Tue, Dec 30, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Italy: the tumor within Europe

Corruption in politics and the media is turning the once-core EU state into an international disgrace

By Will Hutton  /  THE OBSERVER

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Suppose British Prime Minister Tony Blair owned ITV, had disbanded the majority of the board of governors of the BBC and that director-general Greg Dyke had resigned because of the impossibility of maintaining the corporation's impartiality in the face of unfair, growing and politically motivated competition from Blair's interests.

Suppose, too, that Blair owned both the Daily Telegraph and the Express.

And suppose Queen Elizabeth II had extraordinarily refused to enact a parliamentary bill that would, in effect, allow Blair to expand his media empire despite earlier promises to disband it. There would, I suspect, be just a little political disquiet.

Suppose, too, that, while we were digesting all this, one of our largest companies had gone into receivership. Over the past few years, it had falsely, and probably fraudulently, accounted for a cool US$12.4 billion, but attempts to recover the cash were being grievously hampered by new Blair laws which weakened protection against false accounting, largely to ensure that the prime minister's media empire would better survive scrutiny. We could start to wonder what kind of banana republic we were living in.

But this is no banana republic -- this is present-day Italy, one of the chief states in the EU. The prime minister is not Blair but Silvio Berlusconi; Mediaset is ITV; RAI is the BBC; Lucia Annunziata is Greg Dyke: Il Giornale is the Daily Telegraph and the company in receivership is Parmalat. For the Queen, read 83-year-old President Ciampi. The analogies are not exact -- Italian institutions and processes are not mirrored in Britain -- but the similarities drive home what has been happening there. It is a salutary warning not just about democracy and capitalism in Italy, but about modern times.

The British are as complicit as the Italians in not taking Italy seriously enough. Italy suffers from a curious inferiority complex, in which its military glories ceased with the Romans and its cultural influence ended with the Renaissance. Italian citizens take no pride in their state or democracy; avoiding taxes is a sign of canniness and to comply with regulations is to be seen as weak.

Italian reunification is not yet 150 years old, and there isn't the loyalty to political, judicial and democratic institutions that you find in Britain, France or the US. Loyalty is to family -- the vehicle for building everything from restaurants to great companies. Italians despair of their public realm.

Yet Italy matters. It is one of the G7 industrialized nations (now eight with Russia). It matters as a founder of the EU; indeed, without Italy's willingness to sign the original Treaty of Rome, the so-called European project would have been little more than a Franco-German friendship pact of the kind tried and found wanting in the past. Italy plays that role still; no other mainland European country has the population weight and GDP to Europeanize Franco-German relations. Nor does its political salience stop there; Berlusconi's Italy gave Britain and the US political cover during the Iraq war.

Italy is a crucial market. Rupert Murdoch, with an ever-keen eye to the main chance, was more than happy to buy the two distressed Italian satellite platforms, Stream and Telepiu, now absorbed into Sky and carrying a diet of dubbed US retreads from Fox, with news as pro-government as anything carried by Berlusconi's Rete4, Canale5 and Italia1.

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