Italy: In Medias Res

“Chaos in Parliament,” declared Corriere Della Sera (April 2), and La Stampa (April 4) called it “a flunk.” The papers referred to the unexpected defeat of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government on April 1 in the lower house of Parliament over the Gasparri bill, the flagship of Berlusconi’s legislative program. The bill was intended to transform Italy’s media sector by abolishing restrictions on cross-ownership of national TV channels and newspapers.

The center-left opposition had proposed an amendment to the Gasparri bill to topple Berlusconi’s media empire by blocking ownership of more than two TV channels and limiting cross-ownership of TV networks, radio stations, and newspapers, thus forcing Berlusconi to give up one of his three networks. “The amendment,” dryly commented Il Manifesto’s Bruno Perini (April 3), “was zapping the dream of the Berlusconi group of owning all the broadcasting outlets and of getting its hands on other newspapers.”

On April 1, the amendment passed by 230-222 in a vote that, according to La Repubblica (April 3), resembled “a blitzkrieg.” La Mattina Amedeo of La Stampa labeled the vote “the opposition’s blitz,” and the paper (April 4) designated the day of the vote the day “of tense nerves.” Either way, without the votes of 17 members of the coalition who broke party ranks, the amendment would not have passed. Berlusconi was left deeply embarrassed.

The left-leaning and centrist media covered the event widely. Galluzzo Marco, writing for Corriere della Sera (April 3) applauded the outcome of the vote. “For the opposition, this is a victory for Parliament, for freedom of conscience, against a law that would have reinforced Berlusconi’s conflict-of-interest.” La Repubblica (April 3) gave an analysis written by Curzio Maltese the headline “The Bipartisan Rebellion.” Maltese claimed that what is happening in Italy is a war “that engages the government more than the war with Iraq.” Maltese talked of a “furious battle in Parliament,” of “a historical ballot,” and of “the glamorous rebellion in the house.” And he concluded that “He who meddles with TV loses.... That it was at all possible while the master of Mediaset [Italy’s private, commercial TV broadcaster, owned by Berlusconi] is in power, is a sublime paradox of democracy.” And he predicted: “The media war will go on until the final crisis is reached.” Conservative newspapers, like Il Foglio, on the other hand, covered the vote as a news item only and did not further comment on it.

On April 3, the revised version of the Gasparri bill, including the amendment, passed the house by a vote of 284-232. But the amendment is symbolic at best, because in May, the bill will go before Parliament’s upper house, the Senate, where Berlusconi holds a solid majority. By then, the prime minister will likely redraft it altogether to fit his needs.

The Gasparri bill is close to the heart of the flamboyant media mogul who owns Italy’s three biggest commercial TV channels and has influence over RAI, the Italian public broadcaster that owns Italy’s three main national channels. In his capacity as prime minister, Berlusconi can appoint RAI’s chairman, and the prime minister is the owner of RAI’s main competitor, Mediaset. RAI has always been highly politicized, and top jobs are traditionally awarded to supporters of those who happen to be in government.

The Gasparri law would give Berlusconi a solid legal basis to expand his media holdings further and push for the privatization of RAI. It is not certain, however, if Berlusconi can count on the loyalty of enough legislators from his coalition. The 17 legislators who voted with the opposition on the amendment, violated, according to La Stampa, a taboo. La Repubblica (April 3) went so far as to predict that the decision by the 17 renegades “will have severe, political implications for the governing coalition.” Italian newspapers referred to “the 17” as “franchi tiratori,” literally “irregulars” or “guerillas.” Il Manifesto elaborated on that description: “The group that shot the ‘Berluscones’ in the back.” And Corriere della Sera quoted Paolo Romani, the communications spokesman for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party, who warned that “revenge is a dish best served cold; everybody in the center-right will pay for the [17] renegades.” Berlusconi’s anger made headlines: La Repubblica (April 4) quoted the prime minister snapping at party leaders of his coalition partners “who are not able to control their deputies.”

Since taking office two years ago, Berlusconi has been accused time and again of conflict of interest in his dual role as head of the government and media tycoon. Corruption charges have also constantly surfaced. The dispute over the Gasparri bill proves that ownership of media is still hotly contested and of political significance in Italy. La Mattina Amedeo concluded in La Stampa (April 3), “I think that awareness is spreading that Berlusconi’s absolute dominance over the broadcast system is not something that even [his coalition partners] want.”

Berlusconi is entering a period that will determine his political future and legacy, and Italians will continue to witness an ever-determined politician stubbornly pushing through his agenda by passing laws that are tailor-made for him. In addition to the scuffle over the Gasparri law, the prime minister faces charges of bribing judges to influence the outcome of a corporate takeover battle in the 1980s. And he is trying to pass a bill that would restore the political immunity of members of Parliament—which was severely curtailed in 1993 by Berlusconi’s predecessor, Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi—and freeze trials in progress.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi keeps smiling and declares: “I have the patience of Job.”

A shorter version of this article appeared in the June 2003 issue of World Press Review.