italians will need convincing.

How he built up his 'privileged relations' with the political and financial worlds is not clear. He was a close personal friend of Bettino Craxi, former Socialist prime minister and for a time the most powerful man in Italy. And then there was the small matter of his membership in the sinister P2, the secret masonic power network which he insists he joined only briefly under pressure from a friend. It has still made people wonder.

Berlusconi, unlike many other Italian captains of industry, has not been named in any corruption case, although his brother and some top executives have been notified they are under investigation. The election campaign may well prove uncomfortable: opponents are already demanding to know more about his highly secretive, tightly controlled businesses.

Now, with Craxi fallen and the last vestiges of the old system about to be swept away in the March elections, Berlusconi needs friends. Fininvest, his main company, is making losses and his debts are enormous - 4,300 trillion lire ( pounds 1.8bn). He will be looking for allies on the right wing of the political spectrum. He has already an understanding with the Northern League and earned the gratitude of the neo-Fascist National Alliance by coming out in support of their leader, Gianfranco Fini, during the Rome mayoral elections.

Achille Occhetto, leader of the PDS, the former Communists, has said that Berlusconi fills 'the vacuum left by Bettino Craxi'. Ottaviano Del Turco, the Socialist leader adapted the famous saying of Clausewitz, the German military theorist, that war is a continuation of politics by other means. For Berlusconi, he said, 'politics is a continuation of his professional interests by other means'.

Although he has relinquished his executive posts in his companies - which his opponents dismiss as a meaningless gesture - he still has huge advantages over any other political leader. He has drawn on the resources of his own companies - his executives, know-how and infrastructure - to set up Forza Italia and find local leaders and candidates. He has earmarked some pounds 3m for its initial costs, not counting the election campaign, while other groupings have to run on a shoestring. Il Giornale Nuovo backed his line - in the process losing its near-legendary editor, Indro Montanelli. His channels are churning out commercials for Forza Italia, although he has offered other political groupings huge discounts for theirs.

At the weekend this Ross Perot of Italy (though he sees himself as its Reagan) sets off by jet, helicopter and superbly equipped coach on his first campaign tour. His experts have told him what the people want; he will promise it. A hard act to beat - and yet . . .

Berlusconi the politician 'has an artificial quality, like plastic . . . (or) a clone created in a laboratory', the Corriere della Sera noted. His ideas 'are only cliches, accompanied by a poll result or a graph'. His campaign has the air of a decision taken at a board meeting - 'no warmth, no soul'.

Whether it works will be clear after polling closes on 28 March. Meanwhile it will doubtless be the slickest show in the land.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments