Is Repubblica Berlusconi’s official opposition?

November 25, 2009

Dear Italian opposition member,

I thought of you often and with mixed-feelings at the Reuters Memorial Lecture 2009 in Oxford on Monday. You might have been too busy finding yourself and exploring the meaning of life, so I thought I would send you a sum-up of a truly remarkable event, which might give you some (Italian) food for thought.

It emerged that Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister,  is one of a kind — but you may hardly regard this as as news. He stands out so much in the grey political crowd that most UK people, even those not passionate about politics, would be able to identify him, an achievement of which Herman van Rompuy can only dream.

And it is only fitting that a man as colorful as Signor Berlusconi should have a suitable nemesis — someone every-inch as conspicuous: Carlo De Benedetti.

No, do not stare in disbelief at this, I am not telling you Ingegnier De Benedetti, the owner of the daily la Repubblica and weekly L’ Espresso, the editorial equivalents of a thorn in the side of the PM, is founding a party promising to save Italy.

Does this promise sound familiar? I should hope so, because this is your role — to provide the useful opposition to Mr Berlusconi’s policies.

You would have learnt a thing or two, dear Mr Opposition member, at the Reuters Memorial Lecture 2009. Do not get me wrong, it was not all facts, facts, facts: there was drama, a passionate defence of the “good old newspaper”, a just as passionate invective against the PM’s habit to speak against the press and a few good jokes in the bargain.

Italian opposition, wherever you may be, you should have taken notes: Mr De Benedetti made with surgical precision an analysis of how Mr Berlusconi’s media empire and his own political role makes up most of the Italian tv channels– in a country which watches plenty of TV.

Then he gave examples of how and why he thought the PM’s empire was detrimental to democracy and finally gave a clear picture of who should do what and it was not you, dear absentee Leftie Italian politician, it was La Repubblica.

That’s right, a newspaper. A specimen of a dying breed which we are told is going the way of the Dodo. The same newspaper you may find in your office every morning, probably in a neatly folded bunch including other big Italian names and even the FT.  One of the same newspapers against which Berlusconi issued writs for a combined 4 million euros. (The other newspaper is another left-wing publications, called L’Unita — check tomorrow in your newspaper fold, you may find that too. )

De Benedetti also defended the country’s image, refusing to draw a parallel with Russia and stressing the only threat an investigative journalist could possibly suffer in Italy would be “psychological.”

You may argue at this point Signor De Benedetti has got his own axe to grind; a judge has recently ordered Fininvest, the PM’s holding company, to compensate CIR, the holding controlled by the De Benedetti family, for having bribed a judge in the takeover batter for publisher Mondadori.

You may also say that his take on the role of newspapers is a tad sentimental and a tad inaccurate: You can find analysis on the Internet– something Signor Benedetti seems to think impossible. You could also argue that stoking up the battle with Berlusconi only serves his own interests — his newspapers are selling like hot-cakes only on the back of the PM’s sex and legal scandals.

You would have a point, but it would still not explain why you have not yet got your act together. Politics would be better served by an opposition able to rise above the cacophony and make a point, loudly, clearly, patiently, terrier-like. Just as Signor De Benedetti did last night.

When the lecture ended he was positively mobbed by well-clad,  glamorous Italians as well as less well-clad Brits. People wanted to hear more of his opinions. I was running late to catch my London train, so I beat a hasty retreat. I cannot tell you whether he was carried in triumph to the refreshments room. One thing I could tell you: he got my attention.

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