Berlusconi takes control

This is a guest post by Giulio D’Eramo

Italy’s state-owned broadcaster RAI withdrew its five RAISat channels from News Corp’s Sky Italia satellite platform this month. The news came just a week after the official launch of a new RAI-Mediaset cable platform (TivuSat) to see off competition from Sky. Mediaset is part of  Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire.

The General Confederation of Labour, the largest trade union in Italy, has commented that it is “bizarre that RAI is rejecting the economic certainty of a contract with Sky, especially in view of the reduced advertising income due to the economic downturn”. The National Federation of the Press stated: “We cannot avoid observing that the whole negotiation was marred by consistent and regular interventions by the government, and that the final outcome is the most favourable to the prime minister’s company. It is up to RAI’s executives to prove that the decision was not driven by Berlusconi’s personal interests”.

With many media analysts and politicians raising the same concerns, on 10 August the RAI General Director Masi —  who was nowhere to be found in the days following the withdrawal — claimed that the use of all RAI channels would have been a driving force for the Sky platform and that RAI would have been exposed to a potential multi-million loss in revenue once the RAI-Mediaset platform began working at full capacity.

In  Italy, anyone who owns a television has to pay a licence fee, as in the UK. It costs around 110 euros per year. In my own home in Rome, I don’t receive the analogue air-signal, so I became a Sky client years ago. Now I am in the peculiar situation of being obliged to pay 110 euros per year to RAI, while not enjoying any of the services. I am in fact being forced to switch from Sky to the RAI-Mediaset cable platform.
The whole situation was best summarised by Corriere della Sera’s media analyst A Grasso: “With the switchover to digital and pay-TV, the battle is not between Mediaset and RAI, but between Mediaset and Sky. And RAI seems to have decided to side with Mediaset.” However, it is RAI (ie the Italian taxpayer) and not Mediaset (ie the prime minister) that is set to bear the costs of this media war. Giuseppe Giulietti, spokesman for the freedom of speech organisation Articolo21 says “the creation of a RAI-Mediaset TV monopoly is now a reality. It may well be a coincidence, but the plans of the P2 (the infamous Masonic lodge that numbered Berlusconi and leading establishment figures amongst its members) included the creation of a monopolistic agency for information and the progressive dismantling of state TV.

Berlusconi now seems to be extending his control of Italian television. On 6 August, RAI named its new directors. Among the nominees, there is one who stands out as controversial and possibly not legitimate: the former director of Padania, the daily of Berlusconi’s allied party Lega Nord, is due to step in as vice-director of RAI1. However, RAI1 can only appoint an outside director if it is unable to find a suitable candidate within the organisation.

The main TV channels did not report the revelations about Berlusconi’s controversial sexual habits in detail, but chiefly broadcast comments from leading politicians. Only RAI3 (by far the smallest of RAI channels, especially in terms of budget) dared to take the risk of disturbing the PM’s holidays by reporting some of the taped conversations.            

Berlusconi made his annoyance known on 7 August:  “We no longer want nor can accept that our state TV is the only one in the world to criticise [its] government.”

The Union of RAI Journalists (USIGRAI) immediately replied: “We also think that we no longer want nor can accept that our state TV, paid for by each and every Italian family, is the only TV in the world to support the personal economical/political interests of our PM Silvio Berlusconi.”

The leader of Italy of Values (IdV) centrist party and former Milan prosecutor A Di Pietro added: “Only in the worst dictatorship does one expect the media to exercise self-censorship, and Berlusconi’s latest comments show us that this is the way we’re headed. The government has shifted from isolating single journalists to the exercise of  systematic psychological violence, which is known to be only one small step away from physical violence.”