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Clown Prince of bloggers takes on Italian politics

Mark Mardell | 14:25 UK time, Monday, 14 April 2008

With Italy's elections complete, does the domination of the media by the political elite distort the debate, and will the internet change things?
Italian comedian Beppe Grillo at a rally in Rome, March 2008

I find one side of the coin in Milan, at the heart of the estate where Berlusconi made his first serious money.

Milano 2 is a suburb of luxury flats, ponds and trees, restaurants and a hotel. And a TV station. His first in what grew into an unrivalled media empire.

I am here to meet Emilio Fede, a short, well-tanned man with greying hair, a famous face on Italian TV since the 1950s.

He is a newsman more on the model of the old American news anchor than the British presenter. He’s the boss here. He doesn’t just read the main bulletin at seven in the evening. He decides what’s in it and all the other bulletins of TG4.

He’s editor-in-chief of the first TV station in Berlusconi’s now vast media empire.

Mr Fede is anything but impartial. He tells me not only that his friend Mr Berlusconi is a caring man, a man of the people, who has the answer to Italy’s problems but also that he brought the Cold War to an end.


He is a fan, and the news reflects that. The day I am in the studio, the report on the opposition’s activities features just one politician talking in an interview.

But you don’t hear his words. He is, in TV parlance, goldfishing: you can see his lips move but only hear the reporter’s words. The report on Mr Berlusconi’s day has a rather long clip of him speaking.

After our interview, several uneasy Italian journalists suggest I must find it rather odd to discover a TV editor who supports one side so strongly.

Not really, I‘ve interviewed enough British newspaper editors for precisely the same reason: to get an intelligent informed, but partisan view.

That all broadcasters, even ones that don’t harvest a licence fee, are legally bound to be impartial in the UK, but newspapers are not, could be seen as a cultural quirk.

But it means that no-one in Italy seriously strives for objectivity.

Journalists are still organised in a guild, set up by Mussolini to control the press.
Benito Mussolini in 1942

Before you are allowed to write a single article, you first have to have a sponsor within the industry, and then pass an exam sat in Rome, using an old-fashioned typewriter.

If the big organisation representing mainstream Italian journalists doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of the technology that has been dominant for the last 20 years, it’s not surprising that some see the internet as a way around the dead hand of an old elite.

Beppe the blogger

I go to Genoa to meet the man behind a blog whose aim is to clear the current political class out of power.

Beppe Grillo’s online comments were voted by Time Magazine’s readers as the world’s most interesting political blog.

Beppe Grillo is, I guess, in his fifties, a mass of wavy curls more salt than pepper and a neat beard framing his engagingly impish face.

An irrepressible performer with political clout, he’s the organiser of a rally with a very direct message to Italy’s political elite. It was called "F-Off day”. It drew a crowd of 80,000.
Beppe Grillo at home
What amounts to political censorship cost him his job in 1987. He is a standup comic, and was perhaps the most popular comedian on Italian TV.

But then he made a joke about the then ruling party, the Socialists, being corrupt. The show’s host walked off stage, the doorman wouldn’t look him in the eye and he never appeared on TV again, barred by both the state and Berlusconi’s private empire.

Even after a massive bribery scandal brought about the collapse of the Socialist party, he didn’t get his job back.

Not that it did him any harm. We are talking in his large study and sitting room taking up the whole bottom floor of his rather wonderful villa perched on a hillside overlooking the sea, just outside Genoa.

He fills any theatre he plays to and is one of the most influential alternative political voices in Italy. He takes on big companies and says things about politicians that leave him embroiled in dozens of court cases.

The first protest, or V-Day from its Italian name, demanded that the whole political elite, but particularly politicians with criminal convictions, should leave the political stage.

Media reform

Day Two demands a reform of the media.

“We are enraged, we have a feeling of hopelessness,” he says.

“We have a parliament full of felons. We have a hit-parade of crooks in our parliament, making laws for Italy.

“The current political class has to go – en masse. Then we’ll start again with young people – in their 20s and 30s. And then via the internet we’ll start to create what you might call the virus of a new beginning from the bottom up.”

He says the internet is key to this new beginning.

“We have seven television networks, and three newspapers that inform public opinion. And these are all in the hands of the banks, industrialists and politicians – and they all back each other up. And, without their say so, nothing happens.”

He says Italians are in a comatose state, with the media in control.

“And this is why our next ‘F-Off Day 2’ will focus on the media. We have to stop these millions of euros of public money being handed over to the newspapers; we’ve got to get rid of this ‘guild of journalists’, and we have to get rid of a law that allows Berlusconi, whom today we also refer to as Asphalt Head, to own three TV networks and 10 newspapers, and then become prime minister.”

I question how much impact this control of the media has.

After all I have just had a lively lunch with an Italian family arguing furiously about which way they should vote.

The newspapers are full of highly intellectual analysis, probably of a higher quality than in Britain. The party system means voices that would be excluded in Britain, from the hard left and hard right, are heard in Italy as well as the views of greens of various shades, libertarian socialists and of course the mainstream.

But this is not quite what he means. He is talking about something much more basic. The simple facts.

'Tittle tattle'

“Here in Italy we don’t know the whole truth. We know tittle tattle. What we’re told isn’t false, it’s verisimilitude.
If you have a criminal mind, you’ll be successful in this country. If you don’t, you won’t. That’s the problem with this strange country.”

He gives an example. A politician in the last government was closely linked, he claims, with a business over which his ministry has control. Now I am not going to get into specifics because I do not have the time to check out a claim that would be libellous if not true.

And Italian journalists are likewise scared off by the law and the willingness of politicians to use it. But there’s a difference.

In Britain, if such an allegation was made, it would be instantly checked out and, if true, it would dominate the headlines for days. I am not saying the media in Britain is perfect, indeed it may be blind to many things, but it is an effective check on serious financial scandal.

Given the litigious nature of Italian politicians, few people will put their heads above the parapet.

My most frustrating interview on this trip was with former magistrate Gherardo Colombo about a book he has recently written on a most fascinating subject, the relationship between Italians and rules.
Former prosecutor Gherardo Colombo after Silvio Berlusconi's acquittal in 2004

His sound, if basic, theory is that in Italy people at the top see only their privileges and people down the pyramid only their responsibilities.

I have no doubt he is a very brave man. He would have to be to have conducted the investigations into organised crime that he has presided over.

But he does not want to talk about the election, about Berlusconi, about how his theories affect political life in Italy.

This of course is his right, and he may have reasons I can’t guess at. But I suspect after a time it just becomes too much hassle, too wearying.

This worries me. Getting people to think through to conclusions themselves; by stirring up academic debate without spelling out the obvious is what dissidents have to do in dictatorships.

Clearly Italy is anything but, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it from people’s behaviour.

Big fish

Beppe Grillo, ever the standup comedian, mimes munching a large fish as he answers my question.

He says that, just like people who only have ever tasted farmed fish, Italians have forgotten the taste of real democracy.

“We no longer have a proper idea of what democracy is all about. We no longer have proper freedoms. We know nothing about anything.

“I’d say to you that if you know of British companies that want to come here, they can come – because things are simple here. They can submit false accounts, do insider-trading and the like. The problem with this country is that we don’t know the whole truth.”

Back at his computer, Beppe Grillo shows me his plans for V2 Day on his blog.

People can add their avatars to the virtual protest and a bunch of cartoon characters march across the screen to tell, not the politicians this time, but the media to get lost.

Are they right? Can they win?

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 04:08 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Michael wrote:

Mark I've lived in Italy for ten years now (and I pay my taxes btw!) and you have to imagine: "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" (only in this case Burlusconi's War on Everything) coupled with "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media" - times 100! - before you can begin to understand It All!

Are they right? Can they win? It’s not completely a no-hope situation, but only time will tell if these questions can ever be asked. The problems, corruption, stagnation, are so vast as to defy meaning. And don’t even think about the environment. This is a country that needs a LOT of help.

  • 2.
  • At 04:14 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Lucian, Trieste wrote:

The reason why magistrate Colombo did not want to go on record about the elections is very simple; judges as a class have been demonised by Berlusconi and the slightest whiff of political opinion emenating from them causes baying from the politicians. I fear the only way forward for this country is via a taste of the guillotine... pour encourager les autres!

  • 3.
  • At 04:20 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Tony Robinson wrote:

I could not possibly wish to be in a political union with the Italians.

Pizza - YES!

"EU" - NO!

  • 4.
  • At 05:40 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • lorenzo wrote:

I hope in Grillo but i think that Even if he could put together 2 milion people at his V2 Day there would still be very little coverage of it on TV or on the papers, because that's what the psycho dwarf wants.
Even if the people of Italy could put together 2 milion signature in a petition to change or to make a proposition for a new law it would be stopped by berlusconi's paratroupers in parliament. I think Grillo's tasks to get rid of poli-crminals and propaganda-journalist could take a few years if government doesn't obstruct Internet access as they had planned.

  • 5.
  • At 06:43 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • SAVERIO wrote:

Sei un grande BEPPE !!!

  • 6.
  • At 06:53 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Josh W wrote:

It seems to me that they don't need to get anyone to "F off" to win, as the new form of political organisation he wants to create can grow through the old one. If you can create through the internet a viable alternative, that is ready to take over but doesn't force it, it's simple existance will force change! Either the people in charge will go all rabid and repressive, or they will uncomfortably shift to taking on the new ways of working. You just need to base your advantages on the things the current lot do badly, getting and spreading info, and encouraging honesty and transparency. Sounds like your broadband bill will go through the roof!

  • 7.
  • At 07:09 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Massimo Petritoli wrote:

The real problem in Italy is neither the politicians or the media...the biggest issue are the italians; their low culture their low morality. Italian Politicians and the media are only the mere representative of the italians.
I am ashamed being an italian and I would ask help to EU.

EU please help!!

  • 8.
  • At 07:09 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • BRIAN WHITTLE wrote:

When protoe Mark THE EU in a way that the vast majority of the British public dont want answers this to the readers of your bloggers we dont want EU and the British are getting more anti EU its a lost cause

  • 9.
  • At 07:14 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • chris wood wrote:


  • 10.
  • At 07:18 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • BRIAN WHITTLE wrote:

Why promote Mark THE EU in a way that the vast majority of the British public dont want answers this to the readers of your bloggers we dont want EU and the British are getting more anti EU its a lost cause

  • 11.
  • At 08:16 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Rodolfo wrote:

Hello, I'm italian and I live in Turin.
Did you know that italian media don't talk abaut grillo almost at all?
We are in the hands of the buisnessmen-controlled networks...
whith a lot of pressions by the church..
There are no voices against the fall of democracy because the mass has been manipulated, and the free heads are considered like fools or criminals ( have you heard of Saviano's book: GOMORRA?)
I'm sorry for my English and I hope comments like this would pass the limits of our country, we aren't the only in danger.
buisness, hunger of power, criminality are everywere, and we all are under control.
I hope for a better world

  • 12.
  • At 08:36 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Michelangelo, Bologna wrote:

Italy has always been full of corruption, stagnation, what we call raccomandazioni (good-word?) and mafia and camorra etc etc. those are cancers inside the society, but this was there also before Berlusconi, and left and centre party have never done anything against it. Well the only one able to do anything was Di Pietro when he was a magistrate(tangentopoli-clean hands). But you can't complain against berlusconi for these problems. he is part of a corrupted system, as well as veltroni prodi and casini. And they all act in the same way, but they've never been dictatorship and italy is still a free country, for the press and for the citizens. In a corrupted system as ours one coalition work the interests of a part of the country, the other of another.What we have seen of the left coalition in the last two years was not good, not let's try the right one..if they do bad we can always express our opinion with the vote next time...this is democracy!

  • 13.
  • At 09:51 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Monica wrote:

As an Italian living in the UK, today I can only say sorry to the rest of Europe for sharing my nationality with over 47% of a population that lives in a soap opera. The rest--from today and for another few years--will leave in a nightmare!

  • 14.
  • At 10:27 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • Mark Bergseid wrote:

what a mysterious country! oh well, they have the advantage of not having the ability to V-up the rest of the world

  • 15.
  • At 10:36 PM on 14 Apr 2008,
  • maggie wrote:

Grillo's movement is the only real hope for young people in Italy. It will continue to grow, I'm sure and the more they will try to kill the movement the stronger it will get! Today's election results are however a proof of how terribly outdated most of Italians are (still if the results are 'real' because anything is possible in this paradox country). SPREAS THE WORLD ABOUT BEPPE GRILLO to the world!!!

  • 16.
  • At 12:56 AM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • andrea bertocchi wrote:

1-Emilio Fede is the editor-in-chief of the smallest national TV-station, not "the first".

2- It's not true that no-one in Italy seriously strives for objectivity, broadcasters are legally bound to be impartial expecially during the weeks before election days: there is a law called "PAR CONDICIO" for this and it's very restrictive.

3- Italian constitution allow everyone to write everything, so you don't need to have a sponsor! (this is a nonsense). The journalist profession is restricted by a law made in 1963 (Mussolini died 20 years before), the "guild" is a "self-control" organization, called Ordine dei Giornalisti, from wich you can be banned for etical reason. Recently one Journalist was banned for trafficking with secret services. He is banned, everyone know, but of course he can write, Italy is a free country!
P.S. Dear Mark Mardell, are you sure you was in Italy?

  • 17.
  • At 02:07 AM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • melalf wrote:

For Tony R. and for all british friends


Tonight I can't sleep becouse Lega Nord with Bossi and his stupid friends, Berlusconi and his slaves with consumed tongues are going to govern Italy.

I'm sorry, I'm really sorry that again italians voted for a mediatic phenomena and not becouse they really know Berlusconi's story and the political events.

  • 18.
  • At 06:07 AM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • Mark Nelson wrote:

Dear Mark,
I was intriqued by your comment:

"Mr Fede is anything but impartial. He tells me not only that his friend Mr Berlusconi ... brought the Cold War to an end."

Given Berlusconi's own flair for the ridiculously dramatic, anything is possible. But it would have been entertaining to read the exact quote. Or is this just your own dramatic flair for exageration coming out?

  • 19.
  • At 10:35 AM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • JohaM wrote:

Italy is internationalizing in an amazing pace (the average 17 year old Italian might even speak better English than his British counterpart).

I am convinced this will affect Italian politics in a tremendous way, as soon as the current generations of politicians retire or die of old age (Berlusconi is mortal, isn't he?)

  • 20.
  • At 11:12 AM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • Tessa Patton wrote:

@Andrea Bertocchi, yes Mark was in Italy, and his report is actually about the reality of how things are going in Italy.

We can't always walk blind and don't realise how in Italy the words "Par Condicio" aren't really effective. The whole Biagi thing doesn't really remind you about anything?

About Emilio Fede, who cares if he's the editor in chief of a minor tv channel, he has the power to do whatever he wants to do and to say whatever he wants to say. Is it enough fair for you?

I haven't ever voted for Belusconi or any of his crew, but I think that Italians really deserve that kind of man.

At least but not last, abroad Italians consider themselves offended by how The Sopranos portray the Italian subculture. It's kinda ridiculous, now with Berlusconi we have the victory of corruption and mafia.

I don't have to feel ashamed for being half Italian and to live in Italy, but really in days like these, I'm kinda feel awful.

It was one of the best pictures of Italy I've lately seen on a foreign media, but Grillo is just another side of populism, hence he is very similar to Berluscony way to politics.
I think this time we buried our country once and for all. P.S. We are hopeless but to reduce Italy to Berlusconi or pizza it is a bit simplistic.

  • 22.
  • At 01:18 PM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • Stephen wrote:

The best thing would be for Switzerland to buy Italy and convert it into a modern federal democracy.

The Italian peoples would gain Democracy and prosperity. The Swiss would gain great food.

p.s. When I lived in Valtellina in northern Lombardy, a poll showed that 40% of residents wanted to join the Swiss canton Graubunden!!

  • 23.
  • At 03:01 PM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • Peda wrote:

To answer "maggie"'s comment:
Grillo's movement will not save Italy. The reason? You say you are sure it will grow stronger and have increasingly more support from youngster. Well,italian teenagers are, sadly, equally devided between 1) an extremist and completely utopic left (Che Guevara is their ideal leader,but that's too late to wake him up I guess) 2) a self-centred, egoistic and economically mean-to-end section of rightists (who mostly admire Berlusconi because their rich parents told them to do so since it will bring them more money) and c) an apathetic section of teenagers who do not either care or understand what is going on with this Italian joke which is now our government. On the other hand, we are fueling the collective imagination of those who think that Italy is pizza, dolce vita (oops, not true!) and mysterious, dirty politics.

  • 24.
  • At 04:42 PM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • Massimiliano wrote:

I think that Bebbe Grillo is one of the most brilliant minds in Italy. He has the courage to speak off the truth about Italy's political class. One comment about the recent vote. I thought Americans were crazy to vote for Bush for two times, but Italians voted for Berlusconi for three! What a shame!

  • 25.
  • At 04:52 PM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • Max Sceptic wrote:

Aren't we all glad that Britain has handed over substantial elements of our national sovereignty to a club which includes Italy as a founding member.

How comforting it is to to sit in England and feel so smug about the situation in Italy and other such countries.

Somewhat more worrying is the thought that perhaps the reason that Italy seems such a mess is because it is only the prototype -the imported social experiment for the future global government in our brave new Neo-Conservative world.

"Well, we don't want such experiments here" -the Europhobes will no doubt cry..... but maybe they too should ask themselves who the real architects are..... Not the EU perhaps -but our old friends across the Atlantic pond -the same ones that push free-market forces upon us and encourage their commercial media to freely market the public by trivialising all thought and commodifying the entire planet: The land of jerry Springer and other such politico-media masters....

Welcome to Italy -welcome to the future for us all!

  • 27.
  • At 06:10 PM on 15 Apr 2008,
  • Lucian, Trieste wrote:

Concerning journalism in Italy (of which I know something as it's my trade and I know several Italian journalists): the union is highly restrictive and in practice, except for occasional (once, perhaps twice) articles, it is impossible to write for an Italian periodical. To become a member, you need to have been published... Catch-22! Unless you have the right friend, of course.
Par condicio is a joke: always has been, and made worse by Berlusconi and Fede who claimed to be "bewildered" for getting a rap on the knuckles for not providing equal air time for the left-wing politicians. As ever in Italy, the law is more equal for some (the wealthy and well-connected) than for others.

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