Economising on truth: The Economist and Berlusconi
JUST Response interviews Domenico Pacitti
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 acknowledgement.
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
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
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
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.
Note: This interview appeared in JUST Response on September 17 2003.