By John Hooper , The Guardian, 8 November 2010
Silvio Berlusconi’s standard response, whenever he is challenged about his media power, is to exclaim indignantly that the Italian press is as free as any in the world. That, of course, misses the point that he either controls or influences six of the seven main terrestrial channels (the sole exception being La7, owned by Telecom Italia). The effects can be seen clearly in TV coverage ofthe latest wave of sex scandals to wash over Italy’s prime minister.Corriere della Sera’s TV critic, Aldo Grasso, called it “a triumph of reticence”. He added: “if you followed the Italian television news bulletins, you would understand very little”.
That is crucial in a country where, even before the internet cut sales, barely 10% of the adult population bought a newspaper. But, says Antonio Padellaro, the editor of il Fatto Quotidiano, which broke the first of the recent scandals, Berlusconi is right. “There is absolutely no direct interference,” he says. But that does not mean editors are free of subtler constraints. One, says Padellaro, is exerted by libel litigation: “We face a barrage of lawsuits. I have writs to deal with demanding damages of up to €11m. [The Berlusconi MP, Renato] Schifani, the Senate speaker, wants €720,000 from us. I spend much of my time with lawyers, because if we ever pay out on one of these bigger demands, il Fatto will have to close.”
A junior minister in Berlusconi’s government caught up in a corruption scandal this year who has been on the receiving end of an il Fatto probe now makes a habit of suing the paper every time it prints his name, Padellaro says.
The other constraint is financial. Il Fatto is an exception, but most smaller-circulation dailies survive on government subsidies that were originally introduced to prop up official party newspapers. When Padellaro edited l’Unita, once the Communist party daily, it got €6m a year, he says. The bigger papers used to be entirely independent. But, as in other parts of the world, the Italian press is restructuring and several are currently drawing on state funds to finance early retirement schemes.
“So papers are tempted not to be too critical of the government, since it is the government that gives the OK for the funding,” says Padellaro.