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Italian Elections

Aired April 7, 2006 - 19:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney.
Welcome to this special edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, brought to you from Rome, Italy, where the country is deciding who will be its next prime minister.

In a moment, we'll be speaking to a panel of prominent journalists about media coverage of the campaign, a campaign that's been riddled with controversy and fought with fire.

The two major contenders are, of course, the current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and his central left challenger, Romano Prodi.

It's no secret that the pair are bitter enemies. Two television debates, with as much slapping in the press have shown that there's no love lost between them.

In the media, Mr. Prodi is cast as a mild mannered and affable man, curious in nature, but lacking in the charisma department and that is something his rival, the multi-billionaire, media mogul, isn't short of.

Mr. Berlusconi isn't shy when it comes to blowing his own trumpet. He describes himself as, quote, "the best political leader in Europe and the world." He's also compared himself to Christ, Moses and Napoleon.

But despite his confidence, the Italian prime minister may lose his suggestive title if opinion polls prove accurate.

Jonathan Miller of Britain's "Channel 4 News" traveled to Italy to see whether Mr. Berlusconi's unorthodox campaigning style can win him another five years in office.


JONATHAN MILLER, BRITAIN CHANNEL 4 NEWS (voice-over): Italy's surgically enhanced, hair transplanted, permittance prime minister is doing his best to pretend it's just business as usual. Whispers in Rome, though, that he may have suffered some sort of breakdown.

Mr. Berlusconi, are you feeling OK? They say you've gone a little bit crazy.

If you read Italian newspapers, you'll understand the electoral campaign and how the communist left always uses the same method. Communist parties, when they didn't have any more arguments, used to say that who opposed them was crazy and put him in a mental hospital.

He's been saying some pretty weird stuff recently.

"I never actually said that communists eat children," he told the bemused audience of European right-wingers on Wednesday, "but it's a fact," he said, "that the Chinese used to boil babies and use them as fertilizer."

His Chinese baby boiling comments were first made at this Berlusconi party rally last weekend, that called for diplomatic frisson (ph) between Rome and Beijing. More grist to the mill of millions in Italy who despair of their leader and his mental health.

Naples and opening night for "Il Caimano," the crocodile, a biting satire of Silvio Berlusconi's Italy, released two weeks before the election. The film paints the billionaire prime minister as a corrupt, mad and manipulative man, calling it Italy's "Fahrenheit 9-11."

NANNI MORETTI, DIRECTOR, IL CAIMANO (through translator): The mirrors we are looking in are all steamed up. I tried to wake up Italians to the fact that we're living in an abnormal situation.

I'd like to remind people that for the fourth time in 12 years, we are going into an election to vote for a leading candidate who owns three television stations, which is something completely unheard of in any kind of democracy.

MILLER: Italy's three other TV stations are state-owned and the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, controls them, too. He sees no conflict of interest.

But the fact is the more tele you watch, the more likely you are to vote for him.

It would be ironic if television were to be this media magnate's undoing, but it's not looking good. Silvio Berlusconi, hoist by his own petard?

This appearance at Italy's most important business forum, the day the election campaign got vicious and personal.

Here, they are bemoaning the country's bureau growth. Many blame the prime minister. "But to vote for the left," he said, "would be a sign of insanity."

He railed against the opposition, the press, the unions, the courts, the communists, and one of Italy's big business leaders, Diego Della Valle, who had been spotted shaking his head, earning him the thumbs-down from the emperor. And it didn't end there.

SILVIO BERLUSCONI, PRIME MINISTER, ITALY (through translator): And another thing, I'd like to tell Senor Della Valle that if he wants to address me as a leader of the government, he should call me "sir."

MILLER: TV news got game show ratings that night. Della Valle resigned from the employers association board in disgust.

But the ex-cruise ship crooner had long been known for his idiosyncrasies, at some point, lacking style. Lately, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) verging on the delusional, some say, messianic. Last month he declared himself the Jesus Christ of politics.

Before that, the man they mocked for his lack of physical stature had said only Napoleon had achieved more than he had, while he claimed he was the taller of the two great statesmen. He's also compared himself to Churchill and Moses. Pushing 70 and still brimming with testosterone, he says he's abstaining from sex until the election is over.

In a town called Latina, south of Rome, Romano Prodi, ex-prime minister, ex-Eurocrat, Silvio's nemesis, preaching to the converted. His critics cast him as frumpy, a pedantic former professor who needs to lighten up a bit, but tonight he's being quite sparky.

(on-camera): For a man with the nickname Mortadella, sort of fat, bland, greasy sausage from Bologna, it's got to be said that Romano Prodi is going down pretty well here tonight. And all these people who have turned out to see him have come because they are desperate for change. They are a mixture of Christian democrat, reds and greens, only united in one thing, hatred of Silvio Berlusconi.

(voice-over): Romano Prodi, a few points ahead in the polls, but a quarter of Italy's electorate undecided. The opposition promising that Berlusconi is about to face his waterloo.

To Mr. Prodi, his opponent is damaged goods, arguably, even unhinged.

ROMANO PRODI, ITALIAN OPPOSITION LEADER: I am not a physician, but I tell you that I am honestly surprised, listening to him, that it's not only a thing of today.

MILLER: Italians either love him or hate him, a nation split right down the middle. In a country farmhouse north of Rome, a gathering of three generations. The Napoli family can't get enough of Silvio Berlusconi.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I believe Berlusconi's big plus point is his image, such a strong image.

There are some things I don't like about Berlusconi and some things I don't like about Prodi, but I like the image that Berlusconi projects.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator) I believe he's a very good person. I don't know him, but he's done a lot of important things for Italy. He came from nothing and he has built his own empire with his own hands. So he's a very strong man.

MILLER: After his speech to the European right-wingers, Silvio Berlusconi emerged for the cameras again, using fake charm and charisma.

Three times in his speech he de-ranks journalists, branding them "commies."

So are we all communists, Mr. Berlusconi?


MILLER: Are we all communists?

BERLUSCONI (through translator): No. You really don't have a face like a communist.

MILLER: Silvio Berlusconi is on the back foot, but he's pulled rabbits from hats before now. After 60 governments in 60 years, he's given this country five years of relative stability. He now wants five more and to get it, he's not selling a party or a program. He's very happy just selling himself.


SWEENEY: Jonathan Miller of "Channel 4 News" reporting there.

Coming up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, I'll be speaking to a panel of prominent journalists about media coverage of the Italian election campaign.

Stay with us.



I'm joined now by a panel of prominent journalists here in Rome, Italy to discuss the media coverage of the political campaign, Anselma Dell'Olio, Jeff Israely, and Lucia Annunziata.

Anselma, first of all, let me ask you. You seem to believe that Mr. Berlusconi is deeply misunderstood by the media here. Is that the case?

ANSELMA DELL'OLIO, ITALIAN JOURNALIST: Oh, I don't think he's deeply misunderstood at all. I think he's woefully misunderstood and manipulated, yes, absolutely.

SWEENEY: And this of a man who's supposed to control the media.

DELL'OLIO: That's right. That's the joke and that's the joke that people abroad don't understand. It's just not true, because the press in Italy has always been left wing. The majority of the press is left wing. The fact that he visibly controls and ostensibly controls so much media doesn't, in fact, work out to him being praised all over it. He's not.

SWEENEY: Lucia, you recently had a bit of a skirmish not only with Mr. Berlusconi, but for Romano Prodi, as well. But your feelings on Mr. Berlusconi being misunderstood by the media here, a mainly left wing media? Are they well founded?

LUCIA ANNUNZIATA, LA STAMPA: Well, I think, here, we have to cross a political line in the sense that what Anselma has given to us is the political line of the Berlusconi camp.

But, personally, I think quite the opposite. I think Berlusconi is not misunderstood. He's portrayed for what it is, a self-made man, a tycoon who has one of the largest conflicts of interest in Europe.

So I had a fight with him and I think in our contradictions, because it was a hard interview, he tried to put some rule on me and the fact that I did not accept.

One of the rules was, "You ask me this question, not another question." Now, this has nothing to do with being left or right. No journalist with a little bit of self-respect would have accepted an interviewed setting the question for me, you know.

So I think this is typical of Berlusconi. A self-made man, a tycoon, as I say, and he's a person who wants to play according to the rule he defines.

SWEENEY: And, of course, he famously got up and walked out of the television interview you were conducting just some time back. But do you agree, and I suspect you do not at all, with Anselma's point that he is woefully misunderstood by a press which he allegedly controls, but which is largely left wing or left of center?

ANNUNZIATA: Well, about the left wing, the press being left wing, this is something that I have heard basically in every country I work for. I've been a journalist abroad for most of my career and in America, for instance, this is one of the issues, right?

What did Bush say? The left is the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) good coverage now. He won the election, so we will know. We will know. There could be in Italy what happened in America just two years ago, that the left, the endorsement of a major newspaper were against Bush and there he won. So maybe there is a discrepancy.

But the issue of the left wing, I will leave the issue of the newspaper being left wing. I think there is a different issue on this. It's that I think Berlusconi does not control the newspapers, first, because there are too many of us. There's no control. Television, left, right, because...

SWEENEY: But that is the perception, that he does control them.

ANNUNZIATA: Well, he does, but I was about to finish. Like, he does control in the sense that, you know, I've been also president a while. So while he was at the height of his power and by the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Why? Because I know what he has done by putting all his old men controlling the show, naming everybody, and still I don't think this is full control.

The right of all journalists, if journalists want to talk, they can talk. If journalists are against him, they (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

So I think there is a basic difference between the controlling, which he does, and freedom of the press, which there is in the country.

SWEENEY: Jeff Israely, let me ask you, in the five years that he's been in power, has press freedom been clamped down upon, as many suspected when he was first elected?

JEFF ISRAELY, "TIME MAGAZINE": I think in a very basic way, as Lucia has just said, there is still free press here in Italy. There is no sense that we're in some kind of Soviet-style control of the media in which scripts are handed to people.

With that said, I think there's a fundamental problem in the way the media has organized television, particularly, when you have the prime minister as the owner of the three major private TV stations, and, as well, as the prime minister control over public television.

The context, of course, that we always hear foreign correspondents try to explain to our editors and to our readers is that television and politics have always sort of been in bed together and Berlusconi didn't drop out of the sky.

But that should not be an alibi for accepting an excuse, saying, "Well, there's always been this problem. So now that it's a monstrous problem, we shouldn't do anything." This needs to be fixed both in terms of Berlusconi and as the whole nationwide system of television and the media and how it lives together with politics.

SWEENEY: All right, we're going to leave it there for a moment, but stay with us, if you will.

INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS returns, from Rome, Italy, in just a few minutes.


SWEENEY: Welcome back to this special edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, from Rome, Italy, where we've been looking at how the media has been covering the election campaign.

Let's talk first about Romano Prodi, because this is a man who's painted in the media to be largely quiet, affable.

Is that an accurate description of him or does it...


SWEENEY: ... complete opposite?

ANNUNZIATA: ... there is a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in this election and there has been, in fact, for ten years and one is the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on the left and another one is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on the right.

In fact, if you look at the two of them, one is, you know, the title from "Wall Street," very effective, very strong, capable of creating stuff. And the other one is the Cambridge professors, you know.

So there are two different types and they represent, in a way, the value that people want them to represent.

SWEENEY: Anselma?

DELL'OLIO: I think he's a wolf in sheep's clothing and a lot of people on the left agree with this. He's a rancorous man. He's still furious at the fact that after his election in '96, two years later, his own coalition knocked him down and he was replaced twice by two different prime ministers and he's still in a fury, in a rage about that.

So no one has any real illusions about him being a kindly, country, curate type. He's not at all.

SWEENEY: Lucia, let me ask you, if Berlusconi loses this election, that's not the story. The story will be if he wins.

ANNUNZIATA: Sure, that's the truth, because he is running against all possible bad, because the issue here we are discussing is media and his conflict of interest. But, in fact, what is going to, I think, be heavy on the decision of the people will be the state of economy.

SWEENEY: And is that reflected in the media coverage of the elections and the coverage of the two main characters, political characters?

ISRAELY: I think so. As my own personal opinion, I think it's been reflected too much. I think the campaign has been too focused on the economy.

There are other concerns that people do have in terms of issues, about social issues, also, foreign policy. This is the first Italian election since 9-11. It's the first Italian election since a very divisive war, since Italian troops were killed in Nasiriyah, since Italian hostages were taken elsewhere in Iraq.

There's been virtually no discussion of foreign policy, as well as other issues that are on people's minds. So I think it has been reflected in the media. It's been almost a psychosis about the economy in the newspapers every day.

SWEENEY: How has your magazine been looking at the campaign here and how have you, specifically, been covering it?

ISRAELY: We've decided to let the candidates do all of their back- and-forth on their own. We've, obviously, kept track of it, but we decided to dedicate our cover story to those who aren't being heard in this campaign.

SWEENEY: And as an international journalist based here, do you feel freer of the constraints? And I say that in terms of comments of other journalists in Italy in terms of taking a position on things.

ISRAELY: I think politics enters far too much into all of Italian media. I think being a foreign publication, an American publication, we don't have any vested interest in the Italian political system.

SWEENEY: Is it possible to be a journalist for one of the Berlusconi- owned newspapers or television networks here and still be able to be, quote, "objective?"

ISRAELY: Most of the time, on the main Berlusconi network, on their nightly news, they try to present the news in a straightforward way. We hear voices from both sides.

You know, Berlusconi is also a businessman and he wants the highest viewership possible on his networks and you don't want to scare off the viewers by having a news program that is perceived to not give the facts.

SWEENEY: Lucia, you're a journalist who, as I mentioned earlier, had a skirmish with both Mr. Berlusconi and Romano Prodi. So in a way, you, actually, I suppose, must be doing something right.

ANNUNZIATA: With Berlusconi, I had a tough interview. There was a tough interview with Prodi. But you know what is funny? In terms of journalism, they both had a nerve attached at the same moment.

At one point, Berlusconi told me, "Why do you ask me these things? I'm here to talk about the problem." And in a different style, at one point, Prodi said the same thing, "This is not the question. I want to talk about the problem," you know.

So you see what is interesting, I think, and this is an issue that goes beyond Italy, certainly, this is my experience, that politicians always, around the world, want the journalists to go and kiss their feet, you know.

SWEENEY: They want to set the agenda...


ANNUNZIATA: They want to set the agenda. This is what they basically want. So I think that beyond everything we are discussing, I think we will all raise the problem in this job of friction between journalist and politician. Each does its own job, of course, you know.

SWEENEY: So if Berlusconi loses this election, will the media have lost one of their most color characters?

DELL'OLIO: Not the media so much, perhaps, as politics will have, because the left has announced its intention, should they win, of preventing Mr. Berlusconi, by a long conflict of interest, of even being able to be in parliament.

So they are going to completely change the nature of the political situation which we have had in Italy for the last 13 years and which has functioned perfectly, with one side winning once, one side winning next. It has worked democratically all along.

What they want to do now is make sure that Mr. Berlusconi can never challenge them again, even from the opposition. Now, that's communist.

ANNUNZIATA: But, I mean, they've been in power for five years and they haven't done it. I don't know. What is making you think this? Except propaganda. I mean, really, this is propaganda.

DELL'OLIO: So why do they want to do it now? If they didn't get it in those five years, why are they announcing now that they want to do it and make it even more severe, so they can't run again?


ANNUNZIATA: You recall last year when this will happen. Unfortunately, I don't think it will happen. Personally, I'm in favor of not so much Berlusconi running for politics, but I'm in favor of opening the market of television in Italy.

DELL'OLIO: This I agree.

ANNUNZIATA: I think the right wing and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they all should, by law, lose at least one channel.

DELL'OLIO: We agree on that.

SWEENEY: And on that note, it's probably a very good place to end, although the debate will surely continue long after this election has been won or lost.

My thanks to Anselma Dell'Olio, Jeff Israely, and Lucia Annunziata.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. You've been watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, from Rome, in Italy.

Join us again next week.



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