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Building a new Roman empire

Silvio Berlusconi Television, Power and Patrimony Paul Ginsborg Verso: 190 pp., $25 * The Dark Heart of Italy Tobias Jones North Point Press: 314 pp., $24

August 01, 2004|Nathaniel Rich | Nathaniel Rich writes for numerous publications, including Slate, the Village Voice and The Times.

Among the sweeping institutional reforms introduced by Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's government in the last three years, one that gets relatively scant attention is the initiative to rewrite the history textbooks used in Italy's public schools. The old textbooks, Berlusconi declared, were "Marxist." The Berlusconi-sanctioned textbooks would be edited to "respect historical truth." Here is an excerpt from one of the new history textbooks, describing the first years of Italian unification after 1870: "The men of the Right were aristocrats and great landowners. They entered politics with the sole intention of serving the State, not to enrich themselves or climb up the social ladder.... The men of the Left, on the other hand, are [note change of tense] professionals, entrepreneurs and lawyers, ready to further their careers in any way. Sometimes, they sacrifice the good of the Nation to their own interests."

The excerpt (and the telling observation in brackets) appears in Paul Ginsborg's incisive new study, "Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony." Ginsborg mentions the textbooks only in passing and understandably so: Berlusconi has engineered many measures far more audacious and controversial. Still, there is a revealing irony to this history lesson: Berlusconi's campaign to reinvent Italy has never been expressed so literally.

Ginsborg, a British-born professor at Florence University, is the author of "A History of Contemporary Italy" and "Italy and Its Discontents: 1980-2001," two of the most accomplished studies of the country published in recent years in any language. His new monograph on Berlusconi, along with Tobias Jones' more expansive "The Dark Heart of Italy," gives a troubling account of the present state of democracy in Italy. Even more troubling is Ginsborg's suggestion that Italy's current plight, far from being an aberration, represents the direction in which many of the world's democracies are headed.

Before he entered politics, Berlusconi, a "man of the Right," was not a born aristocrat, but he did achieve great success as a landowner. He began his career in the early '60s with the construction of two apartment complexes, the second of which was financed by shadowy sources who to this day remain unidentified; it was the first of several financial arrangements that would raise suspicions about the integrity of Berlusconi's business connections. His most celebrated success came with Milano 2, an upscale gated community in the Milan suburb of Segrate, boasting its own underground parking, artificial lake, manicured park space, hotel, schools, church, porticoed shopping district and cable television system.

When Milano 2 opened, its 10,000 residents could watch the three state-owned RAI television channels, two foreign channels and -- an afterthought on Berlusconi's part -- a new local station, Telemilano. Telemilano became an enormous success, however, and in the coming years it acquired other local television stations across the country. By the mid-1980s, Berlusconi had a virtual monopoly of Italy's private television stations. Although they ostensibly remained locally operated, Berlusconi coordinated them so that they broadcast the same programs -- even the same commercials -- simultaneously. As Jones puts it, this was "national broadcasting in all but name" -- significant because privately owned channels were then still forbidden by law to broadcast nationally. Berlusconi now had the same number of national networks -- three -- as the state and a much larger audience, thanks to a format modeled on American TV pap: variety shows, soap operas, game shows and movies (usually American B-movies). In just a few years, he had transformed a construction company into a media empire.

Berlusconi no longer worries about competing with RAI: As prime minister, he controls the three public channels too. It's a position he has seized with unsubtle diligence. In April 2002, he denounced three prominent RAI television personalities -- two journalists and a comedian -- who had criticized him on the air; shortly afterward, they were banned from Berlusconi's channels. Lilli Gruber, Italy's most popular newscaster, resigned from RAI this spring, charging that Berlusconi's stranglehold on the television industry "has taken [on] the dimensions of a life-threatening disease." One week later, RAI chairwoman Lucia Annunziata announced her resignation, complaining of Berlusconi's increasing interference in editorial matters. The newscasters who remain make Bill O'Reilly look like Walter Cronkite. Jones gives a hilarious account of anchorman Emilio Fede, who introduces "news items on the opposition by shaking his head and saying, in a stage whisper, 'These stupid Commies.' "

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