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Berlusconi’s Unrivalled Control of the Media and the Italian Political Landscape

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As we broadcast from the Italian capital of Rome, we spend the hour taking a look at politics and media in Italy. We begin with Italian Senator Tana de Zulueta, a leading political critic of Prime Minister Silvion Berlusconi who examines the media mogul’s influence over what the Italian public reads, sees and hears. [includes rush transcript]

Today we are broadcasting from the Italian capital of Rome where we will spend the hour taking a look at politics and the media in Italy.

Italy’s conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was elected in 2001 after defeating the center-left coalition which had ruled the country for five years. As Italy’s richest man, Berlusconi sits at the head of a vast media empire, giving him unrivaled influence over what the Italian public sees, reads and hears.

As well as owning three major commercial TV channels in Italy, Berlusconi holds political influence at the board of the state-owned TV broadcaster, RAI. He also owns a newspaper, Il Giornale, and Italy’s biggest publishing group, Mondadori.

This concentration of high public office and a privately-owned media empire in the hands of one person is unique in Western Europe. One journalist commented that Berlusconi’s election to Prime Minister spawned the “biggest conflict of interest in any western democracy.”

In addition to being the country’s biggest media mogul, Berlusconi is the first serving Italian prime minister ever to appear in court and is currently standing trial on charges of bribery and corruption.

  • Tana de Zulueta, Italian senator on the Democratic left and a leading political critic of Berlusconi. She is a former reporter with the Sunday Times and the Economist.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, our first guest is Tana de Zulueta. She is an Italian senator on the democratic left, and a political critic of Berlusconi. She is a former reporter with the Sunday Times of London, as well as The Economist. It’s wonderful to have you here.

TANA DE ZULUETA: It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we begin — when did you become a senator?

TANA DE ZULUETA: In 1996. I was elected in those elections, which we won for the first time, and re-elected in 2001, when we lost.

AMY GOODMAN: Assume that people in the United States know almost nothing of Italian politics. Can you give us a brief tour of the landscape right now? When you say in 2000, when your party overall lost, but you were re-elected, talk about what that means, and who is in charge today?

TANA DE ZULUETA: Well, who is in charge of, of course, is Silvio Berlusconi, in a position which is actually unique in our democratic history. I don’t think anybody has had that much power since Italy became a democracy after Mussolini. He is the country’s richest man by far and away. He’s fourth richest man in the world according to Fortune, I think. He also has this extraordinary and unprecedented control over the media. So that means that as this has been going on a long time, he was already in politics in 1994, so that’s ten years? I think that we as an opposition force are operating in a unique situation where we are not only afraid that we won’t be heard when Berlusconi passes self-serving legislation, granting himself amnesty or allowing himself to increase his hold on the media. There’s no debate on television. The public doesn’t know about it, but I think —


TANA DE ZULUETA: Because television is controlled by Berlusconi. He has an absolute monopoly on commercial television. What you didn’t mention is that he has a huge advertising empire, which influences the behavior of even those commercial television stations which he doesn’t own. And also publishing is very much influenced by his control of advertising.

AMY GOODMAN: So before he came to power as prime minister, he had this media empire.


AMY GOODMAN: And by becoming prime minister, he also takes control of all of the public media?

TANA DE ZULUETA: Which in Italy is very big. The state broadcaster RAI has three national network channels from which his political appointees hold sway. So that means that what Italians are hearing and talking about, what they realize is happening, is hugely influenced by his political priorities, and his political priorities, of course, that they shouldn’t know too much about the shadier side of his business history.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the prime minister has personally attacked you. Can you talk about the circumstances?

TANA DE ZULUETA: It was in the last national elections. He actually went on the air, both radio and television, naming me, and using clips of sound bites which had been taken. When I asked for the right of reply, I was told, you have one minute. But just to give you an idea of the imbalance, and the lack of equal opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: What did he say about you?

TANA DE ZULUETA: Well, I think what he wanted to do, because he was being very firmly criticized by the foreign media, and in particular by my former employer, The Economist, who on a front page story —

AMY GOODMAN: The magazine, The Economist.

TANA DE ZULUETA: The magazine, The Economist with a photograph that wasn’t very flattering. I think the headline was “Unfit to Rule.” Berlusconi wanted to politicize that, to make it look as if it was partisan politics and avoiding the substance of the charges that were being brought, which regarded his conflict of interest, his outstanding criminal charges and this kind of issue. So, he picked on me, in a sense because he could say, “Well, it’s all her fault, because she is, as you can see, she’s a former reporter of The Economist actually in the Democratic Left Party. So they’re not unbiased.” I don’t think it was either more or less than that which gave me, you might say, some political attention, but it was a bit unnerving. I had to have my phone number taken off the public records, and there was police watching my house.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Senator Tana de Zulueta. She has been a senator on the Democratic Left since 1996, a leading critic of Berlusconi. Now, how many people are in the Italian Parliament, and what is the political makeup?

TANA DE ZULUETA: The Lower House is roughly 500, over 500 —- 550, and the senate is 300. We have a bicameral system, but both houses have legislative powers. At the moment, Mr. Berlusconi has a 100-member majority in the Lower House and a 40-member majority in the Senate, so he -—

AMY GOODMAN: A 40-member majority.

TANA DE ZULUETA: 40-member majority.

AMY GOODMAN: Is that considered large?

TANA DE ZULUETA: That’s very comfortable if you have 300 members, it’s more than 10%. So he has the power to, naturally, dictate the political agenda, which would be fine were it not for the fact that he also has media power and so the correct function of the media in this particular democracy has gone missing with, I think, very serious consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the Bush victory affect you? How did it affect Italy, and what about the Bush-Berlusconi-Blair axis?

TANA DE ZULUETA: I think it was obviously very good news for Berlusconi, who has pinned his entire foreign policy on a very close alliance with Mr. Bush, which is new. Italy had traditionally been pro-European, pro-European Union and with a close relationship with the Middle East and the Arab world. Part of the good neighborhood policies. All of that has gone by the board. We are now just good friends of Mr. Bush, and what Mr. Bush decides is our foreign policy. We feel that that makes us unduly vulnerable and it’s — it means that Italy is no longer a leading voice in the process of European unification. That’s a great pity. So, we’re among those, and I think that’s a large part of the citizenry of the world who are watching this with concern, the creation of a new administration, and fearing that we will get more of what we have had, and it hasn’t been good news for us. We were very much against the war, and we think it actually made this part of the world less safe.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much.


AMY GOODMAN: For joining us, Senator Tana de Zulueta, a senator here in Italy since 1996 on the Democratic Left, leading political critic of Berlusconi. She’s a former reporter with the Sunday Times and The Economist.

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