Popolo della Libertà: Annihilating Freedom of the Press, One Journalist at a Time
These are heady days for the spin doctors in Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing majority party, the Popolo della Libertà (PdL).
As always, it’s a complex story … but that’s Italy for you. If you bear with me through this, I promise there’ll be an entertaining video at the end. Two, actually.
The brief-as-I-can-make-it version is: Regional elections are coming up in Italy at the end of March. In each Region where elections are to take place, local party committees are responsible for formally presenting the names of their candidates in a timely and legal fashion in the courthouse designated to accept them. The lists are scrutinized and, if accepted, the names go on the ballot.
In two regions, Lazio (the Region of which Rome is the capital) and Lombardia (Milan), the
goons representatives of Berlusconi’s party failed to present their lists on time. This should have meant that, in those two regions, the PdL’ s candidates would not have appeared on the ballots at election time.
Faster than you can say “election fraud,” however (and where is Jimmy Carter when you need him?), Berlusconi’s cadre of lawyers (whose capobanda, Niccolò Ghedini, is doing all he can to live up to his sixteenth-century namesake) immediately came up with an “insignificant little decree” that “reinterpreted” existing election statutes in such a way to make it possible for the lists to be accepted after all. Decreto legge decrees, which are similar to executive orders, go first to the Council of Ministers for approval (think: fox/hen house), and then to the President of the Republic, who must sign if the decree is to go forward. They’re then published in the “Official Gazette” and take immediate effect.
And that’s exactly what happened: Ghedini waltzed Berlusca’s “Save the Election Lists” decree through the Council of Ministers like Hitler through Poland, and President Napolitano, for reasons known only to him, signed it.
A tiny procedural point: a decreto legge is automatically nullified after sixty days if parliament doesn’t convert it into a law, but in this case: Who cares? The decree was published March 6, regional elections will be held on March 28-29, and even if parliament doesn’t convert the “insignificant little decree” into a law, the issue is moot anyway.
Meanwhile, Ghedini has also been working overtime to save Berlusconi from criminal and civil prosecution in a series of pending trials whose number seems to vary like the temperature. You’ll recall the so-called “Lodo Alfano” (one of Ghedini’s triumphs), declared unconstitutional by Italy’s Constitutional Court last October. The legislation would have exempted Berlusconi and three other of Italy’s “più alte cariche” (highest-level government officials) from prosecution for any illegal activity they may ever have engaged in. (See Slings and Arrows: They Always Come from the Left.)
Since that didn’t fly, Ghedini’s second plan was a different law claiming a legittimo impedimento on Berlusconi’s behalf that would extend to all pending or future litigation. The Italian term is close enough to English that you can work it out: Basically, Berlusconi is much too busy being Prime Minister to do things like appear in court to be questioned by judges. He wasn’t too busy to do things like bribe witnesses (allegedly, okay?). But he’s too busy to come to court. For the moment at least, legittimo impedimento is going swimmingly.
Nonetheless, Berlusconi et cie. were seriously piqued by the attempt to exclude their electoral lists in what are, arguably, Italy’s two most influential Regions, and by the decisions of courts in those Regions to uphold that exclusion. I mean, when you’re the Maximum Leader, it’s annoying when pinko-commie judges try to throw a monkey wrench into your plans.
So, while they waited for the whole decreto legge thing to work itself out, they launched a major media campaign whose message is that “they” (i.e., the Left—and judges are now automatically considered Leftists in Berlusconistan) are trying to keep the people from voting.
(The placards read: “They don’t want to let you vote. Make your voice heard.” Alternatively, see the front page of the 11 March La Padania, the house organ of Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord, which proclaims: “They’re Trying to Undermine Democracy!” [Download in .pdf form.])
I hope you were paying attention there, because it was easy to miss. We went, presto change-o from an only vaguely constitutional attempt to sidestep national election law to a propaganda campaign in which the effort to uphold election law is characterized as a Leftist plot to rob Italian citizens of their sacred right to vote.
Italy’s real Left, of course, quickly leaped into the fray, skillfully exposing the deceitfulness and chicanery of Berlusconi’s claims … oh, wait. Sorry. No. No, I only dreamed that. What they actually did was absolutely nothing. Meanwhile, Berlusconi has called for a national day of protest on March 20 to “defend the right to vote.”
I mean, really. Not even Karl Rove … Anyway, just a little more background and we’ll get to the audio-visuals.
Keep in mind that Berlusconi and his Retinue of Apparatchiks are simultaneously in a certain amount of hot water for having spent about three times more public money than was necessary to build housing for those left homeless by last April’s earthquake in the Abruzzo Region (housing that, to date, has nonetheless proved insufficient to accommodate thousands of people who were forced to spend the entire winter in tent cities or who are living in local hotels, which the public is also paying for).
At the same time, Berlusconi and Guido Bertolaso, the head of Italy’s Department of Civil Protection, are the subject of an tangentially related scandal following revelations not only that the government spent millions of euros to build highways, a tourist village, and a five-star hotel on a godforsaken stretch of coast on La Maddalena, an island off the coast of Sardinia, where they planned to host the 2009 G8 summit; and not only that Bertolaso awarded the subcontracts for said construction via a truly appalling circus of influence peddling, bribes, “favors,” and other graft; but also that the entire project came to a screeching halt because Berlusconi changed his mind after the earthquake, dumping La Maddalena like a one-night stand, so he could bring the G8 to L’Aquila (the capital of Abruzzo) instead. Presumably, the plus-valore of that
publicity stunt carefully considered decision was that Caesar Berlusconi could then demonstrate to G8 attendees that he was caring for Italian earthquake victims in admirable, not to say kingly, fashion.
The G8 was something of a flop, Italy was a laughing-stock for hosting a disorganized and slapdash summit, and the partially completed construction projects (including the enormous five-star hotel) stand abandoned on La Maddalena, the money spent on them wasted.
Okay, so all of that brings us to the 10 March 2010 press conference -– and here come the videos at last:
Video 1 (click to open in your pre-defined viewer or to download)
Video 2 (click to open in your pre-defined viewer or to download)
The press conference was called so Berlusconi could explain his “insignificant little decree” reinterpreting the Italian elections code and comment on the fiasco of the election lists. At a certain point, Berlusconi is talking (modestly) about the extremely high esteem in which he is held by foreign leaders around the world, not just because he’s a head of state but because he’s a “tycoon” (that’s the word he uses, in English) and, thus, is accorded an extra measure of respect for his business success. (He is Italy’s richest man, after all.)
Berlusconi is interrupted by a freelance journalist named Rocco Carlomagno, who begins to pepper the Prime Minister with questions about Bertolaso, the waste of public money, and the fact that, tycoon or no tycoon, a growing number of people in Italy don’t have enough to eat (Berlusconi and his government have, to date, refused to acknowledge the existence of an economic crisis in Italy).
Admittedly, it was a guerrilla move, and Carlomagno surely didn’t expect to be applauded in a room full of journalists whose outlets are, with only a few exceptions, owned by Berlusconi himself.
Turning to Video 1, above: First, Berlusconi tells Carlomagno it’s not his turn to speak, and then orders him to be escorted from the room (0:38). The man who marches into the audience toward the journalist is Minister of Defense, Ignazio Benito Maria La Russa (yes, he’s named for that Benito).
An aide comes over to Berlusconi (0:41) and says, “Don’t overdo it. They should be able to ask questions like that.” Berlusconi ignores him.
A journalist for the channel TG3 news is then recognized (0:48), but she prefaces her question with the observation that “it strikes me as odd to show a journalist the door just because he asked a question.” That gives Berlusconi the chance to explain how he’s doing all the other journalists a favor by ejecting someone who is interfering with the press conference. Carlomagno interrupts again (1:05) to say that the press conference is entirely “preconfezionato”—in other words, that it’s all a dog-and-pony show and the questions and answers are canned. La Russa once again charges into the audience.
After that, Berlusconi spends a little while insulting Carlomagno:
— “You’re a lout.” [1:11];
— After being told that Carlomagno “isn’t a real journalist” [he is, actually; like all freelancers, however, he can’t join the official press association], Berlusconi says, “Ah, then he’s nothing more than a provocateur” [1:25];
— When Carlomagno continues, raising questions about Bertolaso, Berlusconi responds [1:45], “Tell us your name, so Bertolaso can sue you in court for defamation”;
— And, finally (2:15), Berlusconi uses one of his favorite tactics, the personal insult (see, “Che la Tosa la Tasa: Turning the Corner on Sexism in Italy?“): “I understand why you’re so angry—every morning when you wake up and look in the mirror so you can comb your hair, you see yourself and for you the day’s already ruined.”
At that point, Berlusconi abruptly concludes the press conference (2:31), saying “This is a press conference for journalists and not for individuals like you.”
Carlomagno doesn’t give up, and Berlusconi makes “one final observation” (2:46): “It would never occur to a single one of us to go to a press conference held by a leader of the Left at a time like this and cause a disturbance. That demonstrates your utter lack of democracy and your opposition to the principles of liberty. And that’s why I felt I had the right to say you should be ashamed of yourself, and I’ll say it again now with even greater conviction.”
During the photo op, Carlomagno keeps talking and so does Berlusconi: “Here’s the Left! Here’s the Left we’re forced to deal with,” Berlusconi says (3:21) Note that Carlomagno never indicates that he’s from the Left, but the fact that he’s critical of Berlusconi makes him a Leftist. (The smiley woman next to Berlusconi, by the way, is Renata Polverini, whose candidacy for the presidency of the Lazio Region is in jeopardy because of the election-lists scandal.)
The video then moves on to the altercation between La Russa and Carlomagno (3:27), which continues for several seconds. The visual is blocked, though Video 2, as well as others widely distributed on the internet, shows La Russa grabbing Carlomagno by the coat and shoving him around, then smacking him on the back of the head. After that, Carlomagno yells at La Russa, “You’re a fascist bully” (4:04).
What you have to imagine here is a journalist asking President Obama a tough or embarrassing question at a press conference, and Robert Gates jumping up to grab the guy by the coat and hustle him toward the door. It’s hilarious—right up until you start thinking about it.
The video concludes (4:10) with the commentary that the confrontation broke out when Berlusconi was explaining to journalists that problems with the presentation of the lists were in no way attributable to his party, but were rather entirely the fault of radical judges because the Left was squalid and anti-democratic and was trying to win the game by having the referee lock the opposing team in the locker room. Or words to that effect. (I hate sports metaphors in politics.)
If you were wondering what the average Italian thought about all this, well, you’d have a hard time knowing. Though the incident was reported in the foreign press (see, e.g., “Silvio Berlusconi Loses Temper with Journalist”), most Italians aren’t even aware it happened.
And that’s because the event was largely ignored in the Italian media. By all those “real” journalists with press credentials and membership cards.Which only goes to show: When you provide the kind of exemplary model of democracy and commitment to the principles of liberty that Prime Minister Berlusconi has, the press is sure to follow.