Sunday, February 08, 2004

It’s not the BBC – the RAI, broadcasting and media law in Italy; the verifica.

This week was supposed to have seen the consolidation of the government coalition, the so-called verifica. There should have been discussions between the coalition leaders, decisions taken on issues to give priority to and - perhaps - a cabinet reshuffle. Instead, Mr. Berlusconi found that his allies were not as loyal as they ought to be and that they do not always follow the party line. So far, the process has dragged on for two weeks and little has been verified apart from the muddle.

The Gasparri media reform bill is a controversial piece of legislation that would protect one of the Prime Minister’s television channels and allow broadcasters to move into the print media and, arguably, allow a single operator to take a larger share of the total market. It has been strongly criticised as being blatantly in the interest of Mr. Berlusconi’s own media conglomerate Mediaset. For some of these reasons, President Ciampi refused to sign it last year and asked Parliament to reconsider the draft. This draft came very close to defeat on some crucial amendments, so instead of steaming through Parliament propelled by a huge majority, it was been ignominiously withdrawn to Committee to languish there probably till after the European Parliament elections in June.

There were exchanges between the otherwise usually amicable Umberto Bossi and Berlusconi. The first said the other was “cooked” and the Prime Minister replied that the opponents in the coalition would end up cooked by the Euro-elections. Not the most edifying or even witty exchange of political invective.

Whatever happens in this coming week, a process that should have given new impetus and energy to the government has ended up weakening it. The differences remain unresolved and there have been no clear winners or losers in terms of either jobs or programmes. Pressing issues like pensions, devolution and the new financial regulator will no doubt be given many words, but none of them definitive.

At the same time, the media, the issue most closely linked to Silvio Berlusconi, keeps on bubbling away.

It is revealing to compare Italy with the British experience of the last fortnight. The Hutton report gave the BBC a bloody nose but since then, there has been a very audible honing of weapons in the Corporation ready for the return match which will be the Butler report on intelligence gathering leading up to the war in Iraq. It is just possible that investigative reporting and criticism of government will be muted. On the other hand it seems more likely that by tightening their procedures, the BBC will enhance and strengthen its powers of criticism.

Here in Italy, in a 3 January report “Reporters sans frontières” reckoned that media pluralism was at risk in Italy as a result of Berlusconi’s control. Many others are worried; Guglielmo Epifani, the secretary general of the left-wing union CGIL, told an opposition conference on the media that the sector was “a patient with a 39 degree (102F) fever”.

There has been criticism of RAI’s techniques, especially the Channel 1 news; one of its senior editors resigned accusing the director of doctoring the news in the Government’s favour, omitting embarrassing material like Berlusconi’s famous “Kapò” speech at the European Parliament last July or “sandwiching” critical material between wads of pro-government padding, called a “sandwiche” or panino in RAI newsroomspeak. Paolo Serventi Longhi, the Secretary General of the Journalists’ Union, used the example that print media and most of the other televisions recently criticised economics minister Tremonti one evening, but nothing appeared on RAI 1.

And the opposition-leaning RAI President Lucia Annunziata accused Berlusconi of “calling the board members to murmur names and influence programme choice”. The government supporters on the Board hotly denied these accusations but the reputation of the RAI sank even lower. In contrast to Britain, the battle between Government and public service broadcasting in Italy is a bloody street fight, hand to hand, desk by desk, news item by news item.

Even the humorists have had a tough time; a cartoonist declared that it was impossible to make fun of what was already ridiculous, while a court accepted imitator Sabrina Guzzanti’s appeal against the suppression of her programme “RAIot, Armi di Distrazione di Massa”. The judge affirmed the right to satire, but then declared that all the offending sketches were not satire at all, they were true. Guzzanti impersonates Berlusconi (as well as Massimo D’Alema, Annunziata and a number of other public figures) better than they do themselves. She fills theatres, but was removed from the RAI in November. No wonder that despite judgement in her favour, we still do not have a broadcast date.

The other battlefront is in Parliament. Last week about 40 deputies voted against the Gasparri Bill. Almost unheard of elsewhere, in Italy Parliamentarians may vote secretly on occasions, so we do not know the names of the rebels. Some of these votes were National Alliance and others were from the centrist UDC; last year they had voted compactly in favour but with a secret division, many of them used it to fire a shot across the Prime Minister’s bows. The rebellion was a warning to Mr. Berlusconi that he will not have everything his own way for the rest of the legislature.

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