Italy’s freedom of press: Umberto Eco on why saying ‘No’ matters

To put Berlusconi’s “posturing” and veiled threats against the Italian press in context (in particular his recent response that it was time to “shut the mouths” of those who spoke of “crisis here and crisis there”, and that companies should withdraw advertising from newspapers that spread gloom), I think this article is worth reproducing in full.  It’s important to say “No”, even if you know it won’t change things! (if you prefer the Italian version it’s here)

Umberto Eco: The Enemy of Press Freedom (English version – trans. Vittoria Farallo)

It might be the pessimism that strikes in later years, it might be the clear-mindedness that age endows us with, but I feel a certain kind of hesitation mixed with scepticism that keeps me from intervening (at the request of the editorial office) in defence of freedom of press.

Allow me to explain: when someone has to take a stand in defence of freedom of press, it means that society (and also a large portion of the press) is already ailing. In democracies that we would define as “strong’, there’s no need to defend freedom of press because no one would even dream of limiting it. This is the first reason for my scepticism, followed by a series of others.

The Italian problem is not Silvio Berlusconi. History (dare I say from Catiline on) has been brimming over with adventurous men, who were not lacking charisma, who had a restricted sense of State but an extremely broad sense of their own advantage, who wanted to establish their own private power by clambering over parliaments, judiciaries and constitutions, distributing favours to their own courtiers and (at times) to their own courtesans, identifying their own pleasure with the interest of the community at large. But these men were not always successful in gaining the power they aspired because society itself did not allow them to. When society did allow them to, then why take it out on these men and not on the society that allowed them to do as they pleased?

I’ll always remember a story my mother used to tell me. When she was in her twenties, she had found a nice job as secretary and clerk-typist for an Honourable Member of the Liberal wing ? and I stress Liberal. The day following Mussolini’s rise to power, this man declared: “All in all, considering the state Italy is in, maybe this Man will find a way to put things back in order”. So, Fascism wasn’t established by Mussolini’s energy (excuse and opportunity), but by the indulgence and laxity of that Honourable Member of the Liberal wing (a fine representative for a country in the throes of strife).

So it’s no use to take it out on Berlusconi simply because he’s going about his own business, so to speak. The majority of Italians accept conflicts of interest, they accept city rounds, they accept the lodo Alfano (arbitration award) and now seem to have rather peacefully accepted (had the President of the Republic not lifted his brow) the muzzle that has been placed on the press (only experimentally for the time being).

The same country seems to have accepted without hesitation (but rather with a certain kind of mischievous connivance) that Berlusconi has his way with starlets, hadn’t the Roman Catholic Church now stepped in to perturb the public conscience with a cautious form of censorship. But this will be soon overcome since Italians, and good Christians in general, have been hiring hookers for ages despite the fact that their parish priests say it’s sinful.

So why should we dedicate an issue of ‘L’Espresso’ to these alarming events since we know that it will reach those who are already convinced about these risks in democracy, but will not be read by those who are willing to accept them insofar as they are not deprived of their share of “The Big Brother” (and very little is known about many of these political-sexual affairs since most of the media is under control and therefore doesn’t even mention it)?

So why even bother? The reason is very simple. In 1931 Fascism forced university professors (who were 1,200 at the time) to swear their loyalty to the regime. Only 12 of them (1%) refused and they lost their jobs. Some say they were 14, but this only goes to prove how the phenomenon went unnoticed at the time, leaving behind only vague recollections. Many others, who were to become prominent anti-Fascist figures during the post-war period, took the oath (Palmiro Togliatti and Benedetto Croce even went so far as to suggest they do so) in order to continue to spread their teachings. Perhaps the remaining 1,188 professors were right, for different reasons and all of which were honourable. But those 12 men who said ‘no’ saved the honour of the universities and, in conclusion, the honour of the country itself.

So that’s why it’s worthwhile to say ‘no’ at times even though, on the down side, it’s a well-known fact that it’s useless.

At least one day they might say that someone did say ‘no’.

Translated by Vittoria Farallo

(published 9 July 2009)

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