Known for its storied history and knack for attracting boatloads of big-name Hollywood stars, the Venice Film Festival this year garnered some of its headlines for the unlikely screening of a modest budget Swedish documentary that was denied ad time on all the major Italian television networks.
The film, called Videocracy, provocatively argued that Italy had ceased being a traditional democracy and was instead a country run by those who control the airwaves. Its unwilling protagonist—and the man reportedly responsible for blocking the film’s producers from buying airtime — was billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s controversial media tycoon turned prime minister.
The self-made Berlusconi, a former cruise ship singer, made his first millions in property development, but he remains best known for his media empire. A major newspaper, the country’s second-leading
|news magazine, a publishing house and an advertising company all play a supporting role for Mediaset, the Milan-based media giant that operates Italy’s largest private film production company and three of seven national networks.
But Berlusconi’s influence goes beyond that: as prime minister he has indirect control over Italian state broadcaster RAI, which controls three more national networks. And the Italian treasury is a leading shareholder in former state telephone monopoly Telecom Italia, which owns the one remaining national broadcaster, giving Berlusconi and his allies a say in that network’s strategies as well. He even has a distant hand in the operations of News Corp subsidiary Sky-Italia, Mediaset’s emerging satellite rival, through his large stake in Mediobanca, which holds a seat on Sky’s board.
“It would be difficult to imagine a modern and industrialized country, member of the G8 and a founding member of
|the European Union, where a single figure had so much control over the media,” Domenico
Affinito, vice-president of the Italian
chapter of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), says. “You might expect this kind of concentration of Turkmenistan or Iran, but it shouldn’t take place in a country like Italy.”
Renzo Santelli, external relations director for the National Federation of Italian Media, agreed. “There is nobody like Berlusconi anywhere in the world,” Santelli says. “Some Berlusconi allies try to draw a parallel with Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch, but they never had his political ambitions. Some point to Michael Bloomberg, but he is a mayor, not a prime minister, and besides, he put his personal holdings into a blind trust, something Berlusconi has always resisted very aggressively.”
Berlusconi is a controversial figure beyond Italy’s borders, where he often finds himself named in critical editorials in European newspapers. The iconic U.K. based