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Fmr. Top Italian News Anchor Lilli Gruber on the Italy Elections, Media Monopoly and Beating Berlusconi for a Seat in European Parliament

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi continues to refuse to concede defeat in the country’s general elections. We speak with Lilli Gruber, a former top TV news anchor in Italy who resigned from national broadcaster RAI, criticizing Berlusconi’s media influence as an “unresolved conflict of interest.” She ran against Berlusconi in 2004 for a seat in European Parliament and won. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to Italy, where opposition leader Romano Prodi has once again urged Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to admit defeat in the country’s general election.

Prodi narrowly beat Berlusconi last week in one of Italy’s closest races ever. According to the official count, Prodi’s coalition won 158 Senate seats to Berlusconi’s 156. But Berlusconi is refusing to concede defeat. He denounced the election result as fraudulent and is considering issuing a decree to order a partial recount.

In a letter to the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday, Berlusconi indicated that he was not prepared to give up. He wrote, “At least on the basis of the popular vote, there”s no winner and no loser.”

But Berlusconi’s best hope of overturning Prodi’s win in the lower house of parliament appeared to have vanished on Friday when the interior ministry said there were not enough disputed ballots to change the election outcome.

Berlusconi lost the race even though he holds tremendous control over what Italians see and hear. Besides being Italy’s sitting Prime Minister, the billionaire owns three of Italy’s national TV stations, the largest publishing house and the largest advertising agency. He also owns the AC Milan soccer team and is considered to be Italy’s wealthiest person. Politically, Berlusconi has been a close ally of Bush and a supporter of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Our guest today is another person that Berlusconi lost an election race to, Lilli Gruber. A former journalist, she is perhaps Italy’s most famous TV anchor. In 1987, she became the first woman to present the evening news for the primary national channel Raiuno. She later became international political correspondent for RAI, covering events from the war in the Balkans to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In April 2004, Lilli Gruber resigned from her post at RAI after 20 years at the channel, criticizing Berlusconi’s media influence. She wrote “The absence of common rules, the anomalous concentration of power in the hands of one man and the obvious, unresolved conflict of interest that this has given rise to, hurts both broadcasting and the credibility of our democracy.”

Gruber then ran against Berlusconi for a seat in the European Parliament. In a stunning victory, she won the seat by roughly twice as many as votes as the Prime Minister. She joins us today in our firehouse studio.

  • Lilli Gruber, Italian member of European Parliament and former television journalist.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re joined in our studio by another person Berlusconi lost an election to, and that is Lilli Gruber. She’s a former journalist. She is perhaps Italy’s most famous TV anchor. In 1987, she became the first woman to present the evening news for the channel that is called RAI. She later became international political correspondent, covering events from the war in the Balkans to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In April 2004, Lilli Gruber resigned from her post at Rai after twenty years at the channel, criticizing Berlusconi’s media influence. She wrote, “The absence of common rules, the anomalous concentration of power in the hands of one man, and the obvious unresolved conflict of interest that this has given rise to hurts both broadcasting and the credibility of our democracy.” Lilli Gruber then ran against Berlusconi for a seat in the European Parliament. In a stunning victory, she won. She won the seat by roughly twice as many as the votes as Prime Minister Berlusconi, and she joins us in our Firehouse studio today in New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!

LILLI GRUBER: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s very good to have you with us. What does that mean that you ran against him and won, but for the European Parliament?

LILLI GRUBER: Well, that was the decision that I made two years ago, because we had European elections, and I was head of the list and he was head of the list of his coalition, so that’s when I got the double of the votes that he got.

AMY GOODMAN: But people in this country I don’t think understand that in Italy you run for two posts, one is within the country and one outside.

LILLI GRUBER: Yeah, we have national parliamentarian elections that just took place last week, and then we have the elections for the European Parliament. You know, the European Union has a parliament of 732 M.P.s, and we have elections every five years, and we are representing our country — I’m representing Italy in the European Parliament. The European Parliament is representing 25 countries of Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: Another thing people I don’t think understand is Berlusconi’s power within the country, because of his ownership of the media outlets, as well as being prime minister. How does that work, and how does it relate to the other media that’s not owned but run by him?

LILLI GRUBER: Well, you know, the problem is that there is a huge conflict of interest for Berlusconi, and this should have been resolved years ago. There is no law, no serious law to limit Berlusconi’s power, not only on the media, because he is a businessman and he’s a businessman in the construction business, in the insurance sector, in the media, so it’s just you don’t know what to do to limit his power. So it meant, for example, for Italian public television that after he gained the elections, he won the elections, that he was in control of the public television networks, as well. So we have three private networks and three public networks, and this is, you know, when I started feeling very, very uneasy. It’s not that the political parties haven’t had influence before on Italian public television, but never like this before. Never ever.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you feel the pressure at RAI?

LILLI GRUBER: Well, the pressure was just every day, and it was — when I was anchoring the news it was, you know, arguing about my scripts with the editor-in-chief and, for example, there was at a certain point, the Berlusconi government passed a very controversial media law that was rejected by our head of state, Ciampi, because it was seen as against the constitution, so he sent it back to the Parliament. So one night I said on our prime time news show, “the controversial media law,” and then I got a phone call from my editor-in-chief saying that, you know, “Why did you say 'controversial?'” And I said, “Excuse me, the head of the state sent it back the Parliament, because it’s against the constitution, so the least that we can say, besides the hot debate that was unleashed by this law, is that it’s a controversial law.” And it was again and again, every night and every night, and I just gave you one example, but the level of manipulation and of censorship was, for me, just unbearable, and I didn’t want to put my face on the news program any more, because it was too biased.

AMY GOODMAN: You quit in 2004, which was after the invasion in Iraq. How did the coverage of Iraq get affected by this?

LILLI GRUBER: Well, during the war I was censored a couple of times. You know, I was on the air all the time, so I don’t even know how many times they censored, but, you know, at the time they were quite careful, and I was very careful. You know, I was aware of the fact that I was working for the leading television network in Italy, and I was aware of the fact that the government of my country had backed Bush in this war against Iran — I mean, against Iraq — that’s a nice lapse, but there will be no war against Iran, don’t worry.

So I was very careful, you know, and while I was a reporter I’ve always been a serious balanced reporter, so I was just telling the news as they were. Then, the year later, when I went back to Iraq, it was getting very, very difficult, because the Italians had our troops in Iraq already, in Nasiriyah, and it was when, you know, the four Italian contractors had been kidnapped, one was killed. So at that point it was already impossible to have a balanced reporting from Iraq. And it was impossible to have balanced reporting on what was going on in Italy, so that was when I decided to quit.

AMY GOODMAN: So, right now we see your party has won. Berlusconi has been defeated, but he’s not conceding defeat.

LILLI GRUBER: I’m not a party member. I’ve never have been, and I will never be a party member. I’m too much of a journalist, you know, to be a member of a political party. I was an independent in this broad center-left coalition. So this coalition won the elections.

Berlusconi, you know, Berlusconi will fight until the very end. I mean, he doesn’t want to give up an inch of the power that he has had so far in my country, and what he’s trying to do here is to de-legitimize Prodi’s and the center-left’s victory, and this is very dangerous. You know, as we would say in Italian, “He’s playing with fire,” because here you had Italians going to the polls and even if it was a very narrow victory, it was a victory, and the center-left coalition won the elections. You know, this is a fact, but Berlusconi is trying to undermine the credibility of this future government and the credibility of this coalition, and I think it’s just an impossible game to play in a serious democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: But he does control the levers of power, so how does he release — how do you make him release those levers of power?

LILLI GRUBER: Well, you know, but first of all, this is the funny thing, because, you know, the Interior Minister is his minister. It’s a minister of his government, and the Interior Minister said that there were around 5,000 contested ballots, but for the rest, everything was okay, because he, you know, started saying that there were frauds and stuff like this. So, his minister said that these elections are fine. Now, it’s a matter of time.

Unfortunately, we have — the new Parliament, the new elected Parliament has to choose a new head of state. So, you know, the political game is getting very complicated, because they have to find a major consensus on the name, on the person of the new head of state. It might be the same one, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, but we need a new head of state in order to have a new designed prime minister, and this means, you know, that days pass by, weeks, months, and we’re wasting time. That’s basically what’s happening right now, but there is no reason to say that, you know, that there is an uncertainty about the result of the elections.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the effect of the ex-pats voting, of Italians outside of Italy? Was this the first time they could vote?

LILLI GRUBER: It was their first time, and they were crucial, actually, and they will be crucial, you know, for the majority in the Senate. In the lower chamber, the majority of the center-left is clear. There is no problem there, but in the Senate, there is this narrow victory and the M.P.s elected abroad are crucial for the Prodi majority.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lilli Gruber, who is a member of the European Parliament from Italy. She was the most prominent and the first woman TV anchor on the public television broadcaster in Italy called RAI, until she quit in 2004 to challenge Berlusconi for a European Parliament seat. You have written a number of books; one of them is about Iran called Chador, and you just mentioned, “No, the U.S. is not going to attack Iran.” Why do you say that that?

LILLI GRUBER: Well, I think that, for sure, the American administration has a plan on attacking Iran. This is part of the political game, again, and also part of, you know, the military and defense strategy. But, you know, Iran is not Iraq. Iran is a strong country; it’s a big country; it’s more than 70 million people; it’s a country with a strong army; it’s a proud country. Iraq was a, I always described it, you know, as a big refugee camp. I mean, Iraq was after three wars and 12 years of heavy, heavy sanctions, I mean, it was not a threat, as you know it turned out, as we realized a little bit after the American invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: Which might have been why the U.S. attacked, because it wasn’t a threat.

LILLI GRUBER: Exactly, exactly. And this is also why the Iranians are playing a tough game on the nuclear dossier, because, you know, probably, and the C.I.A. says it, they are very, very far from being able to build a nuclear weapon, because it’s not like taking a cab, building a nuclear weapon. It takes technology; it takes fuel; it takes lots of things, and so far we don’t know if the Iranians have been working on a nuclear program, a military nuclear program, and they have the right to have a civil nuclear program, as we know. So, the Americans — it’s too risky. It would enflame even more the whole area, and Iran is a central country in that area. It’s, you know, on the border with the Middle East and Central Asia. It’s the second oil producer in the OPEC, so you have to be careful with Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: The reports were that Prodi would withdraw Italian troops from Iraq, but isn’t it true that when Giuliana Sgrena was captured in Iraq, was kidnapped, that Berlusconi said that the troops would be leaving at the end of — what was it? — September, or certainly by the end of 2006?

LILLI GRUBER: Yes, you know, Berlusconi, as the elections approached, he started saying that he would pull out the Italian troops from Iraq, because he knew that this was — would have been a central issue in the electoral campaign, but finally, eventually Berlusconi said so many things during the electoral campaign and even before, that so far, was he serious about it? We don’t know. Because you know, when he said that he would cut taxes all over the place, you know, if he would do that, the Italian public administration could not survive any more, so as a matter of fact, Prodi said that we will pull out the troops as soon as possible, which means that Italy wants to, with the new government, wants to discuss the issue with the new Iraqi government, which I don’t know if it’s going to be possible, because as you know the Iraqi government does not exist so far, because they are quarreling over this coalition. They are not agreeing on who is going to be the prime minister, is it going to be al-Jaafari or someone else?

AMY GOODMAN: Lilli Gruber, what is the attitude toward America and toward President Bush from Italy?

LILLI GRUBER: Well, Italy — this is the reason why I’m working on a new book about America — Italy is either anti-American from a pure ideological point of view, or they don’t know enough about America, which is probably true for all the countries when it comes down to foreign affairs issues. But it’s true that the Italians, they like the America that I guess you and I like, which is the America that stands for civil rights, that is defending the democratic values, that even after 9/11 hasn’t given up on these values, and so I think that, you know, they dislike Bush and the Bush administration very, very much, but since the situation has been polarized so terribly by Bush and also by the Italian government, you know, in the sense that who is not with me is against me, you cannot criticize the American administration now in Italy, because then you are labeled as an anti-American, which is completely ridiculous.

So me, myself, for example, I am totally against the Bush administration. I think they have harmed, so far, America and the image of America abroad, but I’m not anti-American at all. I mean, I’ve always — I lived in this country. I even won a fellowship at the University of Chicago. I have friends in America. My husband went to university in America. So, I really like this country, but I don’t like the Bush administration, and I would love to be free to say that, even in my country.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, there is a controversy going on in Milan around whether there will be a call for the extradition of more than 20 C.I.A. agents involved with what in the U.S. is called extraordinary rendition, the abducting of a sheik off the streets of Milan, taking him out of Italy, the Italian government saying they were not involved. What do you know of this?

LILLI GRUBER: Well, you know, I’m, by the way, in the European Parliament in the committee, in the special committee, ad hoc committee dealing with these extraordinary renditions on European soil and abductions of so-called terrorists. Well, you know, I think it’s completely ridiculous that the Italian government says that they didn’t know about it, because if they didn’t know about it then it’s really — we’re really in deep, deep trouble, because we are a sovereign country with our government and there is another country that comes with its secret agents and does what it wants in our country. That’s inconceivable, so clearly they lied upon it, and we also had an audition with the chief of the Italian secret service in Brussels, and he denied it, as well. He said, “No, no, we didn’t know about it.”

AMY GOODMAN: We did not?

LILLI GRUBER: We did not. So the secret service did not know, so the secret service is completely useless. If they had not realized that in Milan there were 22 C.I.A. agents operating and preparing the abduction of a terrorist, then again, we are in trouble. So I think it’s — they’re just lying.

AMY GOODMAN: And the position of the European Parliament on European countries being used to or providing airfields for the so-called torture flights taking these terror suspects from place to place?

LILLI GRUBER: The European Parliament is, of course, against it, but since the European Parliament is representing, you know, the whole political spectrum in Europe, which means, you know, the center-right parties, left parties, central parties, whatever. We have now this committee, and of course, the — you know, the center-right parties, they would — I think they would love to see this committee ending just in, you know, we have tried our best but there are no results. So we’re supposed to find out what really happened. But it’s extremely difficult, because we need, you know, the governments and the secret service of the different countries to work with us, and this is not always the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the U.S. cooperated?

LILLI GRUBER: So far, not that much, but we were trying, and next month there is a group of the committee that is coming to Washington and to the United States trying to meet people and find out what really happened, but you know, it’s going very difficult; I know that. But I think it’s important that Europe has clearly signaled and indicated that these kind of practices are not legal and won’t be tolerated on European soil.

AMY GOODMAN: Lilli Gruber, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

LILLI GRUBER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Lilli Gruber, a member of the European Parliament, beat Berlusconi, Silvio Berlusconi out for that seat representing their area of Italy.

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