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Silvio Berlusconi's Grip on Power on Italy, in Politics and the Media

Aired April 20, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, Silvio Berlusconi's Italy. He's known as the Teflon prime minister. And how does that affect his grip on power?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program.

Silvio Berlusconi is one of Europe's most powerful and colorful leaders. He's also Italy's longest-serving prime minister in a system where governments seem to fall at the drop of a hat. He controls parliament and much of the media, and he wants a presidential form of government.

But he faces persistent questions about his character, his economic policy, and his country's rising death toll in Afghanistan, where Italy has almost 3,000 troops.

Berlusconi's opponents accuse him of abusing his powers, but he says the corruption trials he faces are a waste of time.


SILVIO BERLUSCONI, PRIME MINISTER OF ITALY (through translator): The trials they will hurl at me in Milan are real farces, and I will detract some hours from taking care of government and refute them all as liars. These things invigorate me. They invigorate Italians. Long live Italy. Long live Berlusconi.


AMANPOUR: And so where is Italy heading under Prime Minister Berlusconi? Earlier, I spoke with his foreign minister, Franco Frattini, in Rome.


AMANPOUR: Foreign Minister Frattini, thank you for joining us on this program.


AMANPOUR: As we discuss foreign policy, I want to first ask you, you know, your prime minister is very prone to making what some would call outrageous comments sometimes, sometimes jokes, sometimes comments. How difficult does that make it for you to do your job of serious diplomacy?

FRATTINI: Well, first of all, international media don't know enough about my prime minister, about Berlusconi. Sometimes they make a confusion between his personal approach and characteristics and the substance of the foreign policy Italy is developing.

For me, it's not so difficult to do my job and to help my prime minister, because we are on the same line of putting forward proposals, of presenting ideas, and going ahead with the Italian foreign policy...

AMANPOUR: All right.

FRATTINI: It's not so difficult at all.

AMANPOUR: Let me play this sound bite, what Prime Minister Berlusconi said shortly after President Obama was elected.


SILVIO BERLUSCONI, PRIME MINISTER OF ITALY (via translator): I told the president that Obama has everything needed in order to reach an agreement with him. He's young, handsome, and even tan. So I think this will lead to good cooperation.


FRATTINI: I think my prime minister had in many times the opportunity to clarify directly with Mr. President of the United States. He did not have the intention at all of offending the president of the United States.

AMANPOUR: OK. Let's talk about Afghanistan, then, when -- where Italy is involved in Afghanistan. This week, three Italian aid workers who had been arrested were freed, and they are in good condition. But what is Italy's commitment now to the ongoing war in Afghanistan? Is Italy committed for the long haul?

FRATTINI: Well, we talk an important decision to increase up to 3,000 soldiers, our contribution in terms of troops for the stabilization of Afghanistan. Italy took a commitment to help Afghanistan until we will have defeated Taliban and terrorists, until we will have granted people of Afghanistan a decent daily life condition.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you this: Many European countries are having problems with their own public opinion, especially when their soldiers get killed. About a year ago, Prime Minister Berlusconi cast doubt on whether the troops could still commit to the long haul after there was an attack that killed six Italian paratroopers. Are you saying that, despite the casualties, Italy will stay the course?


FRATTINI: Yes, I do, because we have seen after the tragedies that have occurred that Italian public opinion understands that our people is in Afghanistan also for the Italian security, for European security, to fight against all kind of extremists and terrorists, as well as to help people of Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: Let me talk to you about the Vatican scandal and the church abuse scandal. How is this affecting the reality of the church and its central position in Italy, but also of the image of Italy, with these scandals swirling around, and the perception, as one monsignor in Italian has said, that there is a certain culture of silence around, around all of this, these crimes that have been committed?

FRATTINI: Well, I have to say, pedophilia is one of the most horrible crimes. But that said, nobody more than this Pope Benedict has decided to react in a very tough way by punishing those who are responsible or co- responsible of crime and by meeting -- and by even meeting victims of pedophilia recently in Malta, when we decided to meet some families of people that were victims of pedophilia.

So this pope showed -- has decided to show the world his firmness against pedophilia while reaffirming the crucial role of the holy church, a role that I fully, fully respect.

AMANPOUR: Do you not worry, though, that the pope himself is late to this and that there are so many questions about his role, particularly in - - in acceding to priests being moved around in Germany, and not taking up quite a few complaints in other parts of the Catholic Church around the world? Do you not worry that he's been too slow and the entire church has been too slow to deal with this, much of which is criminal?

FRATTINI: I would say, Pope Benedict was not slow at all. He was reacting immediately, well before all these scandals had emerged. He had taken initiatives extremely important at the very beginning after his election as holy pope. I admire Pope Benedict.

AMANPOUR: Let me move on again back to the prime minister, because it goes to the very act of governance, things, for instance, the divorce scandal, the idea that he owns so much of the media real estate in Italy, the idea, as people say, that he's trying to challenge the judicial system to keep his power in place, including his commercial interests. Doesn't the perception of all of that reflect negatively on Italy? And doesn't it make it hard to govern?

FRATTINI: Well, Italian voters, Italian people know much better than international media how is my prime minister, how is the political situation in Italy. I tell you facts, not opinions.

Since 2008, my prime minister and our coalition won three times. We won during the general political election, May -- April 2008. We won once again last year, European elections. And we won 15 days ago with the regional election, where we have got a result which even better than the one we had expected.

That's why I'm convinced that, despite all the attempts to, I would say, shadow the imagine (ph) of my prime minister, Italian people know much better, and they are wiser than expected, and they continue to decide according to results get achieved by the government, and the results are evidently good ones.

AMANPOUR: What do you think is the biggest challenge now for his government? Is it the economy? Is it the war in Afghanistan? What is it?

FRATTINI: Well, we have a very important challenge to move ahead with the taxation reform and economic reform passed. The second big challenge is to reform the constitution and to make of Italy a true federal state. And the third is to continue to contribute to stabilizing all the crisis regions, first of all, Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: Foreign Minister Frattini, thank you very much indeed for joining us on the program.

FRATTINI: Thank you very much. Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And next, we'll ask two leading Berlusconi observers about the scandals, about his lock on the media, and how long the Italian people will keep supporting him.


Here's one of his political campaign ads.







UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This year, there has been frenzied speculation about what sort of women he has been entertaining and what this entertainment has consisted of. Most damaging of all is the accusation that he has showered an 18-year-old family friend with gifts.

SILVIO BERLUSCONI, PRIME MINISTER OF ITALY (through translator): I think the behavior of those who enter into someone's private life in order to make a political attack is dishonorable.


AMANPOUR: That was a clip from "Revealed," a CNN profile of Silvio Berlusconi that aired last October.

And joining me now from Rome, my colleague from the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, Lucia Annunziata. And here in our studio, Columbia University Professor Alexander Stille, author of "The Sack of Rome." And with a long and colorful subtitle, "How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and Storied Culture was Taken Over by a Man named Silvio Berlusconi."

Thank you both for joining us. And let me go to you first, because you're here and there's that long, long subtitle. What were you trying to say in that subtitle?

ALEXANDER STILLE, AUTHOR: Well, actually, my publisher came up with both the title and the subtitle, but the idea that a single person could take over and change the direction of a country is a quite extraordinary story.

AMANPOUR: And how specifically do you mean?

STILLE: Well, I, in fact, had originally titled the book "Citizen Berlusconi," to take up the theme of Citizen Kane, because Berlusconi, of course, was initially a media tycoon. And it's an extraordinary thing to think of someone first establishing a virtually monopoly of private television in a country and then, in the middle of a political crisis, deciding that he will enter politics and take over the political system.

He addresses the entire nation on three nations simultaneously, as if he were addressing the country from the Oval Office, announces he's entering in politics. Three months later, he's prime minister and is administering the private -- the public broadcasting system, which is his largest competitor, and together controlling 90 percent of the media in the country.

AMANPOUR: Well, what -- what kind of effect does that have, Lucia, on -- on Italy and on the system of government? You heard the foreign minister say that we in the international press didn't get it, that the prime minister is doing a good job and he keeps getting reelected, which is true. He keeps getting reelected.

How does the press situation, as Professor Stille just talked about, his virtual monopoly on -- on -- on the media there?

LUCIA ANNUNZIATA, LA STAMPA: Well, I think the -- our foreign minister gave you the line, this official line, is that journalists don't get it, and specifically also international journalists don't get it, how good Berlusconi, how well he's doing for this country.


So this is what Berlusconi does vis-a-vis the press, is simply denying, denying everything that is criticism and putting down to some sort of -- and politicize criticism. That's what fundamentally he does with whoever does not agree with him.

On the other hand, you know...

AMANPOUR: Well, you tried -- you tried, Lucia...

ANNUNZIATA: ... I think that he is...

AMANPOUR: Lucia, you tried to...


AMANPOUR: ... to challenge him on a famous interview some four years ago on Italian television. We have the clip. He basically got up and left the set. What were you saying to him? And what was he saying to you, as he shook your hand and said goodbye for a long time?

ANNUNZIATA: When he -- when he left me, he said, "I'm going away, and this would be a black spot on your career forever."

AMANPOUR: And was it?

ANNUNZIATA: And I said, "Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister." I don't think so. I'm still here. Maybe, you know, I'm not the head of any major channel that is owned by Berlusconi, but I think I'm here and safe and still speaking.

AMANPOUR: OK. Well, then let's talk with both of you about the scandals, because everybody knows who Silvio Berlusconi is, inasmuch for his policy and his longevity as for some of his public statements, some of the scandals that have been around, whether it's the divorce from his wife because of younger women, whether it's any number of things that he's said, whether in parliament or, as you saw, we played the clip that he said about President Obama.

How does somebody with that amount of controversy around him stay in power, Lucia?

ANNUNZIATA: Well, yes -- well, you know, Christiane, I think this is a never-ending question that has been resonating around Italy for the past 15 years. How is it possible? Frankly, I myself ask this every day.

I think it comes down to the fact that Italy trusts somebody like him who does not represent the political tradition or establishment, admire the fact he's a self-made man, and also -- let's face it -- he represent some of the good and the bad of the Italian character, including relationship with women, at least for people his age.

And I think that's his -- what his popularity is based. It's based in a way on non-credibility of traditional model (ph), the end of a certain type of center-left politics, and he's borderline between a very powerful man and between outside the system.

This is the explanation I give to myself. I don't know. You know, there are many of them.

AMANPOUR: Professor Stille, a comment on that, but also, you heard the foreign minister saying that their next challenges are about tax reform, about all sorts of issues such as election reform, and also potentially judicial reform. How do you see that playing out?

STILLE: Well, to finish up the point that you first mentioned, I think it's important to mention that some of the charges with which Berlusconi has been charged or -- actually have been verified in court. For example, his chief corporate lawyer was convicted of bribing judges and keeping judges on his payroll while working for Berlusconi, fixing cases, essentially. These people were fixing cases for Berlusconi.

One of his closest associates was convicted of collusion with the mafia while working for Berlusconi, acting as intermediary between his company and members of organized crime in Sicily.

Being able to get away with that is also partially dependent on being able to control the news. During the last elections, he simply removed from the air all political talk shows during the final weeks of the campaign. People were beginning to talk about some of the issues, and then suddenly they weren't talking about them.

You were left only with the main nightly newscasts, and on those main nightly newscasts, you heard Silvio Berlusconi -- in one typical week, Silvio Berlusconi for three-and-a-half hours, his principal opponent for half-an-hour. So you can imagine trying to run a democracy in that way. It's very, very difficult.

It's very difficult to -- and so people fall back on cynical self- interest. And they don't really know what to believe anymore. And as Lucia said very well, he's very able in playing on disillusionment with politics and having a kind of anti-politics.


AMANPOUR: Lucia, what do you think -- or what do you both think motivates Prime Minister Berlusconi? Is it politics and ideology? Is it the accumulation of power and the furthering of his business empire? Why is he in politics to be prime minister?

ANNUNZIATA: Well, I think that (inaudible) Berlusconi is a very modern figure in a way. He has brought to the maximum and has maximized the completely integration of interests between politics and business. He is there, and he represents it without shame. I think this is one of his strengths.

But let me say something, Christiane.


Going back to something that our foreign minister said, he said -- and I think we should think about this, it's an element that is rather new -- Frattini say that he has won the last regional election like never before. This is not exactly true.

Berlusconi has not got the -- as many vote -- he has won as a coalition, but we see in the coalition his party has got less votes (inaudible) which is at this moment very important. And also in Italy there has been for the first time a large phenomenon of people not turning out to vote. We went down to 67 percent of people voting. For America, it's very high, but for us, it's the lowest percentage since the Second World War. And there are 1 million votes missing for the center-left and 1 million votes missing for his party.

Now, he has been missing around this year 1 million-plus votes. Who are they? Why they didn't vote? Is this the first crack in Berlusconi's strength? I think we should see that, you know, it's not as powerful as he himself plays to be (inaudible) you know those votes are Catholic. Catholics were turned off by his behavior. And still they don't vote the center-left. Maybe they are disillusioned (ph).

So Berlusconi is in the evolution. I don't think he's as powerful as he makes it to be.

AMANPOUR: The so-called purple -- not revolution, but the purple revolt, the purple whatever you want to call it, this group of people who have come out to demonstrate, do they have any strength? Are they connected, Professor?

STILLE: Well, they have strength. The problem is that, as Lucia mentioned, the center-left is in a serious crisis. And so there's an enormous disconnection between the discontent against Berlusconi and the political representation of that discontent.

So that, for example, there was a huge demonstration in Rome where, using things like Facebook and the Internet, they were able to get anywhere between 350,000 and 500,000 people in the streets. The main political opposition party wasn't there. They didn't participate at all.

So that gives you an idea that they're -- they're not actually taking advantage of sentiment that's there. And as Lucia said, there are 1 million voters missing.

AMANPOUR: What does that mean, 1 million voters missing? Who just didn't cast their vote? OK.

STILLE: Who just don't show up. Yes, people who would have normally voted who didn't bother to vote because they don't feel represented.


AMANPOUR: Let me ask you then, Lucia, you've said all these things, all these observations, but on the other hand, he is the longest-serving prime minister of Italy, and there is a certain stability in that.


AMANPOUR: I mean, isn't that a good thing?

ANNUNZIATA: Yes, it is a good thing. And -- but, you know, I personally think that voters are right. So Frattini said (inaudible) has been voted, and this is his strength, and I am ready to recognize. On the other hand, Christiane, I'm not happy with being a government by a guy who is the richest man in the country, owns television, is buying out all the business people around. There is also a measure of stability in non- democracy.

AMANPOUR: Professor -- Professor Stille...

STILLE: I would say, though, on that point, that actually I'm not sure it's a good thing at all. If you look at Italy's economic record over the 15, 16 years that Berlusconi has been in power, Italy is going like that.

AMANPOUR: What do you mean, "like that"?

STILLE: Economically. If you want to simply talk about simple facts and you look up on the Web site of the OECD, which measures the economic performance of the major industrialized nations of the world, Italy is at the back of the pack. Italy grew less than any country in the E.U. during the 1990s and the 2000s. Italy was on a par with Great Britain in 1992 for the fifth-largest economy in the world. It's now 20 percent -- its economy is 20 percent smaller than Britain's.

Berlusconi, precisely because he is a monopolist and not, in fact, a free-marketer, is not capable of reforming the economy and opening it up and making Italy competitive. Italy's ranking in competitiveness surveys has gone way down since he's entered politics.

AMANPOUR: All right.

STILLE: So I think these reforms are unlikely to actually...

AMANPOUR: All right. And we will keep observing. Professor Stille, Lucia Annunziata, thank you so much for joining us.


AMANPOUR: And to weigh in on the purple people organization that has launched a social media campaign against Berlusconi, go to and tell us what you think.

And next, our "Post-Script." And we pay tribute to a heroine of the civil rights movement in the United States and with influence around the world. That's when we return.



AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script."

Everyone, of course, knows of Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the civil rights movement here in the United States, but less well known is Dorothy Height, the leading female voice who was on the stage when Dr. King made his "I Have a Dream" speech. She died today at the age of 98.

U.S. President Barack Obama called her the godmother of the civil rights movement, and he noted that she was denied entrance to college because the incoming class had already met its quota of two African- American women.

Another president, Bill Clinton, gave her the Medal of Freedom in 1994. It was a tribute to her determination and her grit. One of her favorite sayings was, "If the time is not right, we have to ripen the time." And when the time was ripe for America's first black president, Barack Obama, she said, "If you don't have the dream, you couldn't have worked on it."

And that's all for now. We'll be back tomorrow with a look at the massive growth in young people that could reshape our planet. Until then, watch us on the go on

For all of us here, goodbye from New York.