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Disputations: Beating Down Berlusconi

I could've written a more damning piece about him.

It is certainly instructive to receive lessons in journalism and intellectual honesty from Christian Rocca. Rocca makes much of his supposed impartiality in matters regarding Berlusconi, but fails to disclose that he writes for the newspaper Il Foglio, a paper owned by Veronica Lario, otherwise known as the wife of Silvio Berlusconi. (This peculiar family ownership arrangement--together with assigning ownership of Berlusconi’s other daily newspaper, Il Giornale, to his brother Paolo--has made a mockery of Italy’s old media concentration laws that prohibited television owners from also owning newspapers. These laws have since been gutted ... by Berlusconi himself. It is one of an infinite number of examples of Berlusconi’s mingling of public and private business and conflicts-of-interest.)

As to the substance of Rocca’s charges: The source of my observations about Berlusconi’s recent gaffes was not (as Rocca asserts) British tabloid newspapers, which I haven’t read, but the video tapes of the incidents themselves. The perception that Berlusconi’s behavior in both cases he cites was bizarre and embarrassing was widely shared by journalists who were present and reported as such by media organizations across the world and across the ideological spectrum. I leave it to readers to watch the television clips of Berlusconi’s appearance at Buckingham Palace (Meeester Obamaa!), to observe the Queen’s reaction in order to decide whether Berlusconi’s behavior was weird and boorish and whether the Queen--who can be heard saying, “Why is he screaming?”--appeared annoyed. That Buckingham Palace later released a press release saying that no offense was taken means little or nothing; it is the job of government press offices to smooth over wrinkles in the interest of diplomatic harmony. Rocca’s suggestion that we take a government press release as unvarnished truth rather than trust our own eyes and ears is very bizarre journalistic practice--and one I suspect that Rocca himself would not apply to a figure of a different ideological stripe.

As to the second incident, again, I suggest readers watch the clips of the Berlusconi-Merkel episode and decide whether Berlusconi’s behavior was rude and whether Merkel did not appear visibly annoyed by being kept waiting for several minutes by Berlusconi. Berlusconi defended himself by saying he was on the phone with the Turkish prime minister Recip Erdogan. That may be the case--we have no independent means of proving or disproving it--but other politicians speak on the phone and conduct diplomatic business without creating the kind of public embarrassment evident here. The larger point is that there is a consistent pattern here. Rocca carefully avoided (not a good habit for one imparting lessons in honesty and seriousness) the long list of other international incidents where Berlusconi’s unequivocally inappropriate behavior leaves little room for interpretation, which were all mentioned in my piece:

1) Referring to Obama as “suntanned”;

2) Calling a German member of the European parliament a perfect concentration camp Kapo;

3) Suggesting that the “handsome” Danish prime minister might be a good match for Berlusconi’s own wife;

4) Making the “sign of the horns” over the head of the Spanish foreign minister during an official photograph;

5) Saying he had used all of his “playboy arts” to win over the female Finnish prime minister in a trade negotiation;

6) Suggesting at a European summit over which he was presiding that the various heads of state “lighten the atmosphere by talking about soccer and women.”

For the sake of brevity and because I felt the point had been proven amply, I omitted many other equally grave and absurd gaffes. But since Rocca seems unconvinced, here are some more:

1) Last year, at a joint press conference with Vladimir Putin, when a Russian journalist asked a question that annoyed Putin, Berlusconi made a gesture of firing a machine gun at the female journalist who then burst into tears. (In a country where many journalists have actually been murdered for asking the wrong questions, I think it’s fair to say this qualifies as a gaffe.)

2) In a meeting in Rome with foreign journalists, Berlusconi suggested that the female journalists might like to see the bathrub where Gary Cooper gave a bath to a beautiful young actress.

3) At a major meeting in Wall Street, Berlusconi suggested that the executives should invest in Italy because of the beautiful secretaries.

4) At his first international summit in Naples in 1994, he announced that it was a perfect night “for making babies.”

5) He mentioned to a delegation from Turkey about having had a Turkish girlfriend not considering how this might have been perceived by a group from an Islamic country.

6) When questioned about his lack of popularity in France, he countered it by bragging to the French press about the number of French girlfriends he had had.

7) At a highly public charity event, Berlusconi pointed to a Venezuealan pin-up and said that he would “follow her anywhere,” and then, pointing a former TV starlette whom he put up for parliament, he declared, “If I were not married, I would marry her.” The woman, Mara Carfagna, is a now a member of the cabinet of the current Berlusconi government.

One could go on and on, but by now, I think it is clear: Berlusconi has a penchant for--one might say an obsessive need--to say and do outrageous things in public. The point of my article was to ask whether there might be some deeper reason other than mere clumsiness or vulgarity. Rocca is, I believe, quite wrong to say that this personal trait of Berlusconi’s is nothing more than gossipy trash worthy of The National Enquirer. It is, instead, I believe a highly characteristic aspect of Berlusconi’s very particular political style, in which the traitional boundaries between public and private, and between entertainment values and political values, have been erased. Rocca’s boss, Giualiano Ferrara, the editor of Il Foglio, with somewhat greater perceptiveness and candor, described Berlusconi’s form of rule as “patrimonial,” harking back to the early modern period when French kings literally owned all land in the realm and the day at court began in the king’s bed chamber. To this archaic model, Berlusconi has added extremely modern elements of celebrity culture and reality TV, with a consistent dose of sex--a fixture of Berlusconi television programs. He has placed his friends, his attorneys, his employees and personal assistants in parliament; lightly-qualified women rumored to be his lovers in the cabinet; and his own TV executives in the state TV system. Where in this mess do you draw a line between private and public?

While the piece I wrote was meant to be light and funny, it does contain a couple of serious points. Berlusconi’s belief that he can do and say whatever he pleases is a natural by-product of the excessive concentration of power in Italy, in which one man is both the head of the largest private fortune in the country and in control of the economic management of the country, head of the largest private media group in the country (by far) and actively managing the state broadcasting which is supposed to be his principal competitor. (Just the other day, Berlusconi reportedly chose the names of the new managers of the State TV Rai at a meeting at his private residence in Rome.) The implications of that are extremely serious. (Highly indicative of this are Berlusconi’s own reactions to the negative coverage that followed his conduct during the recent international meetings. “These slanders against me and disinformation of readers won’t do,” Berlusconi recently said. “I don’t want to take direct and tough actions against certain newspapers and certain protagonists in the press, but I am tempted.”)

The other serious point is: Why does Berlusconi's act, which fails consistently on an international stage, work domestically? The hypothesis of my piece is that his breaking the rules of standard etiquette, while highly offensive to some Italians, reinforces his image as an anti-politician with others.

Alexander Stille is the author, among other books, of The Sack of Rome: Money Media Celebrity = Power = Silvio Berlusconi (Penguin 2006). He is a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

By Alexander Stille