Italy: Berlusconi’s Media Playground?

Even before I ever began researching, writing, and comparing media systems around the world, I was familiar with the name Silvio Berlusconi. I knew him as Italy’s prime minister, and also as the billionaire media mogul. I did not know, however, that he and Rupert Murdoch used to be buddies, but are now rivals, or that Berlusconi is the co-owner of Endemol, the Dutch production company that brought us Big Brother (Osborne, 2007; Israely, 2009). Clearly, it would be futile to try to understand the landscape of Italian television today without Berlusconi.

But how did such degree of media concentration and power come about? I mean, Berlusconi did not just materialize from ether. He, like any other industrialist/politician, is the product of a political, social, and economic environment. At least that would be what author’s Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini would argue. They suggest, in Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics, that political institutions, beliefs, traditions, power-sharing agreements, economic variables, and the evolution of civil society influence the development of the media system. Their thesis, though similar to that espoused in Four Theories of the Press, is not as deterministic or as simple. That is, where Siebert, Peterson, and Schramn, the authors of of Four Theories of the Press, proposed four models — authoritarian, the liberal, the social responsibility, and the Soviet Totalitarian — to explain media behavior, and believed that differences between them were about philosophy,  Hallin and Mancini believe the picture is more complex. There are no ideal types, and the purpose of studying media comparatively should not be limited to pointing out failures. In other words, we should not expect media in different countries to follow a liberal model, which was the ideal for Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm. Instead, we should try to understand the key influences that make them different, and the layers of complexity that make them contradictory:

The Liberal Model enshrined in normative theory, based primarily on the American and to a somewhat lesser extent the British experience, has become so widely diffused around the worlds – partly, as Blanchard (1986) points out, as a result of campaign mounted by the U.S. government and press in the early years of the Cold War — that other conceptions of journalism often are not conceptualized clearly even by their own practitioners. Even within the United States, the normative ideal of the neutral independent watchdog leads to blind spots in journalists’ understanding of what they do […]. The gap between ideal and reality is far greater in countries such as Italy or Spain where journalists will express allegiance to the Liberal model of neutrality and objectivity, while the actual practice of journalism is deeply rooted in partisan advocacy traditions (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 13-14).

So, what key influences should we look at to try to unravel the Italian media system? According to Hallin and Mancini, we should look at (1) the development of media markets, (2) political parallelism, (3) the development of journalistic professionalism, and (4) degree and nature of state intervention.

Development of Media Markets

For Hallin and Mancini, this category describes when, how, and which types of media develop in a nation. For example, in the United States, newspapers “tend to be addressed to the mass public” (p. 22), whereas in Southern Europe, which includes Italy, they are usually geared to the elites. Some countries, furthermore, have a national media, while others have regional and local media.

Political Parallelism

The media, all claims to the contrary, is never truly impartial, or truly disengaged from political power. Hallin and Mancini explain this relationship through the variable of political parallelism, which they define as “the extent to which the different media reflect distinct political orientations in their news and current affair s reporting, and sometimes also the entertainment content” (p. 28).

Professionalism

This dimension refers to whether or not the media are autonomous. That is, whether or not the individuals that produce content for media organizations can work with relative lack of pressure from, either, owners, or the government. Professionalism also refers to the existence of ethical norms, which, in the case of broadcasting service, include the obligation to serve the public.

State Role

States shape the media system by enacting policies and regulations, by granting subsidies, and by protecting local media production from outside competition, among other tools. States can also intervene through outright ownership of the media, and through funding.

The Model at work in Italy: How did we get to Berlusconi?

Lets see how useful Hallin and Mancini’s model is to explain the Italian situation. First, the media in Italy did not develop as nation-wide markets. They were, and remained for the most part, local and regional in character. Furthermore, the press, and the media by extension, developed with strong party affiliations, with papers like L’Unita (Communist Party), Il Popolo (Christian Democrats), and l’Avanti (Socialists), and l’Ossevatore Romano, which is the official paper of the Catholic Church, and one of the most influential dailies in the country. Hiring practices in all of these outlets reflected ideological commitments. Moreover, fascism exacerbated the political affiliations of the press:

Under Fascism, of course, the media were expected to serve political ends – Mussolini was a journalist. And with the Liberation the first newspaper licenses went to anti-fascist political forces […]. The party press was extremely important in the immediate post liberation period (Hallin & Mancini, 100).

In terms of political parallelism, the practice of lottizzazione is prevalent, in public broadcasting (RAI) and commercial media (Hibberd, 2007). As in the UK, RAI was established by government charter, and given public service obligations. RAI also held a monopoly over broadcasting, which remained in effect until 1976 (Hibberd, 2004; 2007). The Christian Democratic Party was in control of policy, programming, and operations until 1963, when the Socialists began joining government coalitions, and were given roles in the direction of the institution.  The power sharing arrangement is known as lottizzazione.

Lottizzazione is a distinctive characteristic of the Italian media system, and it speaks to its level of professionalization and independence. It parcels out control over public broadcast media, among other public services, between different political forces. Lottizzazione, according to Padovani, determined not only how the RAI was carved up, but who would be hired to work there:

During the first decades of television broadcasting, journalists’ entry into RAI was determined by political and social homogeneity with the government party. In some cases the broadcaster itself trained its journalists, who were chosen from among young intellectuals, often in line with the dominant ideology of the time. Candidates were selected upon the recommendations of political leaders and friends of the director general and, only on rare occasions, they were selected from among the winners of national exams. Selection procedures, which consisted mostly of interviews, written and oral tests, and professional tests, were often fictitious, while determinant factors were personal and party connection and the “right recommendation (Padovani, 162).

Hibberd (2007) traces the institutionalization of Lottizzazione to around 1975, which was the year in which the Broadcasting Act divided the RAI into two networks:

The formation of two networks facilitated the creation of two broad ideological camps: the first for a Catholic culture and the second for a lay culture, with the result that the two camps were gradually subjected to political control. RAI was effectively partitioned along party lines running from the President (Socialist) and the Director General (Christian Democrat) down to the TV and radio networks, Raiuno (Christian Democrat) and Raidue (Socialist). Radio channels came under the sphere of influence of minor government parties (p. 885).

In terms of the role of the state, it is important to first understand how the state is organized to exercise power. Italy has enjoyed formal democracy since the mid 1800, when electoral laws were first introduced. These laws, however, only extended suffrage to landowners, and literate, male individuals. Universal male suffrage was established in 1913, and universal suffrage came about in 1946, which is when Italy became a Republic. In 1948, Italy adopted parlamentarism as a form of political organization of the government. Under parliamentary systems, voters elect the members of parliament, and they, in turn, elect the President, who holds ceremonial power. The president, in turn, names the Prime Minister, who holds executive power; he/she forms the government, by selecting the members of the Council of Ministers. The system, though modeled after British parlamentarism, has been notably unstable, as there have been at least 60 different governments since 1945 (US State Department, 2009).

As stated previously, RAI held a monopoly over broadcasting until 1976, when the Courts decided to allow commercial broadcasting based on the fact that “technical advances meant that television frequencies were no longer as scarce as they once were and commercial broadcasting could be permitted at a local level” (p. Hibberd, 2006, p. 886). However, the Courts left the system unregulated until the passage of the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The lack of regulation not only allowed for the proliferation of local channels, it also opened the door to Silvio Berlusconi, whose company, Fininvest, “gained gradual control of the commercial television market” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 886). By 1980, Berlusconi had almost achieved national coverage. By 1984, through acquisitions, he was RAI’s only national competitor. Though the Italian courts revoked his license that same year, Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi reopened them by decree. Since Craxi was a personal friend of Berlusconi’s, the decree known as the Berlusconi Decree is an obvious example of political clientelism (Hibberd, 2007).

Who is this guy? And why does he matter

Berlusconi is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Italy. He is a media mogul, and according to Forbes, he has more money than Rupert Murdoch (Forbes, 2009). Through his family’s holding company, Fininvest, he has controlling interests over Mediaset, the largest private media company in Italy, the AC Milan, Mondadori publishing, Il Giornale newspaper, and over 100 companies more. Foreign Policy magazine described him, in 2009, as “a master of legal maneuvering” who has managed to avoid jail for corruption, tax evasion, and embezzlement, and has been elected prime minister 3 times in spite of it all. His trials and tribulations involve a sex scandal, a high profile divorce, and ever-recurrent embezzlement allegations. Here is what BusinessWeek has to say about his latest brush with Italian law:

The latest probe, dubbed Mediatrade-Rti, is an offshoot of investigation that led to one of those trials. In that trial, the premier and others are accused of overpaying for rights to show U.S. movies on Berlusconi’s TV networks and pocketing the differences (D’Emilio, 2010).

What a guy, and what a system! Berlusconi, his critics say, exercises and incredible degree of control over Italian broadcasting. Hibberd points out that he has used his position to advance Mediaset’s interests, and to unermine the RAI. Hence, in this sense, “Berlusconis’s conflicts of interest are very real and are detrimental to the economic and cultural development of media in Italy.” However, Hibberd also indicates a measure of pluralism, as the system offers a wide array of media choices (2007). Consequently, he argues that it is too simplistic to blame everything on Berlusconi, or to accuse him of controlling 90% of Italian media. The problems, in fact, pre-date the controversial media mogul, as they may be linked to “the slow development of democratic norms and practices” which include “the lack of effective safeguards guaranteeing essential media freedoms” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 29).

Personally, I believe Berlusconi is a creature of his environment. He has benefited from the institutions, practices, and political arrangements that have plagued Italian politics since the early days of the unification of the peninsula. Since the problems are structural, you cannot expect them to go away by wishing them out, or even by jailing Berlusconi. Political systems and practices do not change overnight, and in Italy’s case, the lack of separation between public and private interests will keep the door open to further encroachment upon the public sphere. The Internet, apparently, is next on the list, as Berlusconi’s government is seeking control “over online video content and force anyone who regularly uploads videos to obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications” (Israely, 2009). The legislation will also require sites like Youtube and Dailymotion, as well as blogs and other online content providers, to screen video uploads for pornography and violence. Fines for non-compliance will range from about $210 to $210,000 should the law pass (Barry, 2010).

It will be interesting to see how this law, which some experts believe is a direct challenge to Google, plays out. Berlusconi’s government argues that they are only attempting to enforce the European Union directive “to set up media rules” (Barry, 2010), yet only the Italians have taken it as far.

Did anyone say China?

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