Apprehensive and hopeful, at 7pm , Frontline club is packed with host BBC 4 radio presenter Steve Hewlett, panelists and members all gathered to discuss the extent to which former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi influenced the media and its future after his resignation last year. With a majority italians, the evening’s panel and audience included a large number of journalists, academics and thinkers from Italy and the UK, two countries where the media’s conduct and independence has become an urgent part of the national agenda.
Interestingly, condemnation of Berlusconi’s media involvement was not wholesale. Paolo Mancini, University of Perugia said,
“Everyone here will expect me to say one thing but I don’t think Berlusconi is controlling the media. It’s overstated.”
“Berlusconi tried to limit freedom of journalists but he did not succeed because there was the opposition press, particularly the print media,” agreed Gianpietro Mazzoleni, from the University of Milan.
“RAI 3 constantly make shows that have continued to keep people alive and alert people against Berlusconi “
However, some industry insiders were not convinced. Mattia Bagnoli, UK correspondent at the Italian news agency ANSA opposed:
“I must say he controlled much of the Italian media for a long time. We are not talking about news here but we are talking about culture and reality shows. What’s on television is a reflection of what he projects on to Italian people to enjoy life.”
“He had control in the media not only through television but also through print in the form of advertising through his company Mondadori,” he added.
As with all modern European countries, most Italians depend on television for their source of news and information. So was Berlusconi clever in choosing his medium?
Marco Niada, former bureau chief of Il Sole 24, said his television empire failed to keep pace with new media.
“He knows many Italian people don’t read. He thought without imposing too much influence through paper he could control them through TV. However, he started to be defeated by technology. He was still stuck in terrestrial TV and social media started to take over.”
It didn’t take long for the lurid saga of Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties to surface. Giovanni, an Italian documentary director, pointed out coverage of the scandal in mainstream Italian TV media was poor, saying most people relied on the internet. Meanwhile a reporter from the Financial Times defended the Italian news output: “Don’t make the Italian media sound clandestine. La Repubblica went all out to cover the scandal extensively for days.”
Mattia added, “As an Italian news agency we are obliged to cover it impartially and we did.”
The discussion swiftly moved into the future of Italian media, now that Berlusconi is gone.
Mattia and Gianpietro weren’t entirely optimistic, as they feel many of the Italian MPs are still linked to Berlusconi.
“Mario Monti is here just to bring the country back from default. They need to rewrite the constitution for RAI,” said Mattia.
“Monti factor is crucial at this point,” said Gianpietro. We don’t know about the future but we can guess, Monti will take the opportunity to reform RAI but he will be cautious.”
Coming back to the question of press freedom, Steve asked whether a more liberal Italian media is possible in five years. Marco said,
“Worst enemies of press freedom are journalists themselves, It will take more than five years. “
As the Leveson Enquiry uncovers more evidence of press corruption in the UK, these words may ring true for the British and Italian news industries alike.