‘Il Cavaliere’ might be riding off into the sunset, but journalism in his neck of the woods seems likely to remain prone to political interference, writes Desmond Thompson.
Of all the countries in the EU, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked Italy bottom of the list in its 2010 Press Freedom Index. And it is the Italian media’s “lack of autonomy from politics” that earns the country the dubious distinction of being “the sick man of Europe”, as political scientist Chris Hanretty puts it in the 2010 book, Italy Today.
Since he swept to power in 1994, all fingers usually pointed to media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Back in 2004 already, Freedom House downgraded the Italian media from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’ due to his influence as Prime Minister over ‘public’ broadcaster, RAI. Six years later, the Washington-based NGO said that “conditions worsened” as Berlusconi “clashed with the press over coverage of his personal life, leading to lawsuits against both local and foreign news outlets as well as the censorship of critical content by the state-owned broadcaster”.
Berlusconi’s recent resignation on the back of a public debt crisis sparked hopes for a political rebirth in the country where he had been – at least to his critics – a stifling presence on the political scene for the past 17 years. However, the Italian media is likely to continue enjoying limited autonomy from politics – even without him in office.
Hanretty points out that “pressure from politicians predates Berlusconi’s entry into politics” and the media system “is afflicted by the same malady that affects Italy in general – a limited capacity for serious structural reform”.
American media scholar Stephen Ward points out that the liberal democratic conception of the role of journalism in society entails “protecting basic liberties and human rights, monitoring political institutions and representative officials, promoting rational deliberation and publishing important truths”.
The question is, does this understanding apply to the media in Italy?
Berlusconi’s nickname is ‘Il Cavaliere’ (The Knight), in reference to a knighthood that he received in 1977. To his critics, though, he was everything but a knight in shining armour as far as media freedom was concerned when he was helped to victory at the polls by a massive advertising campaign on his three television stations – Canale 5, Italia 1 and Rete 4. Together, they make up Mediaset, Italy’s largest private broadcaster.
His media ventures have turned Berlusconi into Italy’s richest man, with assets in excess of €8,7 billion (R95 billion), according to Forbes magazine. But it is not his wealth that irks his critics as much as it is the fact that his two roles – head of government and owner of hugely influential mass media outlets – constituted a conflict of interests.
He used the media he owns to pursue his own political agenda, and the problem with influencing public opinion in this way is that the media are supposed to be impartial – or are they? Yes, according to the globally dominant model of the media, but not necessarily when in Rome.
UK media scholar Jonathan Hardy points out in his 2008 book, Western Media Systems, that the ‘liberal’ or ‘Anglo-American’ model of the media is characterised by “a strong role for markets, limited government intervention, weak ties between the media and political groups, and a neutral, fact-based conception of journalistic professionalism”.
Now, this may be a noble idea, but it is not very practical if you are a struggling newspaper battling to survive because of limited income due to low circulation. And this is why, Hanretty argues, political interference in the media is part of a systemic malaise affecting Italy.
According to him and Hardy both, Italian newspapers historically found it difficult to make money, and so tended to depend on ‘subsidy’ from political actors. This led to the development of a system in which it is considered normal for political parties, churches, trade unions and the like to fund and control their own papers.
The positive spin on this is that it leads to a plurality of voices, which is argued to be healthy because it allows for the expression of a diversity of opinions. But this flies out the window when ownership of the media becomes concentrated, which inevitably results in a lack of alternate sources of opinion.
American media economist Robert Picard’s guideline for a system to be healthy is that the top four media companies in a particular country should not control more than half the market.
Ownership in Italy’s print media is highly concentrated. Two groups – neither linked to Berlusconi – have a 53,7% market share between them, Gruppo Editoriale l’Espresso and RCS Mediagroup. Another two, Il Sole 24 Ore and Caltagirone Editore, control 11,5% and 10,4% respectively. Combined, the top four players have a market share of 75,6%.
The concept of pluralism – at least in an ideal form – plays a major role in Italian broadcasting. After World War II, RAI was under control of the ruling Christian Democratic Party, but in the 1960s smaller parties started demanding a slice of the cake.
Each party was granted an area within RAI where it could impose its own vision. “The idea of a plurality of voices was initially appealing but ultimately led to the abandonment of any commitment to objectivity and the division of the broadcaster into competing spheres controlled by the parties: the phenomenon of lottizzazione,” Hanretty writes.
This entailed the division of the most powerful roles in RAI by agreement of various parties. They exercised control through individuals whom they designated on the basis of political characteristics, not technical ability.
This system was partly dismantled when the established political party system collapsed in 1992, but by that time Mediaset had made its debut, and the scene was set for what would in time become a “false parallelism” between it and RAI – both “now recognised not as neutral observers but as parties within politics itself,” Hanretty points out.
The argument went that “since the Mediaset channels were partisans in support of the centre-right, the RAI channel must perforce be agents of the left.” This has been the situation ever since – neither group is independent, with the result that neither group covers news objectively.
This may well be anathema to the more “information-oriented” journalism of the Anglo-American model, but Hardy points to an alternative “European” model in which “advocacy journalism” is acceptable because it gives voice to competing organised groups.
A study by German communication professor Wolfgang Donsbach in the 1990s found that 74% of Italian journalist favoured advocacy “where each news organisation tries to promote its own particular point of view”. This is not surprising. As Hanretty points out, Italian owners acquire media to push a political line in Italy, and therefore hire journalists to help create that line.
Politicians are not shy to use the media either, as we have seen with Berlusconi – and, let it not be forgotten, with Benito Mussolini, who was a political journalist and editor before becoming a Fascist dictator.
It seems when in Rome, political interference in the media is tolerated as long as everybody gets a chance to do it. This may please various political factions, but makes it hard for the media to fulfil the role of public watchdog with integrity. And unless it can do that, Italian journalism will continue to lack credibility.
* Thompson is doing his MPhil in Journalism at Stellenbosch University. He has 12 years’ experience in the media.