Against all odds, former Italian prime minister Berlusconi was recently sentenced to one year in prison. This followed a long process where an Italian referendum had to be held to revoke his legal immunity, in order to indict him in the first place. We can learn a lot about the dangers of politically controlled media from how Berlusconi tried to defeat this referendum.
Silvio Berlusconi was sentenced to one year in prison for “notable tax evasion”, and prohibited from holding public office for five years. Experts say that this means that the 76-year-old’s political career is effectively over.
However, this case has been dragging on for a long time, and started out as a seemingly hopeless case since Berlusconi enjoyed legal immunity for acts committed during his prime ministry. To repeal this immunity, a referendum was required in Italy – a population-wide referendum just to allow the former prime minister – one man – to even stand trial.
To understand the complexity of this situation, three pieces of data are vital:
First, the functional illiteracy in Italy is 43% (yes, forty-three per cent). This means that almost half of the population can’t read an average-complexity newspaper article, or this blog post, and understand its content and use its information in their daily lives. (Update: Wikipedia puts the number at 47% for Italy.)
Second, referendums in Italy need two things to pass and take judicial effect. Out of the voting people, over 50% of the valid votes cast must be “yes” votes – simple enough; there must be a majority in favor of the referendum. But the second thing required is that the voter turnout must also be over 50%. This means that there are two mutually exclusive strategies for defeating an Italian referendum – either campaign heavily for a “no” vote, or not campaign at all in shooting for a voter turnout less than the required half.
Third, Silvio Berlusconi owns a controlling interest in six of the seven television networks in Italy.
Now, putting these three facts together, we observe that people in Italy do not get their daily news from newspapers (in fact, almost half of them are unable to do so), but from television and friends. We also observe that the programming on television is practically completely controlled by the single man in Italy who has anything to lose from the referendum passing.
So what happened?
The referendum wasn’t mentioned once on the televised news in six out of seven television networks. It was dismissed as “not newsworthy”, in all simplicity.
But the referendum passed anyway, reaching the required 50-percent voter turnout by and large thanks to the alternate newsflows of the net, which Silvio Berlusconi didn’t grow up with and which he hasn’t cared to understand. And so, Berlusconi was indicted. He stepped down from the prime ministry on practically the same day, and was sentenced to jail a few days ago, on October 26.
This story illustrates in a very straightforward way how media ownership, and the interest of the media owners, influences news valuation.
To put it bluntly, there is simply no such thing as “independent media” or “neutral media”. Ownership interests prevail; blood is thicker than water. Even public service channels choose to report from values in the middle lane. That’s not neutral; that’s in the middle lane.
Therefore, a plurality in reporting remains paramount – in order to hold elected leaders accountable, we need many reporters with many competing interests.