Heads up!

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Perhaps the only surprise when a statuette of a cathedral struck Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the side of the face on Sunday was that the man who launched it into the crisp Milan air had a history of mental problems and was not one of the millions of perfectly sane Italians who detest their premier.

Few democratic leaders have bred such strong contempt in a large section of their population as Berlusconi has in Italy. A banner at a protest against the Iraq War in Rome in 2003 was indicative of the hatred that has burned for the media-mogul-turned-politician throughout this decade: “Iraq, we’ll have Saddam if you take Berlusconi,” it read.

The physical attack on the 73-year-old prime minister resulted in a few scars that a bit more plastic surgery can fix but it also symbolized the dead-end to which this incessant rage against him has led. Despite opportunities to provide a credible alternative to his governments, the country’s center-left has failed to find the answers to Italy’s problems, many of which are similar to those of Greece, such as the need for widespread structural reforms. Despite the poor state of the economy, his embroilment with more women of questionable repute than Hugh Hefner and accusations of numerous corruption scandals, Berlusconi’s popularity rating remains just above 50 percent and many experts are predicting that sympathy after Sunday’s attack will help it to rise.

Although Italy is no stranger to violence being inflicted on its politicians, it has worked hard to eradicate this element from the country’s political life – the last assassination of a senior politician was in 1978. Berlusconi’s opponents are now caught between a rock and a hard alabaster souvenir as they have to continue chipping away at his surgically enhanced facade without letting their efforts be driven just by hate.

“This clearly shows the degradation of the political clash in Italy,” said Ezio Mauro, editor-in-chief of Rome’s La Repubblica, of Sunday’s attack on Berlusconi. The daily newspaper has been one of the few media outlets critical of the prime minister’s tenure in office. And herein lies the problem for Berlusconi’s opponents: His iron grip on the media hardly allows them the chance to get a word in.

The premier owns the largest Italian publishing house, Mondadori, and three private Mediaset TV channels. He also exercises influence over state TV Rai as most of the broadcaster’s executives are political appointees – the 73-year-old has actually said that it is “unacceptable” for Rai to criticize the government. All this has resulted in the independent watchdog Freedom House ranking Italy 73rd for press freedom along with Tonga (Greece is ranked 63rd) out of 195 countries worldwide.

Although Berlusconi’s colorful antics sometimes make him appear like the villain in an Austin Powers movie (Dr Feelgood perhaps), his supremacy is very real in Italy and absolutely relevant beyond the country’s borders.

A mere glance around the world confirms that the dividing lines between the media and politics are becoming increasingly blurred. While Berlusconi was getting whacked in the face, center-right candidate Sebastian Pinera was winning the first round of Chile’s presidential election. Pinera is a successful businessman who owns Chile’s fourth most popular TV channel, Chilevision, which serves up a visual diet of mostly gossip shows, soap operas and news. In Britain, the Conservative Party has come under attack for an alleged secret agreement it has struck with The Sun newspaper, the UK’s most-read daily. In return for the paper’s support in the runup to next year’s general election, the Conservatives have allegedly agreed to reduce state funding for the BBC and slash regulation of private broadcasters.

In Greece, the bonds between the media and the people who run the country are there for all to see – literally – as they have often resulted in the awarding of public works contracts. Now, Prime Minister George Papandreou says he wants the two sides to stand further apart and for there to be more transparency in their dealings.

During his time in opposition as PASOK leader, he often resisted pressure from the media until opinion polls began to swing in his favor and those that had wanted to hand the reins of the party over to someone else wasted no time in jumping on the Papandreou bandwagon. But showing the same fortitude in government will be a different story, especially when events take a turn for the worse and the last thing he’ll need is extra pressure from newspapers and TV channels.

As such, it was interesting to note that the issue of media influence was not among the topics discussed at a groundbreaking meeting on corruption and transparency between parliamentary party leaders on Tuesday. Perhaps it was just an oversight – for Greece’s sake, we should hope so because, as Berlusconi has shown in Italy, when the media and the political system fuse into one, it results in something more painful for the country than just a bloody nose.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 18, 2009.

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