One of the saddest aspects of the way Silvio Berlusconi has skewed political and civil life in Italy is the arsenal he's chosen to vilify and discredit his adversaries. As long as these are politicians it’s part and parcel – unfortunately – of the way debate is conducted here, in no small measure thanks to Berlusconi himself – surely the only national leader in the west who would claim that communists not only eat babies, but boil them first – and to the gaggle of publicists and lawyers he’s surrounded by, mud-slingers all. But his vulgar ad hominem attacks have also been directed at two men, both journalists, both now dead, whose professional behaviour was never less than impeccable and whose political positions were far closer to any normal idea of what a respectable centre (-right) might be than is Berlusconi’s own: Indro Montanelli and Enzo Biagi. By attacking these men, Berlusconi has shown his contempt for the principle of a free press.
Montanelli died in 2001. Fiercely anti-communist, critical of the Christian Democratic hegemony, the target of a knee-capping attack by the Red Brigades, Montanelli had worked for Corriere della Sera until it veered left, after which he edited Il Giornale. Heavily indebted, the paper was bought by Berlusconi in 1977. In 1993, when Forza Italia was founded, Berlusconi apparently turned up at the editorial offices and informed the staff that the paper would support his every political move. Montanelli resigned, accusing Berlusconi of being anti-democratic. Berlsuconi’s campaign of vilification began, and continued until the journalist’s death.
Enzo Biagi died yesterday, after a 60-year career as a journalist in print and, subsequently, television. Berlusconi was gunning for the man long before he officially entered politics, after Biagi questioned his financial links with Bettino Craxi, the then-head of the Socialist Party, so it wasn’t surprising that he should have included Biagi’s name in his famous Bulgarian edict against those who made a ‘criminal’ use of the television. A feature of totalitarianism – and advertising – is that things rarely do what it says on the tin. Indeed, as Orwell taught us, they tend to do the opposite. So it’s wryly amusing – the kind of humour Biagi most appreciated – that Berlusconi should regard Biagi as criminal. What is less amusing is that the journalist was profoundly hurt by the supine way in which Italian state television simply turned its back on him, and kept it turned. By the time Berlusconi was once more in opposition, Biagi was too ill to do more than make a token come-back to TV.
It isn’t just mud on Berlusconi’s hands.