The Media Today

Q&A: Mattia Ferraresi on the media legacy of Silvio Berlusconi

June 21, 2023
The state funeral of the Italian politician and businessman Silvio Berlusconi in the Duomo. In the picture the banner in the crowd with the inscription ... Our president... Silvio forever. Milan (Italy), June 14th, 2023 (Photo by Marco Piraccini/Mondadori Portfolio/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

A week ago, the government of Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s far-right prime minister, declared a national day of mourning in honor of Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time former prime minister who died last Monday, at the age of eighty-six. Dignitaries including Meloni and Viktor Orbán, the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary, attended Berlusconi’s funeral at a cathedral in Milan; outside, Mediaset, a TV network that Berlusconi owned, livestreamed the service to thousands of mourners. Not that everyone in Milan seemed moved by the scene. Simona Stante, who said that she was in Milan on business, told a reporter from The Guardian that she was “sick and tired” of the “fawning” coverage of Berlusconi that she had seen in many—if not all—major outlets following his death. “He still manages to control all the information,” Stante said.

In life, Berlusconi stood like a colossus over the Italian media landscape, first as a media mogul with a stable of powerful private TV networks, then as a politician. He commanded outsize attention and influence even after he was kicked out of Italy’s Senate, in 2013, following a conviction for tax fraud—a scandal that topped many others, including the infamous claim that he hosted “bunga bunga” sex parties that were allegedly organized, in part, by an anchor from one of his networks. Last year, Berlusconi returned to the Senate and his party joined Meloni’s coalition, ostensibly as a moderating force. Obituaries of Berlusconi, including in the US press, often highlighted how his media properties painted gaudy color on a previously drab TV sector, and how Berlusconi used them to craft his own image as a political showman. Naturally, comparisons to Donald Trump weren’t far behind. “In many ways, Mr. Berlusconi’s story is an inextricably Italian one. But it also goes beyond the peninsula,” Mattia Ferraresi wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “In leveraging his fame and celebrity to gain power—and managing against all odds to retain it—Mr. Berlusconi provided a template for Mr. Trump’s political career.”

Recently, I spoke with Ferraresi, the managing editor at the Italian newspaper Domani, to tease out the ways in which the story of Berlusconi and the press was a distinctively Italian one, and the ways in which it prefigured the great global blurring of entertainment, news, and politics through which we are all living. We also discussed Berlusconi’s relationship with outlets that he owned (and those he didn’t); the coverage of his death, both in Italy and abroad; and how he helped set the media stage for the current generation of far-right populists, while also standing apart from them. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JA: In many ways, Berlusconi and Trump make for an obvious comparison. But the Italian and US media environments are quite different. How would you situate Berlusconi’s rise specifically in the context of Italy’s media landscape? How did he use the Italian media to rise to power?

MF: Berlusconi was a real-estate man before he became a media mogul: his fortune started in real estate, but then he really blossomed—and his persona really grew—in the media. So we can safely say he’s a media guy; he’s a media tycoon in the classic sense, in the most eighties or nineties sense. I don’t think people realize that he himself invented commercial private TV in Italy. There was none before that, except for really minor, local experiences. All the rest was public TV. That was a real game changer. 

The key here is not that Berlusconi built TV from scratch with the stated goal of praising him or constructing his own career in politics. It’s kind of the other way around: he started as the person who gave Italy and Italians entertaining content, new stuff, movies from the US… everything that the little-bit-stale public service did not provide. I think this situated him in the public imagination as the person who was opening up the country to other things. He was a modernizer in that sense. Favorable coverage of him came after, as a consequence—because he had that platform before.

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I guess Trump jumped into a media system that he didn’t personally invent in any commercial sense, that already incentivized entertainment-driven mass culture. I guess you could say that Berlusconi kind of Americanized the landscape of Italian TV?

I think that’s accurate. Berlusconi created the infrastructure. Trump, in that sense, was not transformative—he played a game that was already there.

You mentioned favorable coverage. After Berlusconi decided to jump into electoral politics, how did he use his media properties to maintain, harness, and wield his power?

There’s two different things. He tended, throughout his political career, to try to lobby and to bend the laws in order to take advantage of, and profit more from, his media empire. That’s one big topic, in terms of the relationship between the media tycoon and the politician. Then there’s a different theme, which is how much he used his TV properties in order to promote himself directly, and to have favorable coverage. I think that’s undeniably true; he for sure exploited them. But was it like a North Korean–type propaganda machine, a Russian-type propaganda machine? No. We have many, many examples of heavily critical news programs within the Berlusconi media ecosystem. I’m not denying that, at the same time, there were specific programs that were used in a way that tended to praise Berlusconi. But the whole theory—which has been a big theory in Italy—that essentially Berlusconi, through his TV stations, sort of brainwashed Italian people so that they would vote for him despite him being what he was? I don’t buy it.

What was his relationship like with the rest of the media, that he didn’t own?

Tumultuous. The media landscape in Italy is as polarized as many other countries. His relationship with the media was always, in general, a contentious one, a stormy one, with an ambiguity that I think likens him to Trump. Does Donald Trump hate the New York Times? The obvious answer is yes. At the same time, he wants New York Times coverage, he wants to talk to New York Times reporters. He needs them—he wants to entertain a relationship, although they’re extremely critical. Berlusconi, with the critical newspapers—which were many—had a similar relationship: he wanted to interact, he wanted to be acknowledged, he wanted to be attacked. He wanted to stay relevant all the time. That ambiguous relationship was always there. Which is, I think, typical of someone who knows how to deal with the media.

The Trumpian symbiosis of attacking the media while also basking in its attention is, I would argue, somewhat novel in America, at least to the extent that Trump does it. How much of a departure was Berlusconi from what came before in Italy, in that sense?

My understanding is there was a pre Berlusconi, and a post Berlusconi. I think he redefined the old landscape. Before that, it was a classic Cold War, polarized situation which was almost perfectly reflected in politics and media. It was the Christian Democrats and the Communists. That was the dialectic; that was it. You could grasp easily where people stood. Keep in mind, it was before commercial TV; it was a very different country and a very different historical context. Berlusconi redefined the rules for everybody.

Another comparison with Trump is that Berlusconi was embroiled in various scandals, including after leaving office, and yet also retained real political visibility, relevance, and power despite not being in government anymore. What was Berlusconi’s relationship with the media—and the media’s with him—in those years after he was in power?

When he was expelled from the Senate in 2013, at that point, it’s all terrible for him. Then something happens: even super critical media—in time, step by step, almost without even noticing—start a rehabilitation of Berlusconi. Rehabilitation may be a little too strong a word. But keep in mind the context: Berlusconi is not in power—it’s done, it’s over, his clout is severely reduced. His reputation at the international level is terrible, it’s radioactive. But then you get Trump, and in Italy, you get [Matteo] Salvini [a far-right populist who is currently Italy’s deputy prime minister]. You get anti-immigration obsessions, and you get conspiracy theorists; you get people that are more than friendly with Russia; Berlusconi was friendly with Putin on a personal level, but that friendship never inspired any significant policy shifts. I think people realized, Oh, Berlusconi was bad, but this is worse: this is heavily far-right, populist, protectionist type thinking, with some underlying xenophobia. This was not really Berlusconi stuff; he was like a son of Reagan and Thatcher. I think it’s not absurd to compare him to George W. Bush. Will Bush be remembered in a better or a worse way compared to Americans’ opinion when he was in office? I think the answer is very clear: he will be remembered as a better president compared to his reputation in 2006. Berlusconi, even in the media, was treated as if Oh, now he’s the moderating force; now his party is the one holding the center together. In a moment, Berlusconi becomes this weird stabilizer, even in the judgment of his own opponents. 

I reflected a lot when he died, comparing obituaries. Of course, his opponents were still critical, still tough with him, even after the funeral. But the general flavor of the coverage, and the general sense of the mood that the media conveyed, was definitely more positive. Interestingly enough, the coverage from abroad did not reflect that. My explanation is that it was sort of stuck in 2013: it retained that vibe because it was the last time that media from abroad had a serious and continuous interest in covering Berlusconi, because he was in power. In the last ten years, Berlusconi was one actor among others, and he was so marked by the sex scandal. But from an Italian perspective, we had the Five Star Movement [a populist party that entered government in 2018] and we had Salvini. We had Meloni, the first post-fascist prime minister in the history of the Italian Republic. In a way, we had our own Trumps. Compared to that, Berlusconi sounded like a different person, like a more trustworthy one. 

Other notable stories:

  • Increasingly, the race to find a small submersible that was carrying wealthy tourists to visit the wreck of the Titanic before it went missing is dominating the US news cycle. For the New Republic, Alex Shephard took the US media to task for privileging the story over the recent drowning of hundreds of migrants off the coast of Greece. The latter “is undoubtedly a new story and an unspeakably tragic one—it’s also, unlike the Titanic tourists story, one that says a great deal about the way the world works. And yet it’s treated as routine or even mundane—yet another faceless tragedy involving people that typically receive far less attention than those who are far better off than they are.”
  • CNN’s Oliver Darcy criticized news organizations for “beating around the bush” in their characterizations of three “conspiracists” who are in the news for different reasons: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., James Comer, and Andrew Tate. “Readers and viewers that turn to news organizations often do not follow the ins and outs of stories like journalists do,” Darcy writes. “It should not be assumed that they know how unhinged Kennedy’s beliefs are, that Comer’s claims of bombshell wrongdoing by Democrats are regularly unsupported by actual evidence, or that Tate is an extremist who preaches misogyny.”
  • Last week, reporters at ProPublica sent the Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito questions concerning an undisclosed luxury fishing trip that he took with a Republican billionaire who later had business before the court. Yesterday, a top spokesperson for the court told the reporters that Alito would not be commenting—only for Alito to very much comment via a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he trashed ProPublica’s reporting. ProPublica published its Alito story last night; you can read it here.
  • According to Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, Bild, the influential tabloid owned by Axel Springer, has told staff that it expects to ax around two hundred jobs due to a reorganization of its local newspaper business, and that it could cut even more jobs due to “the opportunities of artificial intelligence.” Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer’s CEO, previously said that AI could augment—or even replace—much independent journalism.
  • And Liz Truss, who briefly served as Britain’s prime minister last year, broke her silence on a viral stunt in which a tabloid livestreamed footage of a lettuce to see if it would outlast Truss. (The lettuce won.) “I don’t think it’s funny,” Truss said. “I just think it’s puerile.” She also blasted the British press for failing to understand her economic ideas.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.