Economising on truth: The Economist and Berlusconi
In this first of a new series of JUST Response features with Domenico Pacitti, we look at a relentless campaign against Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. Is The Economist guilty of using double standards and does it have a not so hidden agenda?
Since at least as far back as the last Italian national elections in May 2001, The
Economist has been conducting a relentless campaign against current Italian
premier Silvio Berlusconi. Articles, which you incidentally need a paid
subscription to read online, include: “Italy’s would-be Napoleon”, “Fit
to run Italy?”, “Unfit to lead Europe”, “Burlesquoni” and “Still
giving Italy a bad name”. Last month they culminated in an open letter to
Berlusconi. One Economist article which appeared during the run-up to
those elections resulted in Berlusconi’s announcement that he would be suing
for damages, though it seems he has not yet taken any action. The article, “An
Italian story”, dated 28 April 2001, bears a strong resemblance to your own
“Conflicting interests” which appeared in the Brussels journal World
Parliamentarian dated 16 April 2001. Is this coincidental or were you also
writing for The Economist at the time?
I have never written anything for The Economist.
Does that mean it was coincidence? You know, we have received more than one
complaint about The Economist using other writers’ material without
This is fairly common practice in journalism and I wouldn’t worry about it.
The important thing is to get the truth across to people, preferably free of
charge. I would be more concerned about plagiarism in other areas such as within
Italian academia where publications for professorships are reckoned in kilos and
where plagiarism is rife.
And has The Economist been getting the truth across to people?
They have been getting the truth across only insofar as most of the facts
presented in those articles are technically correct. The problem is that by
focusing on Berlusconi as the Italian anomaly The Economist has provided
a seriously distorted picture of Italy and Italian politics. The anomaly here is
not Berlusconi. The anomaly is Italy and an engrained Machiavellian mentality
that renders virtually the entire class of Italian politicians criminal – if
not by commission, by omission. Berlusconi is simply a product of that
mentality, a glaring symptom if you like. So it looks like The Economist
has been conveniently economising on the truth.
Why do you think The Economist has chosen to economise on the truth, as
you say, and to focus on Berlusconi?
That is obviously something you should ask The Economist. Perhaps they
feel that Berlusconi’s brash and ostentatious approach to corruption and
law-breaking is spilling too many embarrassing truths within the international
economist arena. Perhaps they favour the Prodi approach of keeping the dirty
truths low profile. Or perhaps they are simply acting as a powerful British
lobby for the Italian centre-left. Many Italians certainly feel that The
Economist has been guilty of applying double standards. Note that at those
same May 2001 elections you mentioned, The Economist’s former
Rome correspondent Tana de Zulueta was elected a centre-left senator, a position
she still holds. So you can draw your own conclusions.
What is also interesting is that, despite referring to their own articles on
Berlusconi as investigative, The Economist has to our knowledge failed to
add a single comma anywhere to what was already common knowledge in Italy.
Curiously, Italians pay more attention to old news recycled abroad than to the
original, more authentic home-grown product.
Yes, Italians find it difficult to strike a happy balance between xenophilism
and xenophobia and they do tend generally to show excessive uncritical respect
for the foreign mainstream press.
So what should The Economist do now?
Well, they could try telling the truth about Italian politics across the board.
A good place to begin might be Romano Prodi’s Bologna mafia, or former
centre-left premier Massimo D’Alema, the purchase of his yacht and his obvious
sell-out of the Italian voting public to Berlusconi at the last elections. They
might want to take a close impartial look at the Telekom Serbia scandal and
accusations against Romano Prodi, Lamberto Dini, Piero Fassino, Walter Veltroni,
Francesco Rutelli and Clemente Mastella – all major politicians of the left.
But The Economist may have burnt its bridges on telling the whole truth.
In your opening remarks you listed Economist articles on Berlusconi.
Compare The Economist’s treatment of Romano Prodi, a man with a
comparable if less spectacular disregard for legal and moral considerations.
“In defence of Romano Prodi” and “The smearing of Romano Prodi” are two
more Economist pieces that come to mind. Yet in its own way Prodi’s
track record is no less impressive than Berlusconi’s.
How typical are such media distortions of Italy in the British press?
Pacitti: The Economist example is rather blatant but the phenomenon is pretty widespread especially as regards news on Italy, though it is not always easy to discern to what extent the distortion is intentional rather than unconscious. Take for example a recent article in The Financial Times titled “Berlusconi opponents win backing on trial” [8 Sep 03]. It recounts with customary precision that former “Clean Hands” magistrate and now leader of the “Italy of Values” movement Antonio Di Pietro is gathering signatures in the hope of obtaining a referendum to reverse the Italian parliament’s June approval of immunity for Italy’s five senior state officials. It concludes that the campaign “has discomforted Italy’s centre-left opposition parties, some of which fear a referendum could backfire if too few voters bothered to turn out and the immunity law remained in force”. This gives the mistaken impression of the same sort of morally based political opposition we have come to associate with, say, the British parliament. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is really discomforting the centre-left opposition parties is that Di Pietro’s action is bringing the Italian voters back into the political arena and that a referendum, though unlikely to succeed, would certainly highlight the injustice of the immunity law. Italian politicians see this law as an indispensable stepping stone to obtaining similar immunity themselves at a later date. In this sense they are all backing Berlusconi while at the same time doing their utmost to conceal the fact from the public eye.
*As this interview was going to press, Silvio Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolò Ghedini confirmed that the summons against The Economist "should be in the notification phase". In the recent open letter referred to in our interview, The Economist had put a series of questions to Mr Berlusconi. Mr Ghedini has now promised that all the answers will be supplied in court.
|Domenico Pacitti is Editor of JUST Response. He has written over 400 articles against corruption in Italy. He has taught philosophy, linguistics and Chinese at universities in the UK and Italy and currently teaches English language and American literature at the University of Pisa|
Note: This piece was published for the first time by JUST Response on September 17 2003.
|In the same series|
|Hijacking truth: Telekom Serbia|
|Related articles in JUST Response|
|Italy's numismatic Prodi - guru or godfather?|
|Conflicting interests - Silvio Berlusconi|
|Berlusconi on balance|
|Roman Catholic principles of corruption in Italy|
|Di Pietro, corruption and Clean Hands|
|The face of revolution - an interview with Antonio Di Pietro|
|Also in JUST Response|
Home | Feedback | JUST Response | JUST Book Reviews