In Italian journalism, clearly defined political stances take precedence over objective reporting. Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), the country’s state-owned broadcaster, designates its three major channels to specific political groups in a system called lottizzazione, rather than neutral programs. This system was originally intended to counteract the Christian Democrat party’s power: one channel was dedicated to the dominant party and the government, another to the largest party supporter of the dominant one, and the third channel was assigned to the left (also known as the Communist Party at the time), which was in permanent opposition to the ruling party. However, this method forces journalists to demonstrate their loyalty to a party, rather than their commitment to objective truth regardless of its impact on any given political group. The lottizzazione system set a precedent for politically skewed media, one which Silvio Berlusconi was able to take advantage of in his bid for public office.
Beyond biased media, the criminalization of defamation in Italy also prevents many journalists from raising criticism of political figures. These laws, which were originally implemented under Italy’s fascist rule, not only impose jail time and fines for those found guilty of defamation, but also increase the consequences for journalists and editors for acts concerning public figures, including politicians. Some have proposed that jail time be replaced with more fines, but opponents say monetary consequences could still work to debilitate and even shut down smaller local media outlets.
Beginning in the 70s, Silvio Berlusconi slowly grew to gain vast control over Italy’s media landscape. Eventually, he established MediaSet, a media holding company which grew to command over 30% of daytime audience share. Just as the Nazis used radio to spread propaganda in favor of their party, Berlusconi used MediaSet channels family-owned newspapers to exclusively promote his strengths as a politician, which raised concerns about conflict of interest from rival parties. In the past, Berlusconi was able to use his political position to protect his media interests, and to use his media empire to gain those political positions.
Berlusconi’s obvious flaunting of laws prohibiting the creation of privately-owned national networks was easy: the precedent of biased media coverage was already a common practice set by the government itself, and the main argument against Berlusconi’s empire was the prominence of bias.
Despite the vast forces against them, many journalists remained viciously critical of Berlusconi, even during his peak political power. Italy has maintained a strong plurality of media; given that alternative sources of media are a requisite of democracy, this is a positive phenomenon.
Not so positive, however, is the nearly intrinsic political bias within the Italian press. In line with the policy of RAI, the majority of national news publications declare a strong political stance. Because these publications don’t accommodate neutral reporting, journalists who would otherwise generate objective articles are forced to fit themselves into a singular perspective. The disincentivization of neutrality in reporting only serves to polarize Italy, and could potentially lead to more democratic backsliding in the form of intolerance towards opposition.
In support of Italy’s media landscape, Berlusconi has fallen from power numerous times, in part due to oppositional media coverage. This means that negative coverage of the ruling party is possible, and it serves as a beacon of hope if a future politician was able to leverage the media as well as Berlusconi. However, the lack of continued discourse about conflict of interest after Berlusconi’s fall from power leaves much to be desired.
Given the massive conflict of interest issue that media ownership raises, it is imperative that restrictions on political figures’ media ownership be placed – especially on the prime minister, who regardless of political party plays a large role in control over the state-owned RAI. Not only should political figures have media ownership be monitored, but all media owners must be monitored for media monopolies. There has been legislation put forth by the EU to address this concern, but more specific regulation on ownership across different media is necessary (i.e., ownership of broadcast and publishing entities).
In addition, the lottizzazione system of RAI needs to be reevaluated. Instead of maintaining plurality through representation of various parties, it needs to be restructured to prioritize objectivity in reports. This change will hopefully raise the Italian publics’ trust in journalists, and support a more continuous plurality.
Finally, Italians must make a larger shift towards longitudinal thinking – they must work to proactively address democratic erosion, rather than waiting for issues to arise.