Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Alexander Stille on the High Crimes of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Great Disgrace

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in July 2006)

In 1994, Italian TV mogul Silvio Berlusconi was elected prime minister of Italy in a sophisticated campaign that used the full force of his three TV stations to blow away the remains of the dying post-Cold War Italian political parties.

Thus started the political career of Berlusconi, where he brought new lows of conflicts of interest, bribery, corruption Mafia-tainted money and comedy to Italian politics. In his delightful book, “The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture was Taken Over By a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi”(Penguin Press, $26), journalist Alexander Stille chronicles the rise of Berlusconi from cruise ship singer to real estate magnate and TV billionaire. Through his broadcast empire Mediaset, Berlusconi brought Italy such lowbrow American fare as “Dallas” and “Wheel of Fortune,” and invented the topless game show.

Berlusconi’s first term as a conservative prime minster only lasted nine months, but his five-year reign as prime minister from May 2001 to April 2006 was disastrous for Italy. Berlusconi tightened his own monopolies on Italian media and protected his own interests while the economy stagnated. With numerous corruption indictments and several convictions, Berlusconi’s tenure took on the character of a gleeful Fellini film. When his employees were indicted, he had them elected to the Italian parliament so they had immunity from jail time. For Berlusconi, no lie was too big or obvious. The Italian electorate, however, ate up his earthy personality and omnipresence on all his TV stations. The writing in the book is sharp and Stille, an Italian-American writer, vividly details the tragicomedy that Berlusconi inflicted on the Italian Republic.

Stille, 49, was raised in New York City and educated at Yale. He has covered Italy as a journalist for the past three decades and presently teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. He is the author of three other books, including “Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic.” Stille spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley from a coffee shop in Manhattan.

Q. How did Berlusconi, a political novice, first become prime minister of Italy in 1994?

A. A key to understanding how that moment was possible was the collapse of the political parties in Italy that followed the Cold War. Italy had the largest Communist Party in Western Europe. The other parties were held together by a fear of communism. Then the communist threat evaporated. With the virtual one-party rule in Italy for 40 or 50 years, the corruption had gone to crazy levels. There was a real rebellion by the Italian electorate and a big corruption investigation. The major political parties went out of business. Half the electorate was disenfranchised with nowhere to turn.

Berlusconi claimed to be clean as a whistle. What Berlusconi was brilliant at was appearing to be old and new at the same time. He was a known, reassuring figure.

Q. How did Berlusconi make his billions?

A. Berlusconi is a guy who came from a relatively modest background. He “found” money, it is not clear how, to build a massive, American-style suburban housing development which made him a bundle of money. He bought the land cheap. It was near an airport. He used political connections to change the air routes of the planes. It gives you a sense of the cunning and possibly unscrupulous behavior and political influence that combined to make a lot of money.

In the mid- to late 1970s, the Italian Supreme Court left open room for for private broadcasters. At the time, the state had a virtual monopoly on broadcasting. Berlusconi seizes that opportunity and pursues it more aggressively than anyone else. It’s not clear where he gets the money, but he buys American broadcasting, like “Dallas” and “Wheel of Fortune.” What makes Berlusconi an interesting figure is that he’s a man of extraordinary intelligence and very ordinary tastes.

Q. You interviewed Berlusconi in 1996. What was your impression of him?

A. He lies in a way that is extraordinary. He’ll say, “There is no conflict of interest with me being prime minister, owning three TV stations and running the state TV stations. The other people have the conflict of interest. I am not corrupt. My company has never paid a bribe.” Wherever he sees his own weakness, he goes on the counterattack against his enemies.

Q. Why were Italian voters so tolerant of Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest?

A. The idea of “conflict of interest” is a completely alien concept in Italy. Before Berlusconi, there were all sorts of conflicts that were less serious. The great illusion that took the Italians 10 years to learn was that the problem of conflicts of interest was not an abstract, theoretical problem. It is a real problem for someone like Berlusconi, who is a monopolist, to open up the Italian economy. The key sectors of the postindustrial economy are television, the Internet, entertainment, information and telecommunications. Berlusconi is in all these areas. Why would he want to make it easier for his competitors to operate on an equal footing?

Q. How does Berlusconi compare to other media tycoons like Mike Bloomberg or Rupert Murdoch?

A. Berlusconi is a hybrid figure, he is a chimera. If you put together the media empire of a Rupert Murdoch, the massive fortune of a Bill Gates, the political appeal of a Bush, the celebrity status of a Schwarzenegger, the “businessman in politics” of a Perot and the legislative power the the leaders of both the U.S. Senate and the House, you get a Berlusconi.

The Berlusconi phenomenon is in all sorts of areas in which our society already works. In America, we don’t have one individual who owns 60 percent of all TV, but you do have a handful of large corporations that control an enormous amount of American media. Large corporations tend to be conservative by nature. At important moments, like the run-up to the Iraq War when lively, open debates would have been useful, we instead had a cheerleading squad in the major media.

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