Grasping the scope of Silvio Berlusconi's conflict-of-interest problem requires a hypothetical analogy. Parallels in the real world simply don't exist. Business media mogul Michael Bloomberg becoming mayor of New York, for example, is small polenta compared to the Italian Prime Minister owning his country's three major private television networks. Imagine instead Bloomberg as majority shareholder in both CBS and NBC making a successful run for the U.S. presidency and then refusing to give up his stake in the networks once he moved into the White House.
Eight years after entering politics and almost a year after sweeping back into the Premier's office, Berlusconi is still playing by his own rules. Unlike Bloomberg after his election victory, the Italian Prime Minister has refused to submit his vast holdings which are valued at $12 billion and also include various publishing, insurance and real-estate enterprises to the scrutiny of a binding conflict-of-interest watchdog agency. A campaign promise to resolve the issue within 100 days of taking office last spring has come and gone with Berlusconi sitting on it like a bully on the playground's only kickball. The sole solution the Prime Minister said he will consider is to establish a watchdog body without the power to impose sanctions when conflicts arise.
And now he's about to exert his will over the public airwaves. The government is slated this week to name a new board of directors for RAI, the Italian state broadcaster and only true competitor of Berlusconi's Mediaset channels. "This will ensure Berlusconi's control, directly or indirectly, of the whole national television system," says Peppino Ortoleva, professor of communications at the University of Siena. The task of choosing the five-member RAI board is in the hands of the president of the Italian Senate and speaker of the lower house of Parliament, both firm Berlusconi loyalists. The leading candidate to head the board, Carlo Rossella, is widely respected for being above the political fray but also happens to be the editor-in-chief of the Berlusconi-owned weekly magazine Pano-rama. When it looked last week as if lower house speaker Pierferdinando Casini might block Rossella's nomination to satisfy another political ally, a livid Berlusconi reportedly quipped to aides that "someone here has got too big for his breeches."
At a press conference with foreign journalists in Rome last Thursday, opposition leader Francesco Rutelli blasted Berlusconi, comparing his control of information in Italy to Leonid Brezhnev's in the 1970s Soviet Union. But Rutelli and his allies who tried in vain to make conflict of interest a pivotal campaign issue last spring are still having trouble convincing the Italian public that there is much to worry about. rai's impending change of the guard is old news in Italy, where the state broadcaster's board as well as top newsroom posts and even minor acting jobs have long been divvied up as political spoils among the factions of both the ruling coalition and opposition. "Most Italians see it as just one conflict among many," said Enrico Mentana, who for 10 years has been the director and anchor of Mediaset's leading nightly news broadcast.
Any attempt to truly resolve the issue would likely involve a partial or total privatization of rai, a prospect that gets a chilly reception from politicians of all stripes who count on it as a protector of their power. The Prime Minister himself has little interest in having the state sell rai, which would not only swipe away his newfound influence at the public broadcaster, but could also bring on stiffer ratings competition from a potential newcomer.
Mentana himself is an example of the paradox of the Italian broadcasting scene, with his Canale 5 show more likely to be critical of its top shareholder than two of the three rai stations. A RAI reporter who requested anonymity said that most people inside the industry believe the public stations are becoming more beholden to the government than their Berlusconi-owned competitors. "The atmosphere inside rai is atrocious," said the state TV reporter. Still, the private network has its own inherent limits: Mediaset's vice president is the Prime Minister's son, Piersilvio Berlusconi. Mentana thinks Berlusconi Sr. should unload his TV holdings. "It would certainly be better for me," said the anchorman, who has been fending off conflict-of-interest questions since the media baron's entry into politics in 1994. But Mentana's journalistic instincts tell him not to expect breaking news on that front anytime soon.