BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Last week, nearly 15,000 candidates vied for seats in the European Parliament, the first election since the EU's eastward expansion in May. Votes in the UK and the Netherlands were cast earlier this month. Italy's elections for 78 of the 732 Parliament seats were held last weekend, and what an upset there was. Television journalist Lilli Gruber won the day, fetching more votes in the districts where she ran than the party of Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister and media mogul. Gruber exulted, "I beat the master of TV!" Sylvia Poggioli is NPR's senior European correspondent, and the master of radio, and she joins me from Rome. Sylvia, welcome to On the Media.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: I must say this European parliamentiary politics is very confusing for me. I guess the short question is: what is this Parliament? What effect does it have on Europe and on Italy in particular?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: You're not the only one who is confused by the European Parliament. That's why so few people went to vote. Nobody really understands what goes on in Brussels, even though many, many laws of the various countries originate in Brussels, even though it is very important and increasingly so. What was interesting about the results of the Italian election is what it says about the popularity at this moment of the governing coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
BOB GARFIELD: Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, suffered a significant defeat, and Lilli Gruber, who ran for the Olive Tree Coalition, beat Berlusconi with twice the number of votes. What happened?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, it's a really unusual thing, in this country where Berlusconi controls either directly through ownership or from his position as prime minister, 90 percent of the TV broadcast media in the country. He was defeated by a TV personality which his own TV networks did not show on TV for the whole campaign. She disappeared. She was never present on the news. You would have never known she was a candidate, if you had followed the state TV and the Berlusconi-owned TV. On the contrary, Berlusconi himself was on the air, especially in the last week, constantly. What happened is, Lilli Gruber is probably one of the most respected anchors and journalists, because she covered almost singlehandedly for her network the entire war in Iraq last year. She was there for many, many months, and she's a very highly-respected journalist. It's a big loss of image and prestige for the prime minister.
BOB GARFIELD: What actually does it mean -- that he has no seat himself, the prime minister of Italy in the European Parliament?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: No, no, no, no, no. He won his seat, because he was on, on a slate everywhere in a different party. In any case, there's a rule that the prime minister or minister serving in the Italian Parliament cannot hold dual representation. Therefore he will hand over his votes or whatever to the next in line. But in the same areas where they were both running, she beat him.
BOB GARFIELD: And this was not Lilli Gruber's first confrontation with Prime Minister Berlusconi. She resigned from the state broadcaster, RAI, after criticizing his influence in the media.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: She was very angry at the way the news was produced on her own program, the kind of things she was told to read. She also was very upset when Freedom House, the New York-based think tank, downgraded Italian media from "free" to "partly free," which put Italy on a, on a par with Turkey. She and many other Italians were very angry at the media law which Berlusconi's government was able to pass. It's a new law which gives him even more control of the media.
BOB GARFIELD: How did Berlusconi react to the results from the polling?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, we don't know, [LAUGHS] because if you look at television, we didn't see his face, we didn't hear any direct comments, at least on the first, let's say, 24 hours after the election results were coming in. He had other members of his party take the flak. The only statement that was released was that he was taking responsibility for his party's poor showing. But he is determined to continue with the economic reforms that he's promised three years ago but that he has not yet delivered on.
BOB GARFIELD: Berlusconi did something very unusual, and I guess it's a media story. He used, or the government used, people's cell phones -- the SMS function, the text messaging function --to notify them when the polls were open, which Gruber was very disturbed with. Tell me about it.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The entire opposition was very upset by that. Yes, it was unusual. It's never happened before. The Italian law has it that any kind of propaganda, campaigning, rallies, have to stop 24 hours before the polls open, and all of a sudden during the night everybody in Italy I think, every, every cell phone imaginable, got these little buzzes and announcements that they got a message. And in it, it was the, the prime minister's office urging all Italians to go out and vote. But that's not all he did. The very afternoon he went to vote, it was Saturday I believe, as he came out of the -- out of his polling station -- he started holding a rally in front of the TV cameras urging everybody to vote for his party. This is also against the law. No kind of electioneering should take place within, I don't know, something like a quarter of a mile of every polling station. But there, in front of the TV cameras, he continued to urge voters to vote for his party. TV networks did not air that that evening, aware that they probably would have had legal repercussions if it had then hit the air. . . [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: Even his own, and even the RAI?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Even his own. All the TV networks played it completely down and did not report what he had said.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Sylvia, as always thank you so much.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Sylvia Poggioli is NPR's senior European correspondent. The definitive list of winners in the election will be out June 28th.