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Economising on truth: The Economist and Berlusconi

JUST Response interviews Domenico Pacitti

JUST Response: 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?

Domenico Pacitti: I have never written anything for The Economist.

JUST Response: Does that mean it was coincidence? You know, we have received more than one complaint about The Economist using other writers’ material without acknowledgement.

Pacitti: 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.

JUST Response: And has The Economist been getting the truth across to people?

Pacitti: 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.

JUST Response: Why do you think The Economist has chosen to economise on the truth, as you say, and to focus on Berlusconi?

Pacitti: 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.

JUST Response: 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.

Pacitti: 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.

JUST Response: So what should The Economist do now?

Pacitti: 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.

JUST Response: 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.

Note: This interview appeared in JUST Response on September 17 2003.