One of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group’s regular election observers was in Italy for the general election on 13th May, 2001. He saw no evidence of fraud and no substantial allegations of it were made. This election saw efforts by the foreign media to influence the outcome.
The media versus democracy?
One of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group’s regular election observers was in Italy for the general election on 13th May, 2001. There was widespread chaos towards the close of the poll, as many more eligible voters appeared at polling stations than had been expected by the officials of the Ministry of the Interior. Despite this, he saw no evidence of fraud and no substantial allegations of it were made. The election was also controversial because of efforts by the foreign media to influence the outcome. Not since 1948, when the young CIA strained every muscle to prevent a Communist victory at the polls, had Italian voters been subject to so much pressure from abroad to discourage them from voting for a change of regime, in this case from a government led by the reform-Communists to one from the centre-right. Below, the Group’s rapporteur considers the role of the media as the main issue of the Italian elections.
Italy versus the World, or at least its media
“I don’t think we’re arrogant. We’re a Marxist-style collective really – we’re the most pro-free market collective ever invented. Globalisation is here to stay and we are the house magazine of globalisation.”
Bill Emmott, Editor in chief of The Economist and critic of Silvio Berlusconi
On 13th May 2001, Italy held elections to both houses of parliament and to several large municipalities. The election represented a considerable advance in the quality of Italian democracy, to the extent that two large multi-party blocs, each with its own clearly designated candidate for prime minister and clearly defined political programme, confronted one another. This was an improvement on the old system, where the voters voted but found that leadership and policy of the national government was decided behind closed doors after the election, and where the leader was frequently changed in the middle of a parliamentary term. Indeed, the victory of the Berlusconi coalition in these elections can be seen as a first in Italian democracy, to the extent that it is the first time that one political government has been thrown out at an election and replaced by a political government of the opposite political complexion. (The 1994 and 1996 elections, which brought to power, respectively, a right-wing and a left-wing government, came after periods of “technical” government.)
Despite these democratic advances, the world’s media made extraordinary efforts to present the election as the beginning of the end of Italian democracy. Indeed, CNN and other international media over-egged the pudding by repeatedly reported Italy was heading for its 58th since 1945, while omitting to comment on the fact that Italian politics has shown a marked increase in stability since electoral reform promoted a largely first-past-the-post electoral system after Silvio Berlusconi won the 1994 general election. The media campaign alleging that Italian democracy was in danger was launched simultaneously in various high-profile if little-read journals in Britain, France and the United States against the leader of the Italian right, Silvio Berlusconi. Mr. Berlusconi may be by far and away Italy’s leading media magnate but on a global scale he was definitely outgunned by the united international media onslaught. Given these foreign television news stations’ and newspapers’ ability to overlook or even endorse candidates in other countries accused of worse crimes than Mr. Berlusconi, their vociferous attacks on him raised serious doubt about the objectivity of these organs.
Australians have the term “beat up” for a media onslaught on an individual. Given the fact that the BHHRG has observed many other apparently similar unanimous assaults on the reputations of foreign politicians out of favour with influential politico-commercial conglomerates, it is to be feared that the political bias demonstrated by the media in the run-up to the poll may be used subsequently as an instrument to force the hand of, or even destroy, the Berlusconi government now that it has been elected.
The opening shot in this campaign was fired by the would-be global British weekly magazine, The Economist, which carried a cover story in its edition of 28th April – 4th May 2001 entitled “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy.” It concluded that it would be “a dark day for Italian democracy and the rule of law” if Mr. Berlusconi were to win, which he eventually did. The Economist showed little sense of its past fallibility when endorsing politicians whom others would regard as corrupt, tyrannical or both!
In reality, democracy may be much more at risk when journals which have the ear of those in power in key countries (or who, perhaps even more alarmingly, echo what those in power tell them) seek to dictate from abroad the outcome of an election by intimidating voters into believing that their country will be isolated if they vote for a particular party. It is certainly a dark day for the rule of law when a magazine which pretends to be the guardian of decency does not observe the elementary principle that a man is innocent until proved guilty.
Instead of respecting this, The Economist and the other papers which joined in the attacks did everything to confuse in the reader’s mind the all-important distinction between an accusation and a conviction. Silvio Berlusconi has been the object of judicial investigations ever since he became prime minister for a few months in 1994. Although none of the investigations has led to a conviction, The Economist did everything to imply that there was guilt where none had been proved. It also did everything to insinuate that acquittals for crimes committed beyond the statute of limitations were somehow not acquittals. It is odd that a magazine like The Economist thinks that it knows better than the Italian political and legal system what the law is in Italy.
The Economist used a weasel phrase to achieve its aim of smearing Berlusconi to describe one trial concerning the alleged illegal financing of a political party: “the court did not find him innocent”. What the court ruled, by the magazine’s own admission, was that no conviction for the alleged crime could be obtained because of the statute of limitations. Yet a failure to convict, for whatever reason, is an acquittal and the defendant is innocent. Statues of limitations are perfectly normal in many legal systems, including for far more serious charges like murder. They function as one of the many procedural safeguards for the defendant which constitute the very essence of the rule of law. Is The Economist saying that such safeguards should be discarded?
The Economist’s weak grasp of even the elementary principles of justice are encapsulated in one sentence in the original article: “In Italy, the accused are not considered guilty before definitive conviction in the final appeals court.” This explanation is proffered as important in understanding the Berlusconi cases. The way the sentence is phrased makes it clear that The Economist regards the appeals procedure in Italy as a “technicality” which should not prevent its readers from thinking that Berlusconi is, in fact, guilty. After the election result was known, The Guardian also said that all Berlusconi’s acquittals were on “technicalities.” Yet there have been numerous very high profile cases in which convictions for murder and terrorism in Britain have been overturned on technicalities: The Guardian and other newspapers have generally supported the defendant’s cause, accusing the judicial system of being wrong to convict them in the first place. Why is sauce for the goose not sauce for the gander?
Throughout The Economist’s long indictment, moreover, the attempt was made to introduce and even confuse different issues. Towards the end of the main introductory editorial, it referred to Mr. Berlusconi’s alleged conflict of interest in owning three major national private television channels. This was a theme which The Financial Times also picked up, in a very admonitory editorial on 10th May 2001. This is a big issue but it is entirely separate from the question of whether or not there are accounting irregularities in Mr. Berlusconi’s vast business empire. The Economist confuses the issue by discussing the two together and inadvertently suggests that safeguarding the position of left-wing militant journalists in Italy’s state-financed television and radio may be the central issue. It is also curious to find a pro-market publication seemingly implying that any large business entrepreneur must, by definition, be corrupt.
The magazine repeatedly says that Mr. Berlusconi has “links to the Mafia”. It entitled one paragraph “Cosy with Cosa Nostra?” The report concludes that “Mr. Berlusconi has needed a lot of help from insalubrious quarters. Though he says he wants to replace the old corrupt system, his own business empire is largely a product of it.” What is the evidence for this? Two investigations opened into Mr. Berlusconi’s links with the Mafia have been closed for lack of evidence. A third, involving a friend of his but not involving Mr. Berlusconi, is still open. The Economist glosses over the fact that the two charges against Mr. Berlusconi himself have been dropped and presses on with the conclusions quoted above. There is no difference, however, between The Economist’s insistence that Mr. Berlusconi is somehow linked to the Mafia and the old Soviet-style accusation that so-and-so is “linked to counter-revolutionary forces”. The Economist’s conviction of Mr. Berlusconi without trial is particularly misplaced considering that Giulio Andreotti, one of the most powerful men in Italian politics during the Mafia-ridden post-war period, was acquitted of links with the Mafia after a long trial in 1999.
Finally, The Economist’s abrupt dismissal of the claim, made by Berlusconi supporters, that the Italian judicial system is politicised is somewhat inadequate in view of the fact that the magazine refused even to mention the fact that Antonio di Pietro, the leading anti-Mafia magistrate who precipitated the “clean hands” revolution in the early 1990s, was himself running for office in these elections. His party campaigns on, among other things, an anti-Berlusconi ticket. Indeed, the Economist’s own Italy correspondent during the first Berlusconi government, Tania de Zulueta, herself stood for Parliament on the main anti-Berlusconi ticket. Its current correspondent is Beppe Severigni, also a journalist for the anti-Berlusconi Corriere della Sera. The Economist is very quick to attack Mr. Berlusconi’s alleged conflicts of interest but seems at the same time to exploit the fact that its own articles are published unsigned as a cover for the same conflict of interest in its own columns.
Le Monde et al
In substance, the attacks made by the other international media, as well as by the media in Italy, were the same as those made by The Economist. Le Monde left no hold barred in a article entitled “Silvio Berlusconi: a megalomaniac resuscitated”, in which it bluntly referred to “corruption, tax fraud, illicit financing of parties, and abuse of social funds.” It attributed his various acquittals (which it did it best to bury in the litany of accusations, more or less copied out of The Economist) to “the slowness of the legal procedures which was cleverly encouraged by procedural artifices.” Is Le Monde saying, then, that the rules of procedure should not be followed, or that acquittal by an Italian court is not sufficient to “prove” innocence? In Le Monde’s own home country, could anyone claim that corruption charges against political intimates of Francois Mitterrand dating back to the 1980s, or current allegations against President Chirac, have been dealt expeditiously?
Other confirmations of the political nature of these attacks came when prominence was given to a statement by the prominent Communist politician and former prime minister, Massimo d’Alema, who said, “It is quite understandable if Europe places Berlusconi under observation.” As Mandy Rice-Davies once pithily observed, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” By the time the elections were over, it was clear that Le Monde was simply copying the rhetoric of the anti-Berlusconi RAI Italian state media. On the eve of the election, RAI 2, the channel of controlled by d’A.lema’s reformed Communist Democratic Left Party gave over up to three hours of continuous coverage to Francesco Rutelli, the left’s candidate for prime minister, as he drummed up last minute support. The three RAI channels’ news programmes which were controlled by the three components of the outgoing centre-left government, did everything on the morning of 14th May to present the victory of the Casa delle Libertà as small or non-existent, whereas in reality it won an unprecedented absolute majority in both houses: Le Monde, CNN and the BBC World Service followed suit and their reports only conceded very late, and apparently grudgingly, that the Centre-Right had won decisively.
Other media which joined in the Berlusconi-bashing were: Le Nouvel Observateur; Time; Frankfurter Rundschau; Tagesspiegel; The New York Times and El Mundo. Indeed, the Spanish element came into sharp focus when, on the instructions of the same magistrate who applied for the extradition of General Pinochet to Spain, Baltasar Garzón, an injunction was issued via the Spanish embassy in Rome, in the middle of the election campaign, demanding that Silvio Berlusconi present himself for questioning in relation to alleged tax fraud following Fininvest’s purchase of a Spanish TV station. Spain, which refused to extradite Vladimir Guzinski to Russia on the basis that the application was “politically motivated”, does not seem to apply the same standards to extradition applications which emanate from Judge Garzón
And so to Italy…
But it was the Italian state-run and left-of-centre media themselves which excelled in politically-inspired attacks on the leader of the Casa delle libertà. Apart from numerous politically-weighted discussion programmes on the RAI, to which only supporters of the left would be invited, one of the most serious infractions of the duty of any state television to aim at impartiality was committed on the Thursday before the election, 10th May, the film producer Roberto Benigni, was invited on a high-profile political chat show, “Il Fatto”, which he used as a platform for his vehement hatred of Berlusconi. He amused his audience with such gags as, “I want to be neutral. I don’t like Berlusconi; I do like Rutelli” or “A parliament without Massimo d’Alema (the former prime minister who faced a strong contender in his constituency) would be like a pizza without mozzarella.” The right-wing coalition rightly attacked this shameless political campaigning by the state television but their protests were not sufficient to prevent La Repubblica from announcing, on its front page and on the day of the poll itself – i.e. at a time when electoral campaigning is no longer allowed - that “Benigni beat him (i.e. Berlusconi) at the last lap.”
The international media is usually quick to pick up on people’s wartime Fascist credentials noted the role of Gianfranco Fini’s so-called “post-Fascist” National Alliance in the Casa della liberta, but overlooked anti-Berlusconi campaigners with Fascist skeletons in their cupboards. Le Monde was happy to reprint an article by the prominent anti-Berlusconi, Indro Montanelli. Montanelli used the interview to make an insulting comparison between Berlusconi’s support among small businessmen and the support given to Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s; he omitted to mention that he himself had been an early supporter of Italian fascism, that he joined the ruling National Fascist Party, and that he served in the Italian invasion of Abyssinnia. Not surprisingly Le Monde failed to enlighten its readers on these points. Another high profile critic of Berlusconi was the absurdist playwright, Dario Fo, who in the unique position of being both the winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature and a volunteer in the pro-Nazi militia of Mussolini’s post-1943 Salò Republic. Needless to say, Le Monde and the other papers also glossed over the fact that the leader of one of the parties in the Olive Tree coalition, Armando Cossuta of the Party of Italian Communists, had been a KGB informer until the 1980s, or that his party has links to the ruling Communist party in North Korea.
Indeed, the whole election campaign about the allegedly dubious nature of Berlusconi’s business empire was started when an entire TV programme, Satyricon, on Rai Due, was devoted to the matter. It broadcast an interview with the anti-Berlusconi author, Marco Travaglio, a journalist with La Repubblica and co-author (with a left-wing parliamentarian) of a biography of Berlusconi entitled, “The smell of money”. The journalist used the air time to launch the well-known slurs against Berlusconi, accusing him of corruption and of contacts with the Mafia – the very charges which The Economist and the other media outlets were to repeat. At the end of the interview, the interviewer, Daniele Luttazzi, turned to Travaglio and said, “In this country full of shit (in questo paese di merda) you are someone who has courage.”  An emergency meeting of the supervisory authority of the Italian media was called and, while the programme was still on air, its president, Mario Landolfi of Allezana Nazionale together with the spokesman for Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party, called for the programme to be stopped and for the resignation of the managers of the RAI station involved. Berlusconi announced that he and his coalition partners would boycott all broadcasts on the RAI in retaliation, until such time as the state TV would agree to abide by the rules laid down by the parliament’s media supervisory committee. Fininvest, Mr. Berlusconi’s company, announced that it was taking legal action for libel against RAI. Later the same evening, Mr. Berlusconi contravened his own boycott when he personally telephoned another live programme, Il Raggio Verde, which was convened to discuss whether Satyricon should be closed. Berlusconi and the show’s host, Michele Santoro, argued for a while because Santoro insisted that Berlusconi withdraw his ban on people from Casa delle libertà speaking on RAI stations and said he would cut off the communication with Berlusconi if he did not agree. Eventually Santoro relented and Berlusconi was given ten minutes to denounce the “live trial” which the original programme had broadcast and to deny the charges made against him and Fininvest.
The point is that a serious row had broken out between the RAI state media, whose various outlets are traditionally controlled by political parties from the “old regime”, i.e. by those structures which ran Italy until the “Mani Pulite” revolution and the rise of Forza Italia. The campaign waged by the world’s media was nothing other than a continuation of the same political campaign which had been waged domestically by the Italian media against Berlusconi and his coalition.
BHHRG has observed many other campaigns of concerted vilification of politicians, generally in Central and Eastern Europe. These campaigns have usually been devastatingly effective, especially since they are deployed mercilessly and by all the world’s media until the victim simply collapses under the pressure. Berlusconi seems to have had the same treatment, especially the use of an endless stream of allegations which are repeated ad nauseam no matter how often they are denied. As it turns out, his campaign fought back and he emerged victorious from the elections. But it is likely that the campaign will continue while he is in office. No doubt the world’s media resent the fact that he himself is a media baron and that therefore a large section of the Italian media is not under the control of his opponents (although the Berlusconi TV channels themselves carried plenty of anti-Berlusconi propaganda).
In view of the similarity of the anti-Berlusconi campaign with other campaigns BHHRG has observed, it is noteworthy that the Olive Tree alliance engaged the services of a well-known political campaigner, Stanley Greenberg, who has worked on the campaigns of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and Ehud Barak. Greenberg’s speciality is in understanding public opinion and then tailoring the political message to suit what people are susceptible to hearing. He does this especially through the use of focus groups, which he has pioneered. During the campaign, however, Greenberg’s role itself became a matter for controversy. At one point, he was accused of misrepresenting an opinion poll to the advantage of the Olive Tree coalition. His main activity, indeed, is in campaigning rather than in the “research” which he advertises. On his own web page, people are quoted saying that he can “scare the hell” out of them or that he is “like a people’s truth squad.” Whether or not it was directly the result of Greenberg’s advice, the Rutelli campaign seemed devoted to sowing doubt in voters’ minds about Berlusconi’s honesty, while the international media campaign which effectively supported Rutelli certainly went far beyond reporting and often seemed to cross the line to defamation. It could rely on being reported back in Italy.
Silvio Berlusconi himself attacked Greenberg during the campaign. He said, “President Johnson once caused a rumour to be spread, by means of his press spokesman, that his opponent had sex with chickens. The spokesman retorted that this was simply not credible. President Johnson replied, ‘That does not matter. What matters is that he will have to defend himself against these accusations on television.’ This is the way that the left operates here. Thank God, the Italians have seen through this game. That is why we are 10% - 15% ahead of our opponents.” [Interview in Die Welt, 16th April 2001]
It was also common, during the campaign, to have other political discussion programmes to which only supporters of the left-wing Olive Tree alliance were invited. The Berlusconi channels, in this respect, were almost as bad as the state RAI: they often derided the policies of the Casa delle libertà. Another tactic in the media was to say that there would be a low turnout on polling day and that Italians were not interested in the elections. Traditionally low turnouts have favoured the Right in Italy and the RAI and sympathetic print media were creating the impression that the Centre-right could only win by default. In the event, 82% of Italians voted, in spite of the fact that most people had to queue for hours because the Interior Ministry had reduced the number of polling stations by one third.
Consequently, election day itself was marred by scenes of severe chaos at polling stations, especially towards the end of the day. The polls should have closed at 10 p.m. but so many people had still not voted by that stage that the authorisation was given to them to stay open. The last Italian voted at 5.30 a.m. on the morning of 14th May in Reggio di Calabria. The Interior Minister appeared on television at 10 p.m. to announce that the results of exit polls would not be revealed until 11 p.m. The result was, therefore, that large numbers of people voted between 11 p.m. and the small hours of the morning with full access to the exit polls, which showed a significant lead for the Casa delle libertà.
BHHRG did not itself observe the Italian elections but despite centre-right suspicions that the chaos on election night may have been exploited or even deliberately caused by the Interior Ministry in order to get people out to vote at the last minute, no firm evidence has emerged of irregularities which would materially alter the result. Naturally, the victorious coalition has no interest in calling the results of the elections into question; but the losing side has not done so either.
It is significant that the opinion of the Casa delle libertà is that no significant fraud occurred because the coalition certainly alleges fraud at the 1996 general elections. During the count on that occasion, Berlusconi and his allies have alleged, over 1 million votes were deemed invalid by the presidents of electoral commissions. These presidents are all appointed centrally by the Interior Ministry, which was then of course in the hands of the Left. The Right believes that the Left successfully managed to get its appointees in as presidents of the electoral commission all over the country and that these appointees successfully invalidated large numbers of votes. Berlusconi has alleged that if this election fraud had not been perpetrated, he would have won those elections.
Conclusion and Results
Despite the international media campaign against the winning electoral alliance, Italians appear to have voted freely for their own choice. Whatever the reasons for their choice, Italians should be congratulated for making up their own minds against the heavy-handed advice of foreign interests with their own axes to grind. This is also the first time in post-war Italian history that the government has changed as a direct result of a general election. Contrary to the claims by foreign media that Italy was unable to have a fair election because its own media was controlled by one candidate, Italians seem to have recognised that the battle between Berlusconi’s three television channels and the centre-left’s three RAI channels was not one-sided and to have voted accordingly.
Casa delle libertà: 368 seats in Chamber of Deputies; 177 seats in Senate
Forza Italia 29.4%
Alleanza nazionale 12%
Christian Democratic Centre – United Christian Democrats (Pierferdinando Casini and Rocco Buttiglione) 3.2%
Lega Nord 3.9%
Olive Tree: 250 seats in Chamber of Deputies, 130 seats in Senate
Democratici di Sinistra (DS, former Communists) 16.6%
“Margherita” (four centre parties led by Rutelli, Democrats, of which Rutelli is the leader; People’s Party; UDEUR Christian Democrats; and the Italian Renewal party led by former foreign minister Lamberto Dini) 14.5%
“Sunflower” (Greens and Social Democrats” 2.2%
PDCI (Party of Italian Communists led by Oliviero Diliberto and Armando Cossuta) 1.7%
Communist Refoundation Party (Fausto Bertinotti) 5%, 11 seats in Chamber of Deputies and 3 seats in Senate
“Italy of values” (Antonio di Pietro) 3.9%
“European Democracy” (centrist Christian Democrats sponsored by Giulio Andreotti) 2.4%
Radicals, led by Marco Pannella and Emma Bonino, 2.3%
Fiamma Tricolore (extreme right), 0.4% (but one seat in the Senate).
[Parties with less than 4% of the national vote are excluded from representation in the Chamber of Deputies.]