sat 15/06/2024

The Berlusconi Show, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Berlusconi Show, BBC Two

The Berlusconi Show, BBC Two

Italy's longest-serving PM - a clown or someone more sinister?

You're so vain: He probaby thinks The Berlusconi Show is about him

Imagine if Rory Bremner had been banned from British television for the past 20 years, and Gordon Brown had put pressure on the BBC to get rid of Question Time because it had been critical of him. In the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi these things happen.

The country’s top satirist, Beppe Grillo, has effectively been denied access to the airwaves since Berlusconi became prime minister in 1994, while just this week allegations emerged that Berlusconi had tried to block transmission of a state television talk show, Annozero, that had discussed the alleged mafia ties of members of his government. The man who refers to President Obama as “tanned”, who parties with hookers, and who appoints a former topless model as his minister for equal opportunities may seem like a flamboyant clown from this distance - but he looks a good deal more sinister from his own backyard.

Ironically reporter Mark Franchetti, returning to his birthplace for BBC Two's This World strand after 25 years living in Britain, walked straight into a 200,000-strong anti-Berlusconi rally in Rome when he went to investigate Italy’s ongoing infatuation with the old rogue. For the country’s longest-serving post-war prime minister, it’s been a year of living dangerously - 12 months of repeated sex scandals and ongoing allegations of tax evasion and mafia connections were capped in December when Berlusconi was attacked in Milan, the only blow that seems to have landed on a political survivor who still, after everything (and despite the hostile rally) scores a far higher approval ratings than any other western leader.

Why do people keep voting for him? It seems that Italians can forgive his predilection for girls young enough to be his granddaughters (“everybody in Italy loves beautiful women,” says one of his allies, gamely fulfilling the national stereotype), while Italians are only too happy to turn a blind eye to tax evasion and other financial irregularities. In return he gives them stability and glamour. Oh, and draconian immigration laws that go with being in a coalition government with Lega Nord, one of the most far-right parties in Europe.

The Milanese bank clerk’s son and former cruise-ship crooner apparently has the gift of talking directly to the people in language they understand – he’s a gifted demagogue in other words. Berlusconi came to power within three months of entering politics, his party, Forza Italia, a slogan borrowed from the football terraces, sweeping to power on the familiar promise of change and enrichment. But what were Berlusconi’s motives for going into politics? After all, he already had a virtual monopoly of the country’s commercial TV stations, owned AC Milan and was reckoned to be the richest man in Italy. His patriotic motive seems to have been to avoid bankruptcy and to keep himself out of prison, as he once apparently admitted to journalists. As one of his opponents put it, surveying the allegations of falsified balance sheets, avoided taxes and shady dealings with the mafia, “instead of becoming a fugitive from justice, he became a politician”. We tend to do it the other way round in this country.

One of the first things Berlusconi did on gaining office was to try and curb the power of the magistrates who had been making his life so bothersome - the first of at least 18 laws devised to meet his own personal interests. Even so, by his own account, Berlusconi has been interviewed 587 times by the police, and summoned to court 2,500 times, since becoming prime minister, a hounding that puts the current MPs expenses scandal and subsequent court hearings into some sort of perspective. The most serious charge against him is his long association with the Sicilian mafia, the Cosa Nostra, an alliance that began back in the businessman-kidnapping 1970s when he hired some mafia muscle to protect his family. As Franchetti observed - once in debt to the mafia, always in debt to the mafia.

Besides this allegation (depressingly habitual in Italian politics), the call girls and the teenage girlfriends seem like an irrelevant sideshow, although you might say they reflect on his character. Much was made of the 73-year-old’s stamina, but frankly the “wild parties” sound a bit of a drag, one "escort girl" recalling him playing videos of meeting George Bush and (oh, what fun) the G8 summit. As a reward, Berlusconi attempted to make her a candidate for the European elections, along with a Miss Italy finalist, three models and a Big Brother contestant – Berlusconi having introduced the reality show to Italy. This time, somehow or other (for, the mafia links apart, he seems to feel no shame), he was persuaded that he was going too far.

The problem seems to be the complete lack of a credible, or even visible (remember that Berlusconi rules the airwaves) alternative. When they do find one, reckoned the long-banned satirist Beppe Grillo, welcoming BBC into his home with all the pent-up glee of an entertainer long denied an audience, Italians will wake up and wonder how they ever allowed this man and his associates to govern them. You hope he’s right – and not the old-timer we saw having a haircut and reminiscing about Mussolini. Berlusconi may not be as bad as Il Duce, but there are echoes of the old autocrat in his style and his ascent to the top – even if he used the muscle of media control, instead of the brawn of the Blackshirts, to help him get there.

The Berlusconi Show was good, solid, old-school journalism, although I’d liked to have known more about Berlusconi’s early business career  - we seemed to jump from him buying his first property as a developer in the early 1960s to his opening his first TV stations, with their mix of American soaps and topless housewives, in the 1980s. And I would have liked to hear more from a wider section of Italian womanhood than those interviewed here, to find out what they think about this man “who loves women”. But perhaps the role of females in Italian society is an altogether different documentary. Despite some undeniably comic moments, this one sufficed to enlighten us distant observers that whatever else Berlusconi may be, he isn’t just a joke.

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Indeed. The bikini girls on Italian 'entertainment' shows take us right back to Benny Hill days - and that purported to be taking the piss... Anyway, you chose a suitably sinister photo to go with the article.

There was much missing from this documentary - important details left out. His business interests touch every field of Italian economy, Del'Ultri is President of the Mediaset organisation, the changes he wants made to the Constitution, to the Justice system, those already made with the new Education reforms will destroy state education in favour of private schools. The list is long and the latest developments regarding censorship in the rai makes us fear for the worse. The pro-Berlusconi rai governing board have voted for all their political talk shows to be closed during the month before the regional elections - while his networks continue.....His opinion of those who vote against him:"imbeciles" and "pricks". The sad truth is that the Italians fall for this clown, latrine lover, liar and crook - when all is over the pieces will be nigh impossible to put together and Italy will be morally and financially bankrupt.

The sad truth is that 1) Italy is ruled by the Pope, and Ratzinger loves Berlusconi, no matter what's his behaviour. Catholic people protesting against his public cheating his wife and his family were gagged on prominent Church newspapers, and the director of one of these had to resign even if he wasn't guilty of the accuations made to him by Berlusconi's "Libero" newspaper 2) the left is melted into a bunch of parties and sub parties occupied in discussing about things which common people don't give a damn 3) TV is TV, no matter what it says. You own TV? You own the country. When the building will fall apart, Italy will wake up from anesthesia and ask herself how it could have happened. In 1943 it happened so, but it took 20 years to rebuild from the ruins. Well, I don't think we need a war, but...

Thanks for this well-written piece. THe information you provided here is much richer than the Berlusconi show on BBC 2 - a documentary I consider biased. Most of the people for Berlusconi whom Mark Franchetti interviewed are still working in mainstream Italian media or in politics. How could you expect them to say something true and unbiased when they are so worried of being fired by Berlusconi? Anyone with a little bit sense of what's happening in contemporary Italian society will be able to tell that this documentary is in favour of Berlusconi's government. The first 30 minutes (the golden time that audience's attention and concentration is high) has been featuring how much the reporter Mark Franchetti's friends (the interviewees) love Berlusconi. No matter how negative Mark Franchetti would like to present about Berlusconi's *crimes*, viewers have got an idea that how much Berlusconi is respected and loved by most Italian. I have strong problems with the objectivity presented in this documentary. The ways this documentary was edited, structured, and the content (whom Mark Franchetti interviewed) all show that this is a biased pseudo-documentary for Berlusconi's propaganda. Feel this documentary is just yet another Berlusconi's PR - but sadly it's funded by BBC, licence fee payers' money.

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