Silvio Berlusconi was a successful businessman. He owns the majority of the Italian media, and he was ranked among the world’s richest people in 2006. Along with being a billionaire, he was also a politician: Berlusconi was the third longest-serving prime minister in Italian history. A politician controlling the media already poses a cause for concern. But what about when this politician is also considered to be a populist?
With his “Forza Italy” party, Berlusconi came to the forefront of Italian politics during the 1990’s and would remain in this sphere for the next twenty years. He is known as not only Italy’s “original populist,” but also as the EU’s first populist leader. In fact, various parallels can be drawn between Trump and Berlusconi: they are billionaire tycoons with a history of shady acts related to their companies, they both paint themselves as outsiders of the political establishment, they both use fear-mongering legitimize populist governance, and they are both considered populist leaders. As Mueller discusses in his book, What is Populism?, populist leaders will frame situations as crises and claim them to be an “existential threat,” which they then constantly remind the population through the use of the media in order to increase people’s fear about the issue . Trump currently employs this method by often tweeting about the threat that migrants pose to the security of the United States by calling migrants criminals, thus creating an “us versus them” mentality of US citizens against incoming migrants and rallying his voter base around border control, particularly during his presidential campaign. Berlusconi, too, utilized the media to enlarge threats in Italy, but the difference between Trump and Berlusconi is that Berlusconi owns the media. As a result, Berlusconi can largely control what cannot be put into the media, such as criticisms of his governance, but he can also control what is put in the media. I would argue that Berlusconi used his control over the media to increase crime reporting in Italy in order to harbor fear among the Italian people and thus create an “existential threat” that thus justified his need to be in office.
There was an article published in January 2011 that discusses how Berlusconi’s control over the media allowed for crime reporting to be either increased or decreased, depending on Berlusconi’s need for the threat of crime. According to the article, there appears to be an increase in the crime coverage for media outlets controlled by Berlusconi while he is not in office and is the opposition party, whereas there was significantly less reporting on crime while Berlusconi was prime minister. And by drawing from public opinion polls, we can see the effect that this crime coverage might have had on Italian voters. It appears that while Berlusconi was in the opposition party, the perception of fear regarding crime increased, whereas the perception decreased while Berlusconi was prime minister. Why might Berlusconi-controlled media outlets report more heavily on crime issues while Berlusconi is in the opposition, but report on crime less while he is in office? If we harken back to Mueller’s idea about populist leaders’ use of the media to increase fear about an issue that poses a threat to the country’s people, we can see that Berlusconi’s use of crime fits into this strategy. By intensifying the threat of crime during the times that Berlusconi is not in office and then citing this as an issue during his bid for power, Berlusconi can then instill fear into the Italian people and portray himself as someone who can protect the people by diminishing this threat. And in order to maintain his power while in office, Berlusconi then decreased reporting on crime to make it seem as though his time in office had reduced crime occurrences in order to maintain the idea that he had helped to reduce crime in the country.
But what is so interesting about this media reporting, and why it is so important to connect crime reporting to Berlusconi’s control over the media, is that official records indicate that there was actually a decrease in crime rates during the times that there was purportedly an increase in crime. To understand this false reporting of increase in crimes, we must look once again to a point made by Mueller in his writing. According to Mueller, a crisis can be a “performance,” which I interpret as inflating an issue in order to increase public fear about an issue . By this interpretation, Berlusconi seemed to have used his control of the media to disseminate false information about the crime rates in order to present a “performance” about an issue that would create fear among the Italian people.
A populist leader alone poses a threat to a country’s liberal democracy, but this threat becomes even more dangerous when the leader also controls the majority of the country’s media. And though Berlusconi is no longer in office, we can see the continuation of populism in Italy today, particularly with the Five Star Movement under Matteo Salvini. However, recent regional elections indicate that the Five Star Movement has been losing some ground. We must watch to determine if this loss of power is simply temporary, or of Italy might eventually move away from populism for good.
Source: Jan-Werner Mueller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 43
Photo taken from this Wall Street Journal article. Photo was taken by Andrew Medichini of Associated Press.