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Berlusconi the Censor

Sciuscia, in Neapolitan Italian, means “Shoeshine”. It is the most controversial, provocative, irritating programme on the second channel of Italy’s state television, RAI.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy, would like to make sure that last week’s 33rd edition of Sciuscia–pronounced ‘shiewsha’–is the last. In April, Mr Berlusconi claimed that Michele Santoro, the anchorman of this crazy mix of brilliant documentaries and That Was The Week That Was, had “made a criminal use of public television”. Italian journalists are waiting for blood to flow.

Last week’s “final” programme of the season–in which I was invited to take part–included a devastating documentary by the reporter Corrado Formigli on the West’s failure to help Afghanistan. It also featured a long, angry and sometimes hilarious studio debate on the folly of our involvement in the country between NGOs, defence specialists, an American actress, a leftist Italian reporter, a pro-Israeli journalist and Signor Fisk.

Sciuscia has been a plague on the Berlusconi administration, at one point investigating the mafia-like background of one of the Prime Minister’s closest colleagues. In presenting the plight of Palestinians under occupation, Mr Santoro was accused by the Italian Jewish community–like so many journalists who dare to criticise Israel–of “anti-Semitism”. Leone Paserman, the president of the Jewish community in Rome, also asked the RAI administration to fire Mr Santoro. Mr Paserman was subsequently ordered by an Italian court to pay *50,000 (lbs32,000) to the journalist.

Like many leftist reporters in Italy, Mr Santoro was a communist–he began his career as a journalist on the then communist party newspaper L’Unita but, today, he is the perfect anchorman, as provocative as Jeremy Paxman and as theatrical as Brian Rix–the perfect David Frost before Sir David went to seed. He goads his guests into anger and generosity. RAI’s board of five administrators are not amused. Three of them, appointed in February, are allies of Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the president of RAI, Antonio Baldassarre, is close to the Berlusconi coalition.

Sciuscia staff have not been told if they will be allowed another series–by now, they should already be planning next autumn’s schedule.

In addition to the influence he wields over the RAI board, Mr Berlusconi has a near- monopoly on private-sector television in Italy: through his company Mediaset, he controls three private channels–Channel Five, Italy 1 and Network 4. Through his brother, he controls the daily newspaper Il Giornale, with a circulation of 200,000. He, in effect, controls the weekly news magazine Panorama, and also the gossip magazine Chi with a circulation of about 1 million.

Despite promising after his rise to power last year not to meddle in the running of the public television network, Mr Berlusconi provoked outcry with his suggestion that there should be a purge of current affairs presenters such as Mr Santoro. Again the opposition reacted with horror last month when a majority of members of the ruling coalition put their names to a motion calling for the suspension of Sciusia, and three other news programmes accused of “one sidedeness” during local election campaigning.

Is this just another little fracas between the right-wing papivor of Italian politics and the subversive, electorally defeated forces of the left? It would be pleasant to think so. But a few hours after the last programme of the series, I came upon an exhibition in the basement of the Vittorio Emanuele monument, the notorious ice-cream cake of concrete and marble that houses Italy’s First World War unknown warrior. This was a Rome I had never seen before. The exhibition, a demonstration of 150 years of Italian unity, a plaque at the entrance announced, was the inspiration of none other than Mr Berlusconi.

Inside were dozens of military flags, indeed hundreds–in fact, far too many military flags–from the 1914-18 war and before. There was a piece of Garibaldi’s leg bone, extracted after the 1862 battle of Aspromonte, and even the great man’s right, fur-lined boot, complete with bullet hole. Far more impressive was a long documentary on the Italian army’s campaign against the Austro-Hungarian empire in the First World War, when Italy was, of course, on “our” side. Worrying, however, is the written commentary, appearing on screen as it must have done when the film was originally put together–presumably in the early years of Mussolini’s rule. Over and over again, war is referred to as “glorious”. The 600,000 Italian casualties of the war are even referred to, in Italian, as a “holocaust”. The last great battle of the war–at Piave–is treated as a blood sacrifice.

Nothing inaccurate from a factual point of view, perhaps but is blood really the unifying cement of Italy? I thought I might find an antidote across the square at the Palazzo Valentini, where another exhibition–“Portrait of an Era: Art and Architecture in the Fascist Era”–was arranged in what were once the baths of the Emperor Trajan. The purpose of the exhibition, Rossana Bossaglia’s introduction informed me, was “to show how Italian art of the Fascist era developed an expressive language of its own, able to deal with different themes in a completely independent way….” This sounded a little dodgy. No condemnation of the Fascist era.

Rather, a peek into what might have been good about it. And, sure enough, there was an oil painting of Mussolini and then a sculpture of Mussolini, alongside a photograph of the Duce himself looking at the very same sculpture. Silvano Moffa, president of the Rome province, offers us, in the same introduction, the thought that “Fascism as it was in the 1920s–that is to say a movement characterised by the need to celebrate itself–was not the same movement it would become in the 1930s. From the very beginning of his dictatorship, Mussolini stated that the relationship between politics and art was an important one, and promoted several exhibitions …” What did this mean?

I opened my Italian newspaper. And what did I find? President Carlo Ciampi of Italy wants to honour Garibaldi, the Italian soldiers who bravely fought the Nazis on the island of Cephalonia in the Second World War and–wait for it–the soldiers who fought in the battle of El Alamein in 1942. But the latter soldiers were fighting for Mussolini and his Nazi allies. Had Rommel won the battle with Italian help, the Axis powers would have reached Cairo and Palestine–whose Jewish population would then have been included in the holocaust. I wondered, briefly, whether Mr Paserman wouldn’t have done better to complain about this sinister plan of Mr Ciampi rather than slandering Mr Santoro.

Is this something to be worried about? Italian journalists like to ameliorate the situation. Mr Berlusconi is a businessman first, they told me. So is Mr Ciampi, a man who often speaks before he thinks. Mr Santoro is an artist who likes to play the martyr. And if Sciuscia comes back on the air, it will be another Italian tempest. If it does not, however, a lot of Europeans might do well to think more seriously about Mr Berlusconi, to ask themselves whether he really is the president of a united Italy. Or a scoundrel.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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