A profile of Berlusconi: showman, shaman or worse?

On the eve of the G8 summit next week in L’Aquila – the city recently struck by a devastating earthquake – BBC Radio 4 chose Berlusconi as the subject of its weekly profile.  It’s worth listening to and produces quite a balanced picture (which might seem hard to achieve) although the conclusions are stark.

How can a man who inspires such embarrassing headlines around the world still lead his country?  But it’s more than gaffes and spectacularly ill-chosen words (in particular his remarks about Obama and telling homeless victims of the earthquake earlier this year that they should treat it like a “camping weekend”).  His business interests dominate Italian life in an unacceptable way: they include banks, magazines and newspapers, insurance companies, television stations and a football club.

“He’s like a Roman emperor who gave the people games even if he couldn’t give them bread: he’s always got a smile, he always wants to please. This man is a showman and a shaman, and he’s shameless and he’s a salesman,” says Dennis McShane, former minister of Europe.

However, Lucia Annunziata, Berlusconi’s sworn political enemy, admits that Forza Italia’s macho and sexist attitudes have paradoxically resulted in more women than ever becoming involved in Italian politics – many more hold office in Berlusconi’s government than their wishy-washy left-wing counterparts.  She says that there are more women than ever before in his party, and “they look good and they are funny, and people think that he has changed the Parliament for good”.

The above Youtube clip shows Lucia Annunziata’s famous 2006 clash (in mid election campaign) with Berlusconi on RAI television: even the comments show the extent to which this is still a deeply divisive subject (they continue to appear regularly every few hours!).

But although grassroots support in Italy still seems strong, the evidence against Berlusconi is mounting (the latest escort girl scandal may prove a turning point).  The Economist has long been an outspoken critic: in 2001 it claimed that Berlusconi was unfit to lead.   Having lost his libel suit against the magazine, Berlusconi re-christened it the “E-Communist”!  Thankfully The Economist continues to speak out clearly and voice its fears for Italy’s future.

Most seriously, a recent study (2009, Freedom House) revealed – conclusively, not anecdotedly as has been widely alleged for years – that press freedom in Italy has now been compromised and ranks as “partly free” (as shown on the map here).  This places the Italian press in the same category as Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and Turkey – among others.

Press freedom suffered in a number of Free media environments in 2008, as Israel, Italy, and Hong Kong all slipped into the Partly Free category […] as a result of threats to media independence and diversity. All three had already been placed in the lower ranks of the Free category, but their move into Partly Free illustrates that even democracies sometimes resort to placing restrictions on media freedom.

The study continues to note that in Western Europe, which “consistently boasted the highest level of press freedom worldwide”,

Italy slipped back into the Partly Free range thanks to the increased use of courts and libel laws to limit free speech, heightened physical and extralegal intimidation by both organized crime and far-right groups, and concerns over media ownership and influence. The return of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi to the premiership reawakened fears about the concentration of state-owned and private outlets under a single leader.

This seems to me to be most damning legacy of Berlusconi’s government and one that Italians ignore at their peril.