Berlusconi vs foreign media
It is always surprising that, for a media mogul, Silvio Berlusconi has had such a fraught relationship with the foreign press. The mutual dislike has escalated in recent weeks as the unwelcome attention of the foreign and domestic media has focused on the 72-year-old prime minister’s relationship with a Naples teenager.
Now the prime minister and his aides repeatedly accuse the foreign press of waging a campaign against him at the instigation of the left-wing press in Italy, while the Berlusconi family paper Il Giornale makes more targeted attacks on foreign correspondents.
The latest to be struck off his Christmas Card list — he has long been in dispute with The Economist which called him “unfit” to run Italy — are The Times, Financial Times and Independent of London, France’s Le Figaro, Germany’s Die Welt and Spain’s El Pais, which has just released photos of topless women at a poolside party at Berlusconi’s Villa Certosa mansion in Sardinia — photos which Berlusconi has so far managed to prevent being published in Italy. All of these papers have recently published articles and editorials that are highly critical of the one-year-old Berlusconi government. The FT — not exactly a notorious left-wing organ — called him “a ruthless man and “a danger, in the first place to Italy, and a malign example to all”. The Times capped a series of pieces with an editorial entitled “The Clown’s Mask Slips” and El Pais said the latest scandal, regarding the use of state flights to transport guests to the party in Sardinia, “leaves Berlusconi naked, not as a citizen, but as a politician”.
Initially saying it would “laugh off” this criticism, the Italian government then went on the offensive and portray such pieces as an insult to the entire country.
The government’s real ire, however, is reserved for The Times, which is owned by News Corp and Sky TV owner Rupert Murdoch. Berlusconi depicts it as a vendetta over his dispute over a rise on VAT for pay-TV with Sky.
Cabinet ministers have rushed to his support, with Welfare Minister Maurizio Sacconi telling Il Giornale this week that “behind every international organisation that speaks out against Italy and behind every hostile foreign press article, we must always look for an Italian or Italians”. He accused the foreign press of attacking Italy “for fun … a vice typical of the radical communist left which has no sense of national interest”.
What is perhaps most unusual about Berlusconi’s response — apart from the interesting idea of a leftist plot involving the FT and Murdoch — is that it reacts so loudly and at such a high level to foreign media articles. It is hard to imagine any other prime minister or president of a G8 country responding in person, and so angrily, to a foreign newspaper piece.
This irritability comes at a difficult time for Berlusconi when his high standing in polls and likely strong showing in the European elections contrasts with media scrutiny of his private life, prompted by his wife’s divorce request and her comments about him “frequenting minors” and, enigmatically, being “not well”. The sense of angst is magnified by Berlusconi himself raising the spectre of 1994, when his first government suffered setbacks in the form of a court case and was then toppled by his own allies. Berlusconi is using words like “subversion” when he talks about magistrates investigating him in various cases including, most recently, the fuss over the Sardinian party.
It is not all bad news for Berlusconi in the foreign press: the New York Times ran a story about plans to nominate him for the Nobel prize — and helpfully provided the website of the committee trying to put him up for the honour.
Do you think the foreign press is unfair on Berlusconi and/or Italy? Is it being influenced by “leftists” in Italy? How should the Italian government respond to critical media coverage?