A court in Naples convicted former Premier Silvio Berlusconi of corruption charges on July 8, 2015, accusing him of bribing a senator to favor his center-right alliance in Parliament.
( Alessandra Tarantino
NEWS REPORT A grim faced Silvio Berlusconi in Sicily today after hearing that he's been summoned to stand trial in April.
NEWS REPORT Italy's former prime minister stands accused of bribing his British tax lawyer, David Mills, to give false testimony in court. Berlusconi is a defendant in three other trials, one, the sex with an underage prostitute, an abuse of power, another for tax fraud, and a third for violating official secrets. [END CLIP]
ILYA MARRITZ Silvio Berlusconi has faced a string of trials over his decades as a public figure in Italy. But Rachel Donadio, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and former Rome bureau chief for The New York Times, says it's Italy's experience with trying Berlusconi for crimes relating to his business and personal life. That's instructive.
RACHEL DONADIO Berlusconi is a great lesson in the survival of a politician, in spite of repeated prosecution and trials against him. He managed always to turn this around so that he was seen as under attack, hounded and persecuted by left wing magistrates who were on a witch hunt. That was his strategy. He once compared himself to Jesus Christ. He said, I'm the Jesus Christ of politics. I'm a patient victim. I bear everything.
RACHEL DONADIO I sacrifice myself for everyone. And for a while that worked. Italians have a very dim view of their justice system, much more so than Americans have of our justice system. And that is in part because trials take forever. The justice system is very slow. And so the average Italian has probably had bad experiences with the justice system. Because if you don't know whether a civil case will end in your lifetime, it's not a great investment environment. So I think that he also had some consensus because Italians could relate to the fact that they didn't really think the system was working terribly well.
ILYA MARRITZ So Berlusconi styled himself as a victim, the target of these overzealous prosecutors. But were there ways in which the Italian media's coverage of Berlusconi's trials played in to that polarization?
RACHEL DONADIO There were so many trials over so many years. I think that the ones that were about his businesses and tax fraud and bribing judges and things like that were a little bit technical and difficult for a lot of people to follow. Those were covered in the print media, also a little bit on radio and TV, but it's hard to get into the details. They're really complicated. When the sex scandals came about starting in 2009, that coverage was led by a center left paper, La Repubblica. And in 2009, Berlusconi's then wife announced in that paper that she was filing for divorce. So this contributed to a sense that it was like a left wing attack against Berlusconi. But you also have to bear in mind that the Italian ruling class and the non left wing establishment really only openly criticized Berlusconi when the coast was clear. And there was a sense that that government in 2011 was really going to fall because of the economic concerns, because Italy's borrowing costs were rising. It's really a country where you just don't stick your neck out until you're sure that the person you're criticizing isn't going to turn out to be your next boss, basically.
ILYA MARRITZ You wrote in a piece for The Atlantic, quote, While, ordinary people didn't have the time or interest to follow Berlusconi's legal tangles. The press has become obsessed with them, so much so that it lost track or maybe never had any interest in covering the country's underlying problems: the economy, unemployment, financial insecurity.
RACHEL DONADIO I think that for many decades in the United States, there was a sense that the mainstream media was doing its job to uphold institutions and that the truth should come to light and that that's good for democracy. I think that in Italy there was always a sense of, well, if someone's investigating, it must be because that media is owned by one business person who's trying to attack the other business person. And the investigation was motivated by that. So there was a huge amount of trust in the media then, and I think there's probably less so now. In the years when there was all the coverage of the bunga bunga. Those were also years when youth unemployment was soaring and funny stories about 'haha Italians are living at home until the age of 35.' You know, it turns out that a lot of other countries have giant problems like this, where young people born after 1980 felt shut out of their futures. And that was something that was a huge issue in Italy and wasn't getting a lot of attention in the years when the bunga bunga was getting attention. And I think that that's very much a cautionary tale for the media in the United States, too.
ILYA MARRITZ There's an argument being made in the United States right now among those who want to see Trump prosecuted that we need a robust system of justice that fully upholds the idea that no man is above the law, including a former president. And what I hear you saying is prosecuting former leaders is not by itself a tonic, and political systems don't heal themselves even when the justice system is allowed to run its course.
RACHEL DONADIO Italy with Berlusconi does show that you can be under investigation and on trial and even convicted and then still keep bouncing back politically if there is not a clear opposition, or if your own party isn't able to get out from under your shadow. If the center right in Italy had been able to have any life force of its own without the support or patronage of Berlusconi, then politics would look a lot different. Berlusconi was almost like the patron in chief. It's a very much a kind of a patronage society. And Italians are very attuned to power politics. Who is in charge? Who do I need to be nice to? You know, who does my life depend on in a way? And so, you know, if he's seen as somehow making things possible for a lot of people in spite of the trials, then he's still going to have staying power.
ILYA MARRITZ Does that make him like kind of a kingmaker in politics?
RACHEL DONADIO He's still something of a kingmaker. His sports Italia party has single digits in the polls, but it will be enough to help get the right wing elected into power in the Italian elections later this month. And that would mean that he would have to get something in return, possibly president of the Senate. Unclear, but he's still around.
ILYA MARRITZ Rachel Donadio is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. Rachel, thank you so much.