Alastair's Blog

Return to:  Blog | Articles | Videos RSS feed

How do you solve a problem like Silvio?

Posted on 16 May 2009 | 9:05am

As politicians here await the next blow from a newspaper driving the agenda over their expenses, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is involved in his own media scrap.

The Continental press tends to be much less intrusive than ours, but when his wife announced she was leaving him, and cited his relationship with a young girl, and his interest in others, as a reason, the Italian press went closer to the UK mode (though still way off the full monty).

Berlusconi has expressed his fury at La Repubblica daring to ask a few questions about the exact nature of the relationship with Noemi Letizia, like how they met, how often they meet, what they discuss etc. The one question I know a British paper would ask is not even among them yet he is livid at what he sees as ‘a media defamation campaign.’

As it happens I occasionally write for La Repubblica and I had a piece in early this week which touched on some of these issues, which I reprint below.

Silvio Berlusconi is the subject of considerable fascination outside his own country. With his ostentatiously dyed hair and spectacularly whitened teeth, his habit of saying and doing the controversial, some political, some personal, he is an unusual modern leader. More interesting than most. More popular than most among his own electorate, something outsiders sometimes find hard to understand.

In Britain, for example, the idea of a media mogul becoming Prime Minister, and in many ways remaining a media mogul whilst governing, is by and large unimaginable. But he has done it, and survived many scrapes that might have brought down less confident, less politically skilful men.

As for the idea of a British Prime Minister becoming embroiled in a divorce seemingly provoked by his wife’s anger at some kind of relationship with an 18 year old girl, no, this is definitely a very Italian, or more accurately very Berlusconic situation. Not knowing the facts about the nature of the relationship (and frankly reading the papers makes me none the wiser) I can easily imagine Berlusconi’s team complaining that the media are distorting and exaggerating and driving politics down a more trivial agenda than it should. But then one thinks – he IS the media.

And he is one of the biggest characters in the often personality dominated politics that seems to be becoming more the way in Europe. Think of President Sarkozy in France and the chances are the next thought is of Carla Bruni, or some of the situations involving some of the glamorous ministers M Sarkozy appointed.

Here in Britain, our media is currently gorging not on global economic crisis but 1.5 million expenses receipts Parliament is being forced to publish, which show many bizarre claims made by MPs, for bathplugs, in one case porn movies, tampons (this by a man) and more seriously, major charges on second homes.

Then think of America where as much of the focus – in the main positive – is on Barack Obama the personality, the family, the man, as on Obama the policymaker. Then think back to his predecessor but one, Bill Clinton, whose Presidency almost came to grief on the back of an inappropriate relationship with an intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Like it or not, we live in a media age. There is now in most parts of the media little distinction between ‘the public interest’ and ‘what we think the public are interested in’. So policy is boring, many in the media think. Personality is interesting. Rigorous analysis is hard. Sensation is easy. The day to day is dull. Scandal is not. The problem is that in many sections of the media – TV every bit as much as the tabloids in my view – balance is being lost.

Freedom of information has become a belief that people in public life are entitled to no privacy at all. Whatever they do, say or think can be the subject of incessant and often inaccurate speculation and comment based upon it. So the question becomes – how do the leaders have to deal with it? I go back to Clinton, a master of communications. When the Lewinsky scandal was at its height, and the so-called independent prosecuting counsel Kenneth Starr was about to publish his report, the then President was on the telephone to Tony Blair discussing the decommissioning of Soviet nuclear weapons.

Several years later, I asked him how he was able to stay focussed on something like that when all around him the world was convulsed by a report into his sex life. He said he had a clear objective – survival. He had a clear strategy – to get up every day and focus on those things where only he as President could make a difference. And his tactics were to make sure the American people knew that’s what he was doing. In other words, try to ignore the noise, and get on with the job.

I know from my time with Tony Blair that the moments when the personal and the political collide are among the most difficult to handle. Mr Berlusconi is at one of those moments now. He could do worse than adopt that same calm approach as Bill Clinton. Objective. Strategy. Tactics.

He might also take a leaf from the book of another public figure (one who herself commented on Mr Berlusconi’s behaviour recently) namely The Queen. She and her family have survived many scandals, crises and perceived public relations disasters. Yet I make two observations – she probably has the most enduringly positive media profile of any public figure, anywhere in the world. And second, she has never given an interview.

  • Mennard

    Enjoyed this .The ebbs and flows of political life its interaction with the media and the modern world are fascinating .

  • Gary Kirk

    The point about the Queen is very good. Perhaps there is some protocol or reason why, but still. Elizabeth R in the 80s is probably the closest you’re going to get.

    Also, obviously the Italian media is less intrusive than here, because it’s mainly controlled by him. I hope that what you say about such a media mogul entering office here being unimaginable is true, for all our sakes.

  • Janet Pearce

    Has the Queen really never given an interview? Good on her. Two fingers to the lot of them. Your Italian article is absolutely right about loss of balance or perspective. I think the TV is actually now worse than the papers

  • Silvio no relation

    I am an Italian living in London and though I sometimes find Berlusconi embarrassing he is very popular with the ordinary Italian, and in part because he says what he thinks. Of course it is embarrassing for any man when a wife comes out and says what his wife did. But there is a part of most Italians – certainly men – that thinks well done to him for still flirting around – if that is what it is. Like you I don’t know and am not sure I care much too

  • Terry Evans

    I consider Berlusconi a little bit of a joke, and if he is having a relationship with an 18 year old girl, I don’t think “good on him”. I feel extremely sorry for his wife. As for the media intrusion, I hate this idea that the media have a right to really dig under the skin into deeply personal issues, but I presume that this man’s newspapers have probably dug up scandal on his opponents, (It’s the way of the world). There is an old saying that what goes around comes around.

  • expatina

    I live in central Italy, a historically left zone where Silvio is seen for what he is–a rightwing fearmonger who manipulates the press and feels freedom to say anything he likes. He can’t be like the Queen–he, and not his family,is the source of the scandals. He screams that anyone who challenages anything he says is a Communist. He blames the left for the breakup of his marriage (for feeding his wife “lies”). He gets away with what the right chalk up as a “Milanese” sense of humor. He’s beloved in the north, where the money is, and the south, where he flames anti-immigrant and down-with-the-Roma emotions. I think it’s horrifying that the foreign press continues to treat him like an embarrassing old uncle who tells dirty jokes at family dinners and “harmlessly” paws the girls when in reality he is dangerously changing the laws to make himself and his friends richer and more powerful.

  • Alan Quinn

    Thank God Prince Phillip has never given an interview then!

  • Alina Palimaru

    To put it in nice terms, I do not have much sympathy for this horny scumbag. One profile I read about Silvio Berlusconi concluded that he is essentially Italy’s biggest employer, owning television networks, radio stations, publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, a movie production company, Internet services and AC Milan… among others. I remain puzzled by the public’s tolerance of all the legal and legislative maneuverings performed by Berlusconi and his allies to avoid prosecution for bribery and other crimes… this is redolent of a gangster state. Plus, his appointment of bimbos and starlets as ministers makes governance seem like a joke.

    Finally, one grammar question. Shouldn’t it be ‘media are’ instead of ‘media is’? ‘Media’ is the plural of ‘medium’.

  • gary Enefer

    Excellent article AC and a very good comment by Expatina.

    Often ‘buffoons’can have a nasty side and actually don’t mind the media ‘intruding’on their playboy image to cover this up.

  • CPW

    “Freedom of information has become a belief that people in public life are entitled to no privacy at all. Whatever they do, say or think can be the subject of incessant and often inaccurate speculation and comment based upon it”.

    So how the fuck do you square this with your reporting of John Major’s Y-fronts? You contributed to creating the appetite for this bullshit and now you’re bemoaning it. I reckon you need a “Money for old rope” tab at the top of your site to advertise another of your multifarious talents.

  • Em

    Alastair, a 63 year-old man has a relationship with an 18 year-old (she was 17 when they met) and you wonder what the “nature” of their relationship is? Funny.

    I’m not particularly interested in politicians’ extra-marital affair or their ephebophilic tendencies, but such stories reveal a lot about the judgement. I read somewhere that many politicians have borderline personalities, the kind that indulges in high risk behaviour so as not to feel numb.

    Berlusconi is an entirely different kettle of fish and, as I once wrote on this blog, I cannot express my views on Berlusconi without diminishing myself or causing long-term harm on the reader.

    As far as the Queen goes, I still fantasise about her hitting Silvio with a polo mallet. It COULD happen.

  • Trevor Crocker

    A thought provoking blog. I suppose, to an extent, we get the media that we deserve but it has always appalled me how television/newspapers set the moral agenda rather than reflect it.

    To me it is not,nor has it ever been, news that our political leaders “have feet of clay” – what should concern us is their ability to deliver “on policy rather than personality”.

    The ease with which the media can whip up moral fury should be of concern to us all. It appears to be an essential aspect of human nature to feel the need to scream in outrage at the startling news that someone in a position of power has a dubious sex life or is in some other way behaving in a manner which is deemed “inappropriate” by those who consider themselves arbiters of public morality.

    On a popular level `Eastenders`suggests that it is perfectly acceptable to scream in unmitigated rage at a friend withour placing your future relationship in jeopardy, while`Britain`s Got Talent` and `The X Factor` consider it appropriate to allow individuals with delusions of grandeur to hold themselves up to public ridicule while simultaneously ensuring that those with a modicum of genuine talent plus a suitable `sob story` can be granted public approval.

    Meanwhile, so-called quality newspapers instigate a feeding frenzy (into which the tabloids are only too glad to join) involving the abuse of our political leaders, not for failing to deliver their policies but for failing to match up to what the media decides is respectable behaviour. This is a dangerous state of affairs as it both undermines public faith in our leaders and opens the way for more sinister groups to “sneak in the back door” to political influence by seeming to provide a `common sense alternative`.

    I agree that we do live in “a media age” where sensation comes easy…..but isn`t it time that some of this hypocrisy was weeded out so that newspapers and television can be granted sufficient space to plant a few seeds of thought which encourage consideration of genuine issues rather than mere scandal?

  • Marion

    This week of MPs expenses has reminded of something I read about corruption in a book on Africa. It was a throw-away comment by the author (who I forget now!) “Italy is the Nigeria of Europe”. When I read this book I was living in Nigeria with an Italian – we both found this very funny! Here in Britain, as each successive newsreader and comedian has added a laugh about the MPs expenses I have thought how offended the British would be if this comment instead read “The UK is the Nigeria of Europe”.

    Taking up with a bimbo wouldn’t make Gordon Brown more popular; however, if he put some eye-candy on the front bench he might get a few votes. At a time when almost all our MPs have lost their moral highground, he hasn’t much to lose kicking out the deadwood… and I bet their expense claims would be more exciting for the rest of us!

  • Astrid

    The power focus and structure of the American political system is so different to our one here though? Also, I think when some British politicians are treating mis-claiming on the expense system as a right, people do have the right to know. Sitting here with Sky News in the background, I can see another MP blaming the system – thus trying to get out of any kind of self-responsibility. I can see how attractive it is to highlight other European politicians who may be acting strangely; but we have to admit that we have a serious problem with inappropriate behavior at home.

  • Em

    CPW: from what I understand, and I may be wrong, Alastair never confirmed being behind that “underpants” rumour. Then again, from what I know, he never denied it either.

    Maybe AC has learned from being a writer in the media to being one of its subjects. If he were a journalist today, he might not write in the same manner.

    There are good reasons to criticise the media (such as inaccuracies) but as things stand between British parties and the press it seems that the former can dish it out but they can’t take it.

    Either way, whatever Silvio’s fascists rags have begotten onto others, Silvio deserves to get it all back.

  • George Woodhouse

    Two thoughts occur to me in relation to ACs disparaging comment about the British Press “gorging” on the wrong thing – in his view.

    Firstly consider of all the money being repaid to the tax payer for the “accounting mistakes” made by MPs – these would never have come to light without the UK press’s involvement.
    Secondly, and probably more importantly, the traditional party political opposition system clearly no longer works in this country. We might as well have a single party state. The battle is no longer between the left and the right – or the wealthy and the poor. Nor is it business against the unions or a battle of the working classes against the privaleged classes. It is now the electorate against the political classes – and the press ois the only real opposition we have on our side – and I am very grateful for it.

  • Trevor Malcolm, Portsmouth Hampshire


    BBC Newsnight Grills Monarchy

    For shame, such unlikely headlines can be mothballed to gather cobwebs indefinitely. Because, as your concluding blog observation points out, Queen Lilibet still turns down all media interview bids, sorry

    But we can at least relish the next best thing. This book quotation, “Genius, … for that is Her Majesty’s genius”

    And for that insight, we thank Mr Jeremy Paxman, 59, of Henley-upon-Thames. He points out in his book on royalty that the Queen doesn’t appear to have said anything remotely noteworthy or, God forbid, controversial, since she first took office

    Hailed as a genius for keeping her mouth shut, for Chrissakes, since her 1950s coronation? That’s one helluva record, especially, dare I say, compared to some, sir?

    Yet, Mr Paxman further implies that, like the rest of her subjects – that means us lot – the Monarch, too, may not have much of import or merit worth hearing about

    Of course, I appreciate the British Empire would never have tolerated a monarch as opinionated and forthright as the late Willie Hamilton, notorious Labour MP and extreme arch anti-royalist, par excellence

    So, instead we’re left with the Queen’s annual bland message. Every Christmas Day at 3 o’clock, sharp. Plus formal speeches, penned by courtiers for state occasions, eg the Opening of Parliament, during the year

    But that’s the nearest you get to so much as a soundbite out of the sovereign, let alone a no-holds-barred, Martin Bashir interview on Panorama. The Queen’s no Princess Diana

    A recent illustration. The Queen visited Portsmouth, a week last Thursday, (30 April 2009) to honour war veterans at Southsea’s D-Day Museum

    Now, if you anticipated me cadging the Sovereign’s undivided attention, to pull off the first World Exclusive with her Majesty, I understand your disappointment, really

    What you got instead was the usual over-orchestrated, choreographed set-piece, all staged in front of fixed-point press photographers, to guarantee a good day’s royal media coverage

    At least, the Queen did risk a mini-walkabout in front of a few royalists, earlier supplied with Union Jack flags to wave, enjoying a moment to bask in Her Majesty’s radiance. Yet even her inscrutable, fixed smile failed to express much warmth: bewildering

    It’s ironic her walkabout took place in the same Civic Square where the Queen’s daughter-in-law, Diana, had mesmerised her fans each time she visited, in 1989, then in 1991 and again in 1992

    Working her way slowly round the entire square, Diana’s brand of magic, left thousands spellbound. Just ordinary citizens Diana had made feel, valued, loved and important

    During her public engagements, Diana’s performance, her informal chats with the well-wishers, beggared belief. Especially considering her own health problems, bulimia and depression, suffering “the anguish that used regularly to drive (her) to tearful despair” as her brother, Earl Spencer, confirmed in his funeral address

    So, I’m flummozed, Mr Campbell. Because, to quote your concluding blog observation, it’s the Queen who “probably has the most enduring positive media profile of any public figure, anywhere in the world”

    Me, I’m amazed she retained any public favour after her sluggishness to show she shared the nation’s grief at the loss of Diana, if indeed she did, holidaying at Balmoral

    To my mind, it’s the Spirit of Diana that lives on, forever. She claims first place. As the mother of her two children, William and Harry: they are the future of the monarchy, not the present Queen’s “positive media profile”

    Compare: Princess Margaret, the Queen’s younger sister? The gone and forgotten. Even the Queen Mum? Gone, forgotten. (Her former home, Clarence House, now hosts parties of coach day-trippers)

    We do need to create a new word to honour those we love and lose, like the People’s Princess. Ungone, the ungone, forever. As tribute to those we love so much, yet lose, often prematurely. Often parents and close relatives, those departed we remember daily for the rest of our own lives. Our inspirations

    It’s irrational such a list includes iconic figures, like Diana, we never even knew or met personally. Maybe, Elvis, Monroe, Sinatra, J F Kennedy, might also apply. They too could do no wrong in the eyes of their fans and followers, positive media profile or not

    Then, in the final year of her life, when Diana’s unpredictable, at times oddball beliefs and behaviour encouraged foreign paparazzi to label her “The Loon” – even then, had she chosen to murder all senior members of the Royal Family, millions worldwide would have kept their faith in her and agreed wholeheartedly Diana’s “inner demons” found the justifiably right thing to do

    One regret remains. When the Princess offered you a job and invited you in person to work for her, instead of coy, blushing and tongue-tied like an entranced schoolboy, I do wish you’d blurted out these words

    ” … Yes, please: how soon should I start, ma’am? … ”

    Then, today, both of your histories may’ve read quite differently

    Trevor Malcolm