Berlusconi’s Italy: miracle or illusion?
Residents of Naples, who had promised to demand that Silvio Berlusconi be declared a “saint straightaway” (Santo subito!”) if he managed to clear their streets of rotting garbage, will probably agree with Newsweek’s headline “Miracle in 100 Days” about the Italian prime minister’s first three months in office. Resolving the city’s garbage crisis was supposed to be his top priority and he has managed it, for the moment at least, while his other prime target — crime, especially involving illegal immigrants — has been tackled in a very visual way by deploying thousands of soldiers to the streets to help the police (see earlier blog “Italy sends in troops, but why?“).
But Newsweek’s latest article is a rare example of positive press abroad for the centre-right Italian leader, more accustomed to scathing editorials from the likes of The Economist questioning his fitness to lead and focusing on the conflict of interests of Italy’s richest man being premier.
Berlusconi’s government has seized on the article as proof that the 71-year-old media baron has “done what he promised”, according to his spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti, who was enjoying what he called the “funny embarrassed silence” of the centre-left opposition regarding the Newsweek piece. Politicians from the ruling People of Freedom party also pointed out that, in the Italian news media which often gives very high play to critical foreign coverage of the country, the U.S. weekly’s more positive angle merited only small articles deep inside the pages of the biggest-selling dailies like Corriere della Sera (which put it on page 11) or the more openly anti-Berlusconi La Repubblica (article also on page 11).
“What would have happened if Newsweek had opened fire on the government?” asked Daniele Capezzone of Berlusconi’s own Forza Italia party, answering his own question by saying the mainstream press, often accused by the right of being biased, would have gleefully churned out “front-page pieces, reconstructions and recollections of the perennially ‘unfit’ Italy”. Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, gave the Newsweek article more prominent coverage on its front page and in-depth coverage inside.
“The centre-right government has done in 100 days what the Prodi government would not have managed in 100 years,” said Forza Italia deputy Isabella Bertolini, referring to Berlusconi’s centre-left predecessor who was forced to resign earlier this year, his coalition in disarray.
Bertolini extended the complaint about the biased media to Italy’s biggest weekly magazine Famiglia Cristiana – distributed among the faithful at Catholic churches — which this week took a bold swipe at the Berlusconi government for ignoring the plight of the poor and ordinary Italian families, while cracking down on beggars and those who rummage among rubbish bins for scraps to sell. The magazine accused Berlusconi’s government of “playing toy soldiers” by deploying troops and warned there was “a risk of provoking a war between the poor”.
One former Prodi minister, Paolo Gentiloni, advised Berlusconi supporters to read the Newsweek article right to the bottom, where they would find references to “the deep social and economic malaise in the country”, he said. The Newsweek article, which does indeed end on a warning note about Italy’s low salaries, high taxes and public debt and the need for more growth, came out a day after Italy reported a contraction in the economy for the second quarter of the year, fuelling speculation that it is about to enter its third recession this decade.