April 27, 2002
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi watched the foreign press flock to his country to cover one of the big stories this week. Leaders of the Catholic Church gathered in Rome to lay out a policy for disciplining priests charged with sexual abuse. The conservative leader didn't seem to mind the presence of so many foreign journalists for a few days. It's the local media he seems bent on dominating. Berlusconi's latest targets are two Italian journalists and a satirist who have criticized him on TV in the past. "Away with them!" Berlusconi said recently. "They have made criminal use of public television." These are no idle threats when you consider Berlusconi's status. Aside from owning 3 of the 4 private national stations, as prime minister Berlusconi officially controls all 3 state-run networks in Italy, cumulatively known as RAI. And with recent appointments of his friends to high positions at 2 of those public networks, Italian TV is looking more Berlusconi-esque than ever. Joining us from Rome is NPR Senior European Correspondent Silvia Poggioli. Silvia, welcome to OTM.
SILVIA POGGIOLI: Thank you. Nice to be here.
BOB GARFIELD:Well it appears that this latest outrage has at long last gotten the Italian public up in arms. They were a little late to be distressed by Berlusconi's behavior, or am I missing something?
SILVIA POGGIOLI:Well you know let's remember something -- that Berlusconi won by only 500,000 votes, but thanks to the Italian electoral law -- kind of winner takes all -- he has a very comfortable majority in Parliament. So to say that he has actually - has, you know, a huge mandate from the people, from the voters is not really correct. And in past months there have been a lot of--demonstrations, mainly organized by intellectuals, professors and so forth, protesting his conflict of interest, the extent of his power over the media. So there's beginning to be a little of a groundswell. The fact is though that he does have a very comfortable majority in Parliament and there fore a lot of political influence.
BOB GARFIELD:Berlusconi's gotten a, quite a bit of criticism lately for appointing political cronies to run the state television networks that he didn't previously control. Is there anybody maintaining that these guys are not strictly following his orders to suppress legitimate dissent?
SILVIA POGGIOLI:The fact is that the state-run television system, the board of directors and the heads of the news [art ?] have always been assigned according to the political spoils system. Whatever party is in government, is running the government, has its people running the news show. Yes, there's definitely been a shift towards-- the right. Berlusconi gets, it's been estimated, 5 to 7 times more coverage on the state-run TVs now than the opposition does. You certainly see a difference in the slant of the evening news. But I mean the thing -- it's subtle. Criticism by some European government or some European leader who may have some remark to say -- it comes in late in the newscast. It's not heavyhanded censorship; let's call it that. It's a slant-- it's-- presentation; it's the way the whole thing is packaged. But-- it's the system that hasn't been changed since the end of the Second World War.
BOB GARFIELD:And most recently in the center of this uproar he issued more than a veiled threat that dissenting voices on state television should simply be fired! And when challenged on that, he said well, then - no they don't have to be fired-- as long as they change their ways. Has he apologized or backed off of that statement at all?
SILVIA POGGIOLI:Oh, not at all. However, there has been some side-effects. It was so outrageous that at least the two journalists -- their jobs are probably actually-- safe now, because it--what Berlusconi said was so outrageous that it would be too embarrassing now to fire them.
BOB GARFIELD:I have spent countless hours watching RAI in various hotel rooms of the world. It's the worst television network I have seen anywhere in the world, and I've seen lots of them. It's unwatchable! How could it have any influence at all? [LAUGHS]
SILVIA POGGIOLI:Well have you seen Berlusconi's TV [LAUGHS] networks? That's the-- all these silly entertainment shows; all these-- scantily-clad women. Well this is the style that Berlusconi's networks introduced into Italy. RIA just felt it had to compete and adapted much of that style. But there are some, occasionally some documentaries and some more serious news programs which are not so bad which you don't see on Media Set which is the company that runs the 3 Berlusconi commercial TV networks.
BOB GARFIELD:So if there is some sort of spontaneous uprising at long last against Berlusconi for his very heavyhanded tactics on suppressing dissent, how would the Italian public ever find out about it?
SILVIA POGGIOLI: [LAUGHS] Well there still are some newspapers [LAUGHS] that are independent now. I mean there -- it's not a closed society. It's not-- that bad.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Silvia, thank you very much.
SILVIA POGGIOLI: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Silvia Poggioli is the senior European correspondent for NPR, and she spoke to us from Rome. [MUSIC]