The Dumbing-Down Revolution will be Televised

The anomaly that is Italy– where a media mogul can have total control of the private and public television, print media and have friends filling in the abyss– is something that the rest of the world cannot fathom.

What if a Ted Turner or a Rupert Murdoch, who already controls public opinion globally, was head of his respective country? The irony is that one turns to Murdoch’s Sky for free information in Italy.

Laws that prevent a citizen of owning no more than three newspapers or a network owner to possess a newspaper in Italy have not thwarted Berlusconi. True, in attempts to camouflage his conflict of interest, he transferred his Milan A.C. and private Mediaset network empire (Canale 5, Italia 1, Rete 4 channels) to his son. His gave his Arnoldo Mondadori book publishing (including historic Einaudi) and Medusa film production to his daughter. And now she threatens to enter the political scene since there are many Mediaset trials that will continue with or without her father’s parliamentary immunity that he has created for himself, his lawyer and for ex-Mediaset directors who are also politicians.

The 74-year-old Italian leader

As a token concession to propriety, his brother is the official owner of the newspaper, Il Giornale while Berlusconi still retains a percentage. His suffering ex-wife, his politician and last year’s P3 coup conspirator, each own shares in Il Foglio newspaper, whose founder and editor, Giuliano Ferrara, receives government funding for being a party representative since he leads an anti-abortion party. Ferrara has now been given a nightly RAI 1 show after the nightly news since Berlusconi recycles and shuffles his employees, from Mediaset to RAI, from print to television, at will like chess pieces.

One cannot boycott Berlusconi by-products even if one tried.

From Banca Mediolanum, an insurance and banking holding company (1982) to the Standa market chain before he sold assets in 1998. European TV ventures albeit the short lived Cinq in France (1986-1992) and in Spain (Telecinco in 1988) caused him some legal woes and bad press to which Berlusconi dismissed as mere nationalistic resentment to a foreign investor.

Berlusconi has exclusive rights to American TV shows on his pay-per-view television networks, as well as soccer rights for all the great tournaments. For a man who professes liberal economics, his whole life is one of monopoly, of subverting free market competition, scheming with oligarchies, the ones who have always been the unseen powers of Italy, who collude, criticize him, and then retreat.

Before Berlusconi’s foray into media, he was a real estate developer who developed the Milano 2 suburb (corrupting local politicians to divert the plane paths of the nearby airport). Back then, the PSI (diluted Socialist Party) controlled Milan. His close ties with Bettino Craxi allowed for Berlusconi’s local Milan channel to go national with the private channel reforms in 1984.

Prior to that, there was state television RAI 1 (run by Christian Democrats), while RAI 2 (PSI) and RAI 3 (PCI – Communist Party which increased its role in the Transformismo) were hatched in the 1970s to give more pluralism on TV to political views. The partycracy continues to this day with different political actors, since each political party, no matter how small, has its own party newspaper funded by the government.

Unseen economic–cum-political forces were part of the Italian scene (and we’re not only talking about the many Mafie) as seen in the various strange conspiracies. There were always fears of golpes (coups) in the 1960s. The ridiculous notion of freemasonry was just ritualized folklore until Licio Gelli started Propaganda 2 (P2). Its main goal was to fight communism through the subversion of the rule of law, and to destroy the judiciary, the constitutional safeguards the magistrates uphold and State television through the control of the media and the censorship of journalists.

The P2 secret society’s members included many generals, members of the Italian secret service, and journalists inserted in key places — including the editor of Corriere della Sera and Maurizio Costanzo who left RAI to work with Mediaset, only to return to RAI, and whose wife, Maria De Filippi, who is host of many dumb Mediaset shows. There were also politicians such as Cicchitto who moved from the PSI to Berlusconi’s party, and in 1978 entrepreneurs like Silvio Berlusconi who claims he was enlisted in the P2 circle without his knowledge.

The birth of Forza Italia (now called the Freedom People’s Party – PDL), was co-founded in 1993 by Berlusconi’s friend and employee, Marcello Dell’Utri, who as an early Fininvest / Pubitalia director, provided a mafia henchman as bodyguard to Berlusconi’s children. Berlusconi’s entry into politics coincided with his mounting legal woes concerning bribery and corruption during Tangentopoli, translated as “Bribesville,” a term to describe the pervasive corruption in the Italian political system exposed in 1992-1996 during the Mani Pulite investigations.

The investigations cleaned out party corruption and decimated the DC and PSI, the latter party which Silvio depended on. Thus, RAI subsequently and slowly became re-configured with RAI 1 aligned with the governing party with its appointed directors, while RAI 2 was left in a party vacuum, and RAI 3 remained the last bastion of independence influenced by parties of the left (today’s PD).

In the 1980s, Canale 5 (Mediaset was then called Fininvest) started showing scantily dressed women and outright nudity, when RAI was losing viewers, attempted to copy this vision.

Berlusconi wrestled away the Mondadori publishing house in 1991 from bids by Carlo De Benedetti (Ex-Olivetti CEO and owner of Espresso-Repubblica, the nation’s third biggest media) by corrupting judges on appeal. The truth is that with Berlusconi, reality and news became intertwined, thus obfuscating reality and mirroring his own vision or dictates.

As a politician, Berlusconi passes laws for his own personal salvation but also anything that aides his personal empire. This is why he never mentions the economic crisis when he is in power, for fear his stocks will drop.

In recent times, his new enemy has been SKY, and as a politician he was passing satellite taxes affecting private stations not his own. Rupert Murdoch was singled out, since those pesky Conservative British newspapers dared to criticize Berlusconi, a treatment he was unaccustomed at home except from lefty papers. He called The Economist “Communist.”

Berlusconi has also found ways to do away with internal critique. He wrestled a classical liberal newspaper Il Giornale away from its founder, journalist Indro Montanelli who warned Italians about Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s monopolizing of print media jutted into a landscape filled with family-run media. La Stampa, run by the Agnelli family, ran an editorial line controlled by family interests (centered on the Fiat factory or the soccer team Juventus).

Corriere della Sera, owned by RCS Rizzoli, is the only other media group which competes with Mediaset in publishing, including the tabloid Oggi magazine which exposes Berlusconi’s sex scandals. The Corriere’s editorial line dithers on Berlusconi. Recently, Berlusconi’s party has planned to change laws so he can buy RCS as well.

Il Tempo is owned by an unknown construction magnate, run by the usual recycled Berlusconi employees, while Il Messagero is owned by the father-in-law of Cassini, a man of all seasons, leader of the UDC, who used to flank Berlusconi in the past and now is in Opposition.

Libero is technically owned by a health sector magnate Angelucci, but is always a repository for Ex-Giornale or Panorama editors that it is considered Berlusconi’s other paper. His news magazine Panorama completes the trifecta of Berlusconi editors who go on political talks shows to defend their owner next to PDL political bulldogs.

Editors of the right, critical of Berlusconi the Prime Minister, have been treated to a smear campaign (and blackmail if they were lucky).

When the editor of l’Avvenire, the official newspaper of bishops, criticized Berlusconi’s moral make-up when the first Noemi scandal surfaced, Il Giornale ran a story that this so-called family man was arrested for stalking a married man. This technique of collecting your enemy’s foibles by amassing dossiers would be called dossieraggio after this initial success.

When his ally ex-neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini was breaking away from the governing coalition, Berlusconi newspapers wrote character assassination stories, including mentioning presumed red light visits. Berlusconi’s intrepid journalists followed the trail of offshore accounts to ‘prove’ a mansion was misappropriated by Fini’s brother-in-law. When Fini’s lawyer proceeded with defamation lawsuits against Il Giornale, her column in another Berlusconi tabloid Chi was yanked.

Only few party papers, the above family-run newspapers, and the centre-left Espresso/Repubblica are not under Berlusconi’s control. Fiercely independent, Il Fatto Quotidano is the only newspaper which doesn’t have a magnate owner or receive government funds since it is not a party paper and solely relies on subscription to insure it remains free from any pressures.

Freedom House, an American organization ranking countries’ Freedom of Speech, ranks Italy in 2010 as partly free, the only nation in the West so classified, a rating which coincides and dips whenever Berlusconi is in power. Reporters Without Borders ranks Italy at number 49 behind Burkino Faso in 2010. Transparency International counts Italy as corrupt, ranking it 67TH on its 2010 corruption perception index.

But print media doesn’t count at all since Italy is infamous for not being a reading nation and this suits Berlusconi just fine. The hearts and minds are won via television and especially RAI 1’s nightly news where Italians used to get 70-80% of their news. Its director infamously omitted from newscasts the status of Berlusconi Mills’ trial or previous sex scandals. Fluff human interest stories fill in the 30 minutes when the director isn’t doing a monologue or interviewing il Foglio’s editor for seven minutes uninterrupted where these journalists act as Berlusconi mouthpieces. The soundbytes of Opposition leaders (when they are not muted or synthesized by the journalist’s voice-over) are dramatically less in proportion and in length while direct interviews are reserved for government politicians (PDL and Northern League).

The censorship of RAI has become unrelenting and ever more apparent in these last two years.

In the past, on behest of Berlusconi, the network yanked seasoned journalist Enzo Biagi as well as shows by comedians mocking Berlusconi. Journalists who conduct investigations on corruption have had their shows threatened with non-renewal such as Annozero, where Travaglio and satirist Vauro have been working this year without contracts and salaries.

Exiled from TV, comedian Sabina Guzzanti has a father who is a Berlusconi politician who has coined the term, mignottocrazia (slutcracy) for the showgirls enlisted as PDL candidates. A ministerial position was given to an ex-Miss Italy contestant with her own sexy calendar, Mara Carfagna, who became Equal Opportunities Minister, while at the local politics level, Nicole Minetti was promoted as councillor, a former dental hygienist-cum-model and part-time Madame, since she was procuring escorts to Berlusconi.

Berlusconi wants to pass custom-made laws on public service television. For example, if you were a politician, you can’t return to journalism on RAI — that would eliminate Annozero’s Santoro, RAI 1 anchors like Lilli Gruber who now passed to indie channel La 7 and David Sassoli, all EU deputies with the PD. In the past, you’d make a blacklist of undesirables to eliminate political opponents.

The wiretappings of conversations between Berlusconi and RAI directors show how the pressures work – to promote showgirls in RAI made-for-TV series (one mistress at least, and another two he’d unsuccessfully cast as candidates).This week another draft was presented by the PDL, claiming investigative political talk shows specifically on Tuesdays (targeting RAI 3’s Ballaro where a comedian mocks guest politicians) and Thursdays (targeting RAI 2’s Annozero) cannot do the same topic and must alternate HOSTS of different ideological colour (one week a right-wing host, next week, left-wing) while pro-Berlusconi RAI 1 shows remain untouched. These shows, even pro-Berlusconi ones for posterity, were pulled off the airwaves a month before the last election while Mediaset was allowed to show politicians that month.

Secret services, dossiers, purges, censorships harken to that dire time in the country’s history when Fascism’s Ministry of Popular Culture enforced censorship. Berlusconi’s friendships with dubious leaders and dictators (Putin, Belarus’ Lukashenko, Qaddafi) have made him diametrically opposed with EU policies.

Emilio Fede, the first RAI anchorman who joined Berlusconi’s Mediaset, is an ardent propagandist and Bunga Bunga buddy indicted for that pesky prostitution ring. Recently, he proclaimed on air, “Qaddafi will make it.”

I once read this succinct quote: “There are two types of Italians, those who work for Berlusconi and those who don’t.” And even anti-Berlusconi intellectuals work indirectly for him. Berlusconi owns a Dutch company which produces two intellectual talk shows on RAI 3. Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorrah is published by Mondadori, had a TV special with the talk show host delayed by RAI appointed director, was scolded by Berlusconi’s daughter when he said he admired judges in Milan. They are often denigrated by Il Giornale for biting the hand that feeds them by publishing their large salaries when in fact, they are paid accordingly by RAI since they have high ratings.

This multiple encroachment of many conflicts of interests is apparent to all but his voters. In a 1995 documentary following his foray in politics and win, showed Berlusconi relied on his own polling company. Whatever the electorate wants, the electorate gets, at least in the party program. That film showed him using psychological marketing tricks, such always appearing in his black tie with white polka dots to show stability which wasn’t ever in the lexicon of Italian Parliamentary politics. He later ditched the tie.

Berlusconi has successfully destroyed the RAI, not just content-wise but financially. Its advertisement revenue hurt due to the aging demographics of RAI viewers and the unlawful dismissals that were pursued by his appointees affect RAI’s coffers. His trashy Mediaset shows (shown by Telelatino and Rogers in Ontario) have been granted entry by the Canadian CRTC to further influence the Italian Diaspora vote (even though Harper threatens to remove Italian dual citizens the right to vote). While RAI International channel for the Diaspora, has censored and eliminated most of RAI 3’s programs.

But the Italian electorate, which he honed throughout the years, have turned to satellite, indie LA 7 which beats RAI 1’s nightly news and his arch-nemesis SKY, whose entry on Italian landscape he failed to impede at the EU. Many filmmakers critical of Berlusconi have Mediaset’s subsidy, Medusa, as producer, such as Gabriele Salvatores and Giuseppe Tornatore. Medusa bought restoring rights to great Italian film masters and commies, like Pasolini, Antonioni and Bertolucci, just as Berlusconi secured the rights to Gramsci’s books so they cannot be published anymore.

Besides the boobtube, his production houses create TV series and movies where the nasty judges get it wrong and create injustice such as Donna Detective (RAI 2007) where the detective’s innocent husband goes to jail and a Medusa movie, La vita é una meravigliosa cosa (2010), where the police wiretap and spy on common folk to create a perception of “intrusion of privacy.” News reports aren’t the only culprits of creating false realities. The media can dupe the unsophisticated viewer into sympathizing with his judicial persecution complex, and conveniently, Berlusconi can pass laws limiting the use of wiretappings that are used against him and the mafia at trials.

The concerted effort between RAI and Mediaset, print and airwaves cements this twilight zone of mass distraction. The alternate and altered reality, surreptitiously made of smoke and mirrors, has worked well for his party: Always accuse the other side of what you are accused of.

When Prodi was in power, Berlusconi’s papers would be overflowing with reports of immigrants raping and invading our shores. When Berlusconi is in power such fear mongering reports disappear until recently.

The journalist Indro Montanelli once stated, “Berlusconi is only a symptom.” Indeed, he capitalizes on Italian vices: tax evasion, self-aggrandizement, self-interested relativism.

Thirty years of Berlusconi TV, his own and imitators, in tandem with his 17 years of political activity, has massaged a generation of impressionable youngsters, with his lip service to promoting youth, at a time when the kids born after the Cold War era proved that that ideology is dead, démodé and LOST (name calling the opponents losers).

Yet, at the same time, they must be pathologically fearful that communists are amid us everywhere (RAI, the courts, universities, soccer referees, even Famiglia Cristiana magazine run by progressive priests). There is an initiative to pass laws about the Internet and Italian anti-Berlusconi Facebook groups have been censored whereby the persons who started these groups have had their accounts closed.

More than a subtle manufacturing of consent, the blatant truth seems not to detract his old and young supporters who fall for his populism. And like every regime, future turncoats will deny ever voting for him.

Mirella Bontempo is a Montreal-based freelancer, film critic, political historian and as well a food hotspot tracker