In Italy, Five Star Movement’s war on journalism is picking up pace

June 13, 2019
Davide Casaleggio, a prominent figure in the Five Star Movement, in Ivrea. (Photo by Stefano Guidi/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In May, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which leads Italy’s government, voted to cut funding to Radio Radicale, a radio station that has broadcast parliamentary debates, votes, and court cases since 1975. Five Star, which governs in a coalition with a far-right party called Lega, has moved to cut both the funding and the authorization needed to broadcast live in parliament, triggering the likely closure of the station (which does not run ads).

“They want to eliminate it as part of a violent experiment against broadcasters,” Salvatore Merlo, a journalist from Italian newspaper Il Foglio, tells me. “Radio Radicale is just the first step.” Alessio Falconio, the station’s editor in chief, told the Guardian that “more than a million records of the life of this country’s institutions are at risk being forgotten forever.”

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Five Star, like other populist parties in Europe, attacks the press as a matter of routine, often for publishing “fake news.” It uses its vast online support base against reporters it disagrees with. It has sued many others. It doesn’t allow questions at many press conferences. In the past, Five Star’s central website ran a Journalist of the Day column, lambasting reporters who’d written unfavorably about the party. Last year, two of Five Star’s leading figures referred to journalists that had written negatively about Five Star as “jackals” and “whores” which led the Council of Europe to admonish the party in a report about press freedom on the continent.

But for Five Star, the press isn’t just a convenient punching bag. Overcoming journalism is part of its raison d’être. Five Star’s ideology is largely based around the idea that the internet will make parliaments and representative democracy redundant and usher in a new age of digital direct democracy. They call this “disintermediation”—and it extends to how people get information; they believe newspapers will be made redundant by the web. It’s a vision of a future without traditional journalists.

Since Five Star formed Italy’s government last year, it has started legislating against the press. Italian newspapers, which have suffered from declining circulation, increasingly depend on “public notices”—advertisements from state-owned companies. Five Star has moved to scrap this. It also slashed media funding from the government’s annual budget.

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Five Star’s story began in 2005, when a famous, foul-mouthed comedian called Beppe Grillo launched a blog, Early readers who later became big names in Five Star, such as Alessandro Di Battista and Manlio Di Stefano, described the blog to me as “counter-information” in a media landscape dominated by repeat-prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

Grillo’s blog soon became hugely popular in Italy, and he marshalled this audience into mass public rallies called V-Days—V stood for vaffanculo, or “fuck you”—which, apart from excoriating the political establishment, were aimed at getting signatures for petitions to force popular referendums. One V-Day was aimed at changing Italy’s laws around journalism and to force the end of state funding of the media.

Jacopo Iacoboni, from the 152-year-old Italian daily La Stampa, was one of the few local journalists to attend these early V-Days. “I went with no prejudice at all, because I was really interested,” Iacoboni tells me, “and because they engaged really a lot of people, many of whom were disappointed with the main parties, particularly the Italian center-left.” But as Iacoboni learned more about the movement, his reporting took unexpected turns. “I began to understand a few other parts of the picture,” he says—including the fact that, from the start, Grillo’s rallies, his blog, his tours were closely managed by a company belonging to a secretive web entrepreneur called Gianroberto Casaleggio.

Iacoboni has since written two books about the rise of Five Star (entitled The Experiment and The Execution). Through interviews with former employees who worked with Casaleggio and coordinated Grillo’s campaigns, Iacoboni’s books detail how Casaleggio controlled Grillo’s blog and planned the movement’s direction.

Casaleggio had been thinking about disintermediation in the media since at least the early 2000s. In a book entitled The Web is Dead, Long Live the Web, he wrote about a conversation with a journalist who was extolling the virtues of his profession. The journalist reminded Casaleggio of a “priest” who fancied himself of a “superior caste” who “administers his information to devoted readers.” Casaleggio anticipated that this would fundamentally change with the advent of universal internet access: “We will finally be free to inform ourselves,” he wrote. “Information will pervade our daily lives and will allow you to choose, to decide”—instead of letting journalists choose for us through “their virtual reality.”  

In 2007, Casaleggio published the first of three science-fiction-steeped videos encapsulating his vision of the future. The subject he chose for the first video was the media. Entitled Prometeus, it envisages a coming post-copyright era where all information is digital and freely available online. He also predicted traditional media fighting back, trying to protect the old model of information through paywalls, regulation and taxes—but foresaw that the likes of Google and Amazon would ultimately crush these efforts.  

When Five Star was founded by Casaleggio and Grillo in 2009, its policies were varied and amorphous, drawing from both right and left-wing. But the party had two clear targets: the political establishment—and professional journalists. But there was a paradox at the heart of Casaleggio’s philosophy—as Jacopo Iacoboni found when he delved into the structure and organization of the party. Five Star might have been opposed to intermediation, but a direct structure organized around a central website gave most of the party’s power to one person—Casaleggio. Despite this, Casaleggio had no official title within the party, and Five Star looked to supporters like a largely horizontal movement relying on their direct participation.

In 2016, Casaleggio was in the process of handing the party’s digital operations over to his son, Davide, which Iacoboni described as a “dynastic succession,” when Casaleggio died of brain cancer. Since then, Davide has since held an annual convention on the anniversary of his father’s death in the city of Ivrea, home of typewriter and computer pioneer Olivetti, where Casaleggio began his career. The convention is aimed at furthering Casaleggio’s goal of “understanding the future,” but in reality is a massive networking exercise, bringing together many of the biggest names in Italian tech and business, including the CEO of Google in Italy.

In April 2018, on the second anniversary of Casaleggio’s death, Iacoboni traveled to Ivrea to write a report on the event for La Stampa. But he never got to attend. “They completely banned me at the entrance,” Iacoboni says—on the basis that he didn’t have accreditation, although the event was open to the public and free to enter. “I told them, ‘We can easily solve this problem—let’s call La Stampa and resolve the problem,’” Iacoboni recalls. “My editor, Maurizio Molinari, tried to talk with the high officials of Five Star and they officially told him ‘No, he cannot get in because he is unwelcome due to his articles.’”

Il Foglio’s Merlo, who after the incident reported that the order to stop Iacoboni entering had come directly from Davide Casaleggio, told me: “It’s a gesture that’s fascist quite clearly—that a journalist you don’t like is sent away.” The incident caused a furor in the Italian press—Iacoboni is widely seen as the foremost journalist covering Five Star.

But the party’s attitude towards the press has, if anything, hardened since. Rocco Casalino, Five Star’s head of press communications, a former contestant on Grande Fratello (the Italian version of Big Brother), continues to treat journalists in a manner that’s unprecedented for a spokesperson. According to Italian paper of record Corriere della Sera, Casalino is in the habit of promising the presence of Five Star heavyweights like Luigi Di Maio or Alessandra Di Battista, only to cancel a few minutes before airtime. When leaked audio was published of Casalino calling officials in the government’s finance department “pieces of shit” and promising a “mega-vendetta” over resistance to Five Star’s spending measures, he defended himself by calling it “an absolutely private conversation I had with two journalists. The publication violates the fundamental principle of protecting confidentiality.”

Earlier this year, Merlo met Casalino while reporting in the Italian parliament. “We were introduced, and he said: ‘Ah, it’s you,’” Merlo recalls. Casalino then said to Merlo “When Il Foglio closes, what are you going to do? Tell me, what purpose does Il Foglio serve? Why should it exist?”

“He said to me that when my newspaper closes down, if I’m looking for work, I should go and work for them,” Merlo says. “This was surreal.” (Casalino later said the remarks were intended as humorous.)

It isn’t just Casalino. The antipathy towards journalists goes right to the top of the party. I contacted Grillo’s representatives last year for an interview, and eventually received a response that he would conduct a written interview for €1,000 per question, with a minimum of eight questions. When I approached Davide Casaleggio’s representatives around the same time, I received similarly restrictive requests, and he ultimately declined to speak—and rarely talks to the press unless the conditions are closely controlled.

Di Battista, a Five Star figure who has been touted as a future leader, told me last year that the press misrepresented his party as “populist” and “nationalist,” but the party was neither right nor left-wing. The true battle today, he said, was between those wanting to take back “sovereignty” and those supporting the establishment: “They need to understand this, the intellectuals who judge the world from an attic in Manhattan,” he said. It’s classic anti-establishment rhetoric, but Five Star’s attitude towards the press can feel more like that of an authoritarian regime rather than the government of a modern democracy. And despite the party’s resistance to labels, it has allied with right-wing populists both in the European parliament and in Italy.  

Matteo Salvini, the far-right leader of Lega, Five Star’s government partners, has also taken a hard line against journalists, accusing them of not reporting the truth about immigration, for example. “But there is a big difference between saying that you have written a lie, and cutting the public notices from the newspapers,” Merlo says. He adds that, like other countries, there has always been a combative relationship between politicians and journalists in Italy: “And it’s also legitimate to criticize the press,” Merlo says, “but it becomes deeply worrying if those in power use the laws to compress the freedom and the expression of the press.”

Merlo believes the condition of Italian media will only improve when the government falls—which could happen sooner rather than later. Five Star performed disappointingly in the recent European elections. This could lead Lega’s Salvini to choose to break the government coalition and force new elections, which according to current opinion polls his party would win. In the long term, Merlo does not believe that lasting damage will have been done to Italy’s media by Five Star, “which fortunately is quite free and pluralistic,” he says. But the government’s appointment of a controversial journalist called Marcello Foa as the head of state broadcaster Rai has already seen more controversial coverage, according to critics. And the forced closure of a long-standing institution like Radio Radicale will be difficult to repair.

As for the techno-utopian vision of Casaleggio’s—one where information and news are freed from the clutches of vested interests and supposedly biased journalists—Five Star’s goal now seems rather more crude. As Iacoboni says in his latest book: “Ultimately, do they just want information to be subservient to them?”

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Darren Loucaides is a journalist based in Barcelona and London. Follow him on Twitter Follow him on Twitter @DarrenLoucaides.