While there are those who comfort themselves in the depths of the night with the idea that il Cavaliere, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister and one of the world’s richest men, is, simply put, a buffoon, not so seasoned media watchers like Umberto Eco.
Last year, speaking to a packed audience in Bologna (on the occasion of the launch of the book L’Opposizione al Governo Berlusconi), Eco pondered whether anyone had noticed the strange patterns of Berlusconi’s media ‘moments’, those wonderful episodes ranging from the concentration camp guard jibe, through to the suggestion that judges are genetically crazy. The theory of the intelligent cavaliere, as we’ll call it, suggests that when Berlusconi is in the news for all the wrong reasons, you can bet your bottom dollar that there’s something else important happening elsewhere.
Last week, addressing a meeting of Forza Italia faithful, Berlusconi spoke fondly of an incident from his youth. Accompanied by his mother, he saw someone gesturing at him, or, not to put too fine a point on it, giving him the finger. He asked his mother what this meant, and she told him that it was their way of saying that he was ‘number one’. All this was recounted with gestures included, to great dramatic effect (no doubt learnt when crooning on the cruise ships all those years ago). Interestingly, immediately afterwards Berlusconi told his faithful that no-doubt this story would be siezed upon by the media in an attempt to portray him as vulgar etc.
Lo and behold, Enzo Biagi, one of Italy’s leading journalists, writes in the Corriere della Sera that Berlusconi at Bolzano responded to whistling with vulgar gestures (in what this monkey reads as horrified tone).
Biagi and Berlusconi have a history together. In March 2002 Berlusconi issued what has become known in popular folklore as the Bulgarian Dictate (Diktat Bulgaro), during a press conference in Sofia on a State visit. He suggested forcefully that certain journalists working in the State broadcaster RAI were making criminal use of their position and should in reality have no place in public broadcasting. Biagi, a veteran journalist and opponent to Berlusconi (he once suggested that Hitler too had been elected democratically) failed to have his contract renewed six months later. His case is but one of many celebrated instances of popular and prestigious voices failing to find space at RAI during Berlusconi’s tenure as Italian prime minister.
Now there is a full blown spat in the press between Berlusconi and Forza Italia functionaries on the one hand, and Biagi, various members of the opposition and journalists on the other.
Interesting though it may be, let us leave this spat aside, and return to our theory of the intelligent cavaliere. In a week when the European Union are threatening punitive measures against Berlusconi’s government for failing to stay within agreed economic parameters; in a week when much of the country is demanding of its politicians an answer as to whether they will vote in this weekend’s referendum on assisted procreation (not how they’ll vote, but if they’ll vote – Berlusconi whose electoral slice includes a substantial vote from both women and Catholics is keeping quiet on his intentions); in a week where one of his coalition partners has suggested that Italy drop out of the Euro and adopt an emboldened and capitalised Lira; in times like these, rather than answering questions of substance, or being held accountable, Silvio Berlusconi is dominating the news with explanations and self-righteous justifications for a second rate joke.
Remember this the next time someone (this monkey included) talks loftily about the threat Berlusconi poses to freedom of the press. Increasingly in Italy, as elsewhere, the press poses a threat to the freedom of the press, or at least to the diffusion of real news.
 Il prestigio del variet