For the first time in almost 8 years Silvio Berlusconi appeared in a Milan court this morning. It had little to do with the law and a lot to do with political theatre. After years of shunning the courts, he has decided that the best defence is attack and attack on his own terms, not the court’s. Until now, he appeared in the dock as little as possible; now he has said that he will dedicate Mondays to court appearances. Monday (or even Saturday) mattinées were never like the Berlusconi show. The few formalities in court this morning were completely overshadowed by the performances before and after.
The morning began with Mattino Cinque a morning chatshow on Berlusconi’s Mediaset flagship channel Canale 5. It was hosted by Maurizio Belpietro employed by Berlusconi on the television show but also as editor of the strongly pro-Berlusconi paper Libero and previously editor of the Berlusconi family owned Il Giornale. The prime minister gave one of his well-honed speeches, one he has used a dozen times before. It was a peroration for the defence and of course without cross-examination but with a jury of millions listening. He has been “persecuted” and not prosecuted; “thousands” of magistrates have spent years trying to convict him in “25 prosecutions” but he has always been given a full acquittal; all of them, he maintains began after he went into politics. The charges against him are “ridiculous”.
As ever, Berlusconi was being flexible with the truth or just plain lying; he has had clashes with the law since 1979 and above all when he said that he has always been acquitted. On some occasions, charges were dropped because of the statute of limitations; on others, because the law was changed (by Berlusconi). He has been convicted at the court of first instance and then either acquitted or charges were dropped. But as on many other occasions, he swore on the heads of his children and grandchildren that he was innocent and that was the message he has succeeded in getting across to millions of Italians.
Then as he went into court and after the formalities, he was greeted by a claque of fans. On his way out, he stood on his car’s step and waved to them
. No rock star or sportsman could have done it better.
All this razamatazz will not change the prosecutor’s or judges’ minds but it does make a big difference. Ten days ago he introduced his “epochmaking” reform of the justice system – a reform which will go nowhere but last week one of his deputies introduced a tiny amendment to a bill in committee which if it becomes law, will reduce the statute of limitations for 65 year olds with a criminal record. It’s a pensioners’ get out of gaol free card; just what Mr. B needs.
In front of all this spin, the actual charges are almost irrelevant. Today’s trial, due to continue next week on 4 April, accuses Berlusconi of inflating payments for the rights of American television series in order to siphon off part into slush funds. The actions he is accused of allegedly took place up until 2009 so for this at least, the statute of limitations is still a long way off.
His criminal trials actually began again last week after the long hiatus due to his immunity laws. There are another three; three, apart from the Mediatrade case, have been running for some time and involve corruption of one form or another. In the fourth he is accused of having sex with an under age prostitute and for abuse of power – the so-called Ruby case. That will come to court next week on 6 April, the second anniversary of the L’Aquila earthquake and given the subject matter will have far more coverage than the others whether Berlusconi graces the court with his presence or not. In the meantime, there have already been revelations about Ruby and her friends which would make Leporello blush. He said that Don Giovanni had had 640 amours in Italy, but none was subpoenaed unlike Berlusconi’s who might well give flesh to Leporello famous “il catalogo è questo”.
On 11 April, another embezzlement and fraud trial known as Mediaset, comes to court. Berlusconi missed the first hearing in February but has said that he will attend next month.
The prime minister will be busy quite apart from what is happening in Libya.