Thursday, July 22, 2004

News not fit to print

On Tuesday (20 July), at lunchtime, I get a call from the BBC World Service’s “Europe Today” programme. “What do you think”, I am asked, “of Paolo Berlusconi getting a four year sentence for false invoices?”

This was the first I’d heard of it but I’d been doing other things in the morning. I try and find out more about what had actually happened. He had previous convictions with suspended sentences for corruption and other accounting crimes (some charges dropped when his brother decriminalised false accounting). It sounded very much as if he would actually have to see the inside of San Vittore, Milan’s main gaol. Politically there would be repercussions; to be sure Silvio was not directly involved but he and Paolo worked closely together and many of the Prime Ministers responsibilities were passed on to his younger brother when he went into politics. With the government showing ever-growing cracks, this news looked like another serious fissure in the Berlusconi edifice. Maybe, I dared to think, if Paolo’s trials can finish, even Silvio’s trial for corruption might reach a verdict.

While talking to the BBC person, I go to the Repubblica site to see how they are treating the story. There is nothing – their lead is a speech of President Ciampi’s saying that Italy’s progress depends on “Unity and the Constitution”, hardly controversial. What about ANSA, the country’s principal wire service; again nothing. Surely Unità could be relied upon to use dirt on any member of the Berlusconi family; again nothing. Marianne of the BBC is surprised but says she will check with the BBC monitoring service. And I also recheck.

Looking more carefully at the ANSA site, I find a 69 word dispatch - False fatturazioni: inflitte le con... timed at 11.29. Paolo Berlusconi had indeed been convicted again, but to four months and 15 days not four years. On closer inspection, I find the Repubblica wire, It is a little longer at 138 words timed at 11.35. It points out that Paolo Berlusconi is the Prime Minister’s brother and that this sentence should be served consecutively to his other year and 9 month sentence passed two years ago. Mr. Berlusconi’s company SIMEC had issued false invoices to other Berlusconi-owned companies for rubbish and waste disposal in the Nineties. This conviction was for issuing false invoices in order to defraud both the councils and avoid paying taxes. For the 2002 conviction, he plea bargained the sentence on other related charges down at the same time as paying damages of €85 m. to the councils and the tax authorities.

Marianne and I discuss whether at only four months, this is a story worth doing and we decide that it probably is not (but agree that in any other country if the PM’s brother gets sent down for four and a half months for business dealings relating to family wealth, it probably is a good story). Later, the “Europe Today” editors change their minds but without a mobile, I didn’t know till too late so I do not do the interview and they do not run the story. At that point, I thought it was the end of the matter and that I’d wait for the papers the next day for a bit of background.

I hardly expected Paolo Berlusconi’s own Giornale to lead with the story but I’d hoped for the neutral and opposition papers to give it a good spread. Instead the resounding silence went beyond the Berlusconi family papers. Corriere della Sera did not mention the matter; not only was there no comment, there was not even an “in brief” account on the Italian news pages. Repubblica, storngly anti-Berlusconi, gave the story three short columns at the top of page 20 and even Unità only gave it two very short columns at the bottom of page 3. The news broke mid-morning so there was plenty of time to produce acres of print if an editor had wanted to but obviously no one thought it interesting enough.

That is the charitable explanation; the less charitable explanation is that dealing in waste disposal always leaves unpleasant odours and that if the Prime Minister is involved, even indirectly, it is better to leave well alone and even for the opposition, not to dig too deeply.

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