Friday, May 24, 2002

Biagi, Santoro, Luttazzi

This is long, boring, and political, but I must tell it because it is a key story, in many senses. It's significant, and it's important, and it's, well, impressive. It's part of why I'm keeping this blog.

First a bit of background.

Italy is one of the least literate countries in Europe. The vast majority of the population is made up of non-readers, and this means that the papers are read by a minority and the vast majority of citizens gets its news and its view of the world from the TV exclusively.

There are six major TV channels in Italy. Three are public, broadcasted from RAI - Radio Televisione Italiana. The board of directors of the RAI is chosen by the Parliament, so as to reflect a wider representation than the Government. The board of directors chooses the directors of the three channels - Rai1, Rai2, Rai3.

The other three are privately held. In the beginning, one of them, Rete4, was property of a great publishing concern, but soon enough all three - Italia1, Rete4, Canale5 - ended up being owned by an up and coming entrepreneur who had made his fortune in construction - Silvio Berlusconi.

Exactly how Berlusconi ended up as virtually the only private TV broadcaster in Italy is an interesting story, and introduces the new concept of ad personam laws passed for the good friends of the Prime Minister (at that time, Bettino Craxi), but it'll keep for another time.

The fact that the owner of half Italian TV could end up controlling the other half has created a lot of alarm and disapproval around the world, of course, but as I noted, the RAI is on paper controlled by the Parliament.

The board the Parliament finally elected, though, is suspiciously close to the Prime Minister, because, after all, he enjoys a large majority in Parliament. This majority does not reflect the actual balance of forces in Italy, but this also is another story.

So people are kinda worried that we may end up hearing one side of the story only. I mean, the whole of the broadcast media controlled by one side, that would look sort of a bit on the alarming side by many. But Berlusconi apparently doesn't see the problem. After all, he says, he's merely the owner of Mediaset, which controls the three private channels, he has nothing to do with the management. And besides, he loves freedom of expression. He'll guarantee for it. It's just partisanship, lies and aggression he won't stand for. He will personally guarantee that no opposition leader is subjected to the shameful attacks he had to endure...

That's right. Francesco Rutelli, head of the opposition coalition, will not be accused of owning three national TV networks. Piero Fassino, leader of the major opposition party DS, will never be accused of having bribed judges to decide a business deal in his favour, or the Financial Police to close an eye on book cooking. They will not have the fact that they employed a member of a Mafia family as their personal holster used to sort of imply that they might have not disapproved of his connections...

Because Berlusconi has been accused of all of the above, and more. And he isn't happy about it.

Now some of the people who accused him of these things are, unfortunately, state prosecutors, and he can't do much about them, because the Judiciary is, alas, a separate power. But he's working on it.

However, some people who don't wear a toga picked up these claims, and it is crystal clear for him that such people, repeating claims like this in public, are a threat to democracy. After all, the people voted for him. This means the approve of him. Therefore, anybody who critizise him goes against the will of the people and therefore democracy. This is dangerous and should not be tolerated.

Many of these concepts have been expounded upon by Berlusconi during a press conference in Bulgary, where he was on a state visit. He called these threats to democracy by name: Michele Santoro, Enzo Biagi, and Daniele Luttazzi. "They have made a criminal use of the public TV, which is paid for with the money of all of us. The management should not allow this to happen again." He was willing, as always, to be merciful: "It they will change their ways, I have nothing ad personam against them. But since they will not change..."

Who are Luttazzi, Biagi and Santoro?

Daniele Luttazzi is long gone from TV. Before the general election that gave the power to Berlusconi, he was the host of a talk show not terribly different from Letterman's, say. He would joke, with a surreal kind of humour that often tackled the crass with an unfazable unflappable demeanour, and would interview writers, actors, and generally interesting people.

One of this writer was Marco Travaglio, author of "The colour of money", a book on Berlusconi obtain by stitching together documents - all rigorously available to the public - from the various trials he's embroilered in. Apparently, it makes for chilling reading... but was passing unnoticed. Until Luttazzi gave it the only kind of publicity that counts in Italy - a passage in TV. There is a transcription of the interview here - unfortunately, in Italian.

The day after the programme, the book was sold out all over Italy. The publisher rushed several other print runs. The author was promptly sued. But it was Luttazzi that got most of the flak.

Commentators thundered. He was a comedian, how did he dare talk politics? It was libel (talking about the book, that is. Apparently the book itself didn't rate a libel suit before that). The following week, Luttazzi's programme was suspended, while the RAI management panicked. The berluscones were furious. Luttazzi had another few instalments programmed - and on the last, said goodbye to the public with a smirk and a "I have this feeling I won't work for RAI any more." He hasn't been heard of on TV ever since, and has had problems securing theaters to host him.

But few days afterwards, the author of the book - Marco Travaglio - was a guest on another programme, and this wasn't a comic variety show - this was serious stuff, one of the pillars of public TV - Michele Santoro's Sciuscia'.

Michele Santoro has long been a sore spot for Berlusconi. He affects not to know of him. Santoro has acquired the nickname "Michele chi?" because of this. He is certainly not a middle-of-the-road man. He has opinions and doesn't hide it. He is a provocateur. He is a clever, sometimes unpleasant, interviewer. But, since he thinks strong opinions and vigorous clashes make good ratings, he usually invites right-wing people (it was in his programme that I first witnessed the new communication strategy of Forza Italia, Berlusconi's party: to talk incessantly, over the other guy, repeating slogans ceaselessly and not responding in any way to what the other guy is actually saying, but simply ignoring him).

Michele Santoro invited Marco Travaglio and even showed the last interview with Paolo Borsellino, a few days before he was blown up with all of his escort in Via d'Amelio, in Palermo, in which he talked, among other things, about Berlusconi's mafia-affiliated holster.

A second, stronger storm hit Santoro after this. But he wasn't a random comedian with a short-term contract: he had high ratings, and a rock-solid contract, and was probably among the ten most celebrated TV personalities in Italy. This wasn't the first time they had tried to shut him up, and he was still there. He still is - as a matter of fact, the last scheduled broadcast of his programme goes on the air in a few hours today.

But if Santoro is a brazenly left-wing, controversial character, Enzo Biagi is the doyen of Italian journalists now that Montanelli is dead. (Montanelli is another doleful chapter in the long and painful story of Berlusconi's relationship with the press - he had been the director of a rabidly right-wing paper sponsored and paid for by Berlusconi, and had been more or less ousted because he had not approved of his entry into active politics). Enzo Biagi is an old - 82 - and thoroughly respected moderate journalist. He is everybody's stern and old-fashioned grandparent: very Catholic, very proper, socially conservative, politically spot on the middle of the spectrum. The champion of unsensational journalism, of English propriety. Enzo Biagi is the old school. And, as such, he has a deep suspicion for demagoguery and populism. That is, he's not a Berlusconi fan.

He has been a journalist with RAI for the past forty-two years. He has been there forever, and his programme, The Fact, which goes on air just after the main news of Italian television - TG1, the news of the First Channel - is nine times out of ten the highest-rating programme of the whole public networks.

He is scrupulous in how he conducts his programme. Each left-wing commentator must be balanced by a right-wing one. Sitting completely still at his desk, like a white turtle, he asks his question in a polite monotone. What has this champion of facts before opinions done to gain such wrath on himself?

He's invited Benigni, of course.

Benigni doesn't need Berlusconi to work and cannot therefore be threatened or intimidated. He doesn't scare easily, and he has the sharp, vicious, and irresistible humor of the Tuscans. A few days before the elections, he was asked by Biagi, on prime time on the major Italian tv channel, what he thought of Berlusconi, and he let fly. People laughed themselves silly. Berlusconi wasn't amused.

So there it is: a comedian who dared turn the spotlight on an unauthorised biography; a talk-show host who hosts Berlusconi's enemies ans asks rude questions; and a very proper journalist that dared make fun of him. They are all, according to Berlusconi, criminals. Among them, according to Berlusconi again, they made him lose 17 points at the elections - this in itself, one feels, is in his mind a crime.

After his Bulgaria press conference, there was turmoil and scandal. The opposition cried censorship. Santoro opened his next Sciuscia' by ambling around the studio humming "Bella Ciao" under his breath.

And I thought, and said: Santoro and Biagi are there and won't go. It's impossible to kick them out, they are too famous, too celebrated, too respectable. Disappearing them would smack too much of censorship - it can't be done. It's in bad taste on Santoro's part to hum that song, as if he too was threatened with death and torture as the Resistance fighters whose song it is were. He'll stay there and he knows it well, he's needed to provide a cover, a fig leaf over the wider censorship.

Santoro and Biagi are not in danger, I said, this is not intended to scare them. But the young journalist just signed in at a local RAI office? The writer just starting on in one of the great newspapers? They know, now, what can happen even to the greatest of their trade of they displease Berlusconi - this is intended to make people shut up of their own spontaneous will. This is to ensure that no other Santoro will grow up.

I was wrong.

The new management has been telling Santoro things. His programme is stale and boring. Yes, yes, he still has high ratings, but it's time for a change. Shift it to another day for a start, and then... well, RAI 2, his channel, is due to become a federal channel. They are more interested in entertainment than news or commentary. And his contract... well, nobody's actually irreplaceable.

As for Biagi, his contract is due to expire next December. His programme is due to be suspended for the usual summer pause on May the 30th. According to him, on the fall schedule there is no mention of him. He hasn't been told anything, despite having asked. He sits there and says: "I thought we had dealt with this people once and for all in 1944."

Do you see why I'm a bit nervous keeping this blog?

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