Early last month, at a political rally in Milan, Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was hit with a plaster statue by a man with a long record of mental problems. His injuries were minor, he suffered a broken nose and lost a lot of blood.
Following the violent attack, Berlusconi’s opponents took to social networking sites and “Kill Silvio” briefly became a popular Facebook group. Italian ministers blamed bloggers for creating a “climate of hatred” and made calls for tighter regulation. The government is now pushing for a bill that would restrict internet freedom by making it compulsory, even for blogs, to get a government permission before posting political comment on the web. Such a measure was first envisaged in August when the press revealed that prominent members of the Lega Nord party — part of Berlusconi’s ruling coalition — had created a Facebook group inciting Italians to >kill illegal immigrants.
Berlusconi is under attack from all sides: aside from the sex scandals that have undermined his popularity, he is working on new legislation after Lodo Alfano, the law Berlusconi created to give him legal immunity was struck down by Italy’s highest court on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Another blow has came from the civil courts: one of Berlusconi’s media holdings Fininvest has been ordered to pay €750m in damages to the owners of La Repubblica for bribing a judge set to decide which of the rival media groups had the right to buy Italy’s largest publishing company, Mondadori, now part of Berlusconi’s empire. Berlusconi’s legal woes are endless. In October the Italian court of appeal upheld the conviction of British lawyer David Mills who was found guilty of accepting a bribe in return for giving false evidence. Earlier in 2009 Mills had been sentenced to four and a half years after allegedly accepting payment of $600,000 in order to to testify in Berlusconi’s favour during two trials during the 1990s. Last but not least Berlusconi had been damaged by allegations made by a mafia turncoat that the prime minister had ties to the mob.
Internet campaigns and petitions against the prime minister have been highly successful. The last one — against a government bill intended to protect Berlusconi from some of the trials he is involved in, but which also has the highly undesirable effect of being a useful legal tool for Mafia bosses — was launched by Roberto Saviano, the internationally acclaimed author of Gomorrah, and has now reached the 500,000 signatures milestone. In a massive show of support for freedom of information, on 3 October hundreds of thousands of people joined demonstrations all over Italy. It was estimated that a quarter of a million people attended the march in Rome.
An outsider assuming that all this adds up to Berlusconi’s political end would be shocked to see just how well he is still doing in both political and economic terms. The prime minister is still in complete control of his political coalition. Over 80 per cent of Italians rely on television as their means of information, and all the major TV channels directly controlled by either Berlusconi’s family holdings and/or by the government. Noemi Letizia, the teenage girl whose friendship with Berlusconi prompted his wife to file for divorce is now an emerging TV star. Berlusconi’s media empire is stronger than ever despite relentless competition from Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV platform. This is partly thanks to the many measures taken by the government and by RAI State TV (which, unfortunately enough, is by law directly controlled by the government) to counteract the rise of the Australian tycoon.
Berlusconi’s Mediaset has sealed a €1.05 bn television deal with Spain’s Prisa (the publisher of El Pais newspaper) in a move that makes the group a true European-scale player. Mediaset, already Italy’s biggest TV broadcaster in terms of advertising sales, said its Telecinco unit will buy Prisa’s free-to-air channel Cuatro, which will give the group Spain’s largest audience share with about 23%.
From his bed in the hospital, Berlusconi’s first reaction to the violent attack on him was sincere shock: “Why do people hate me? I love everybody, I am the president of every Italian.”
As an early political opponent to Berlusconi (and former editor of one of his newspapers) used to say the problem with Berlusconi is that he believes his own fantasies. He’s always said that everybody should love him, and now we see that he really meant that. The newly-released documentary Videocracy shows that after 10 years of Berlusconi as a PM, thanks to the impressive media power at his disposal, Italians are now living in his imagined world. It’s a world without respect for woman, legality or financial accountability; which values only individual success, money. It sees the image as more important than the word.
When one man has such a complete control over his country, those who have different political views are given little space to express them through the media. As long as that leader feels loved by his citizens he will fight opposition by democratic means, but we should not forget that it is when a man is scared and feels reviled he is capable of resorting to the use of an undemocratic arsenal. What seems to be good news for Berlusconi’s opponents could easily turn bad.