Media

Has Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Created Titillating TV Fascism in Italy?

An interview with Erik Gandini, director of the documentary Videocracy, an account of how Berlusconi's sex-obsessed media empire has shaped the country over the past 30 years.

Waving banners scrawled with "Berlusconi is bad for Italy's health," more than 100,000 people rallied to protest for a free press in Italy over the weekend. Not surprisingly, Italy's newspapers and television barely covered the event in Rome's Piazza del Popolo.

The Italian Press Federation organized the gathering after nearly two decades of growing interference in free journalism within and around the media empire owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The protest capped a summer in which Berlusconi's wife dumped him for allegedly having an underage girlfriend and pornographic video and pictures surfaced from his Sardinian party house.

Last week, journalists on one of the government-owned broadcasting channels, RAI 2, interviewed a woman, Patrizia d'Addario, who claimed she took money to have sex with the Italian leader. The government promptly withdrew the journalists' contracts, even though d'Addario's tell-all book about her romp with the septuagenarian has been covered widely in Europe.

While half of Italy apparently still supports the randy PM, the firings are only the latest in a long history of incursions against press freedom by the Berlusconi government. Italy's journalists are not in fear for their lives as are reporters in Zimbabwe or Russia, but they are in fear for their jobs.

Many leading broadcasters and writers have been fired or quietly relieved of work over the years for criticizing the prime minister. They, and their commentary, have been replaced by young women whose rise in broadcasting is related to their ability to perform the "stachetto" -- a kind of partially clothed pole dance, without the pole, that is the chief entrance test for women who want to join Berlusconi's television empire.

Only a few journalists remain with the access and courage to question, or even cover, scandalous personal and official behavior by the PM that would, in the United States and most other European countries, have provoked drastic regime change.

Recently, Berlusconi sued the director of La Repubblica, one of the country's leading newspapers, for printing 10 questions about his relationship with a teenage model. Berlusconi had previously urged businesses not to advertise in the left-leaning daily.

On Friday, the day before the protest, Jean-Francois Julliard, director of an international press-freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, said Berlusconi could soon join the list of that group's list of "predators of freedom of the press" -- making him the first European leader so honored.

"We know of similar cases only in Belarus and Zimbabwe," Julliard said, referring to Berlusconi's advice to newspaper advertisers.

Among the journalists to have felt the sting of Italian press censorship is Swedish-Italian filmmaker Erik Gandini, whose revealing documentary on Italian television culture, Videocracy, was banned from coverage in the Italian press.

Government-television conglomerate RAI refused even to broadcast a 30-second trailer for the film, which traces the rise of Berlusconi's banal, tits-and-ass-style television, implicating it as a form of mind-control machinery that keeps him in power.

The film is filled with disturbing imagery, taken straight from the Italian tube and behind the scenes, where the makers of the shows reveal themselves. In one scene, Lele Mora, a Berlusconi ally, Sardinia party buddy and top television agent, opines that although Berlusconi "isn't Mussolini, he's still a great leader." Mora then proudly displays the fascist symbols he keeps on his phone and his fascist music ring tones.

In other footage, from one of Berlusconi's campaign commercials, average Italian women and girls sing a song with the refrain, "Thank God Silvio exists."

Gandini did not attend the Rome protest, but talked by phone from his home in Sweden on Sunday for an interview with AlterNet:

Q: Does this kind of protest indicate a change is coming to Italy?

A: It's an explosive time for Italy. I feel we've reached the bottom somehow. Watching Berlusconi commenting again about [President Barack] Obama's tan, and suing La Repubblica: He has always been very strategic before, and I think he is acting desperate now. His behavior reminds me of [Romania's Nicolae] Ceaucescu's last days.

Q: As you show in your film, Italian television under Berlusconi has been assaulting women's dignity for years. Is there any reason to imagine Italian women at least are fed up?

A: You cannot disconnect the role of women in commercial television and the fact that Italy is listed as 84th in terms of gender equality. What was most interesting to me making my film was how Berlusconi's personality and his view on women has spread over the country.

In the beginning, naked women on television was sort of a business idea, then suddenly you realize it is a science fiction story: That one man's personality can become an entire country's. And suddenly it seems normal that women should be naked sidekicks on television, like meat. It is becoming clear that Berlusconi's sex addiction and his view of women -- he is a man of the '50s, a "Mad Man" -- is totally connected to his TV culture.

Q: True, but in my time in Italy, I haven't seen Italian women objecting publicly.

A:I know my female friends in Italy do not identify with that image. The country is polarized.

A part of the country just does not watch TV that much. And I think there is definitely a system of fear in Italy, for women, too. I just saw this clip of a TV program, which covered average news, including the earthquake in Abruzzo and had entertainment. A magician did this trick with this magic stick and said, yeah we should give this magic stick to Berlusconi. The host of the program, a typical attractive female host, got really nervous. She was really pale, and she said, "This was your personal joke, I and the country are really happy."

Q: Did this fear affect you?

A: They don't put journalists in jail, but there is the system of personal fear, and I felt it when Videocracy was banned on RAI. I was scared myself, and I understood suddenly the system of fear, fear for your private economy and your private life. It's so widespread, everybody is living under the pressure with the idea [of] don't go over the limit, be quiet, be a good servant.

Q: Why did you make Videocracy?

A: For a long time, I saw the power of TV growing in Italy. I noticed my friends talking about TV as a monster. When you say the word television in Italy, it is loaded because it is one of the few countries in the world where TV and power are so connected in the figure of Berlusconi.

I really want to understand, myself, from the inside how this machinery works. Thirty years under Bersluconi TV, you put the whole society in a human experiment. In Italy you get the feeling that this cultural banality has been a tool to destroy democracy.

It's not a question of ideology, it's a question of lack of values, lack of morality. Italy has become a country where words don't work anymore. "Videocracy" means the power of the image. The left has been attacking Berlusconi in newspapers which nobody ever reads, and he always wins because he used the language of TV. It's emotional. Impressions are much more valuable than truth.

My idea was to use the same language, to show things about TV that TV would never tell.

Q: Isn't the obsession with celebrity and the banality of television in Italy at least as bad in the USA?

A: Yes, but the president doesn't own it. Italy is a good study for how bad things can be when politics mixes with this culture of emptiness. When Berlusconi came to power in 1994, the hope was that this successful entrepreneur will turn the country into a successful enterprise.

My feeling is what he introduced into society is the culture of commercial television, which is totally about money, egotistic values, women as objects. It's similar in Iran, Iran is an Islamic republic -- religion permeates everything, whereas Italy is like a commercial-TV republic. It is very cynical.

People in Italy think sex is a normal way to get a job. That's very much a part of getting a job in television.