Berlusconi Convicted: What We Learn From Political Media Contamination

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.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He lives on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, roasts his own coffee, and as of right now (2019-2020) is taking a little break.


  1. Tobias

    But how do we get this message that “traditional media” isn’t neutral out to people whose only source of information is traditional media?

    Personally, I find the part at the end, that corporate AND public media are both not 100% neutral, very important. And I fear reality might be worse than you just described it. Saying publicly-owned media only picks from the middle and therefore is not neutral is the best-case scenario. A week ago in Germany a spokesperson of the Christian/Conservative Party had to resign because he called a major public station and wanted them to NOT report on the party convention of the Social Democrats in Bavaria (South of Germany).
    After this I wonder how often our media is influenced by similar acts of politicians without us knowing – even if it is in a more subtle way like appointing staff of public media.

    1. harveyed

      Well, typically, small talk… coffee table or if you are brave, maybe as a stand up comedian..?

      Very good example of why it is important that people are able to report their own news on the internet. The first people the politicians and others in positions of power want as friends are the media. If _everyone_ could be the media and report on bad behavior of politicians and others in power, then they have to be good to everyone – much better than getting away with just trying to bribe or make friends with the professional journalists.

      I suppose you mean Bavaria as south-eastern parts of Germany. “South of” could mean outside of.

      1. Justus Römeth (@DarthSquig)

        Well, the situation between Bavaria and the rest of Germany is sort of a reversed version of the one between Spain and Catalunya. The rest of us would (jokingly) be glad to see them gone 😉

  2. jimbo

    tell me which government doesn’t back the media industries, in fact all industries, over the public’s interests? tell me which government believes independent reviews, statistics and figures etc over the figures released by the industries? the short answer is, none of them! every single government in every corner of the Globe is in the pockets of industry and the people they are supposed to represent are left out in the cold, out on a limb, with no thought for them or interest in them whatsoever, until it gets to election time. then all the lies, bullshit and false promises come crawling out. all the grovelling starts up again until that arse hole politician gets back in power, where he/she wants to be, then it’s back to bending over for industries, business as usual!

  3. TTime

    We live in a time where information and news are being thrown at us at a faster rate than ever before. Someone could get shot in an African jungle, and only hours later news channels worldwide could present close ups of the bullet hole.

    Understanding media, and the time we live in, is more important to keep yourself informed, than actually following the latest media broadcasts and publications.

    Do you believe that a free press is functioning as a cornerstone in a democracy? That the press provides the citizens with relevant facts to give them the opportunity to make informed decisions at the ballot box? How free do you think the press is?

    As pointed out in the article: There are NO unbiased news sources!

    Corporate media has absolutely no obligations to keep its consumers informed. The market is not keen on paying to get informed. Corporate media is therefore in the entertainment business. They produce to get a maximum number of viewers, readers and listeners.

    Public Service is the democratic counterpart to corporate media. Unfortunately, as pointed out in the article, it’s not functioning properly. I can’t exactly explain why it’s dysfunctional, but my guess is that the areas of Economy and Hierarchy plays a major part. And of course, how do you decide what is to be considered important to the public?

    More and more people are turning to Alternative Media for news. You will find different angles and topics not presented by MSM, but you still have the problem; Who decides what to cover and not?

    Whether it’s The New York Times, Der Spiegel, BBC, or Democracy Now! know from which ideological corner your chosen news teams are coming from. The news will be biased!

    Even if you manage to spend all the time it takes to keep yourself informed, take a few seconds to think about how our politicians keep themselves informed…

    “Don’t hate the media, become the media” – Jello Biafra

    ( The most misrepresented major event of the MSM this century is the 9/11 attacks. BBC reporter back from the future? If you don’t understand the absurdity about that clip the excellent speaker Dr. Graeme MacQueen takes an hour to explain it – jump 18 mins into clip to skip presentation )

  4. Ano Nymous

    How much of the people in Sweden is functionally illiterate? Not much, at least compared with Italy, i assume. Still I see this knowledgelessness every damn day, it almost makes me tired of living. People doesn’t know a tenth of all the new laws and systems and so on, nobody seems to get any news except from the “official” media, and those don’t say shit about the emerging surveillance- police state- slave society. If I say anything about it, I’m immediately called a criminal-supporter, tin foil hat, or even a criminal! I assume that the same goes for most more or less “awake” people.

    People are careless, using smartphones and paying with cards and PayPal, not thinking about how the data collected about them can be interpreted. They don’t demand that governments, and even less companies, stop tracking their every move. The few that does are seen as tin foil hats or criminals by most people. It is terrible, and I don’t know what to do.

    The one and only thing needed for the Pirate Party to increase drastically, is that information of what is going on, and what these systems and laws can and will be used for, is spread and understood, however the types of media over which such information is spread is not used by the people that need it the most – the majority.

  5. DanielS

    The power of ….wait for it……greed! ^^

    Its so simple its hard to see. All things comes down to it sooner or later.

    Kinda explains why certain countries do what they do. Ohh and not a single war have ever been started because of oil *coughs*

    Greed governs the media.

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