Criticise, even mildly, and Berlusconi's bloodhounds are after you


ROME LETTER: In a recent address, Fiat giant Marchionne said that Italy had lost the plot. “Somebody opened the gates of the zoo and all the animals are out”

“THIS country has lost the run of itself, all sense of the institutions has gone, somebody has opened the gates of the zoo and all the animals have got out. When you travel around the world as much as I do, it’s difficult to explain to people just what is going on in Italy. It’s disgraceful.”

So, who is the above speaker? An unreformed Italian communist? A subversive Italian rock and roll star? An exiled Italian academic? Clearly, this is someone with a very large chip on his or her shoulder? Or is it? In reality, the above speaker is none other than the chief executive of Italy’s flagship private sector company, automobile giant Fiat – namely Italo-Canadian Sergio Marchionne.

The Fiat boss made the above observations in Florence the other day at a luncheon for “Cavalieri del Lavoro”, a sort of Italian OBE club. One presumed that he was referring to the many strange and wonderful developments which have marked Italian public life over the last 12 months, if not for far longer. Ironically, within hours of his speech, we had a glaring example of precisely the sort of issues he was addressing.

As we write, investigating magistrates are looking into the possibility that Emma Marcegaglia, the president of the Italian Confederation of Industry, has been targeted by reporters from the Berlusconi family-owned newspaper, Il Giornale,ready to threaten her with compromising information about her own business dealings.

Last week, investigators raided the Milan offices of Il Giornalein a move that comes within the ambit of a Naples-based inquiry which has seen the paper’s editor and deputy editor, Alessandro Sallusti and Nicola Porro, formally placed under investigation. As so often in recent Italian times, the investigation appears to be primarily based on wire taps.

At the centre of the inquiry is a conversation between Il Giornale’sPorro and Ms Macegaglia’s press officer and spokesman, Rinaldo Arpisella, in which the newspaper reporter certainly appears to make some serious threats, offering to give Ms Marcegaglia a very hard time over her business dealings. Subsequently, Porro claimed the remarks had been taken out of context and that he had been joking.

Perhaps indeed he had. However, the Confindustria leader took the matter seriously enough to subsequently contact one of Mr Berlusconi’s closest associates, Fedele Confalonieri, the head of Mr Berlusconi’s media empire, Mediaset. In layman’s parlance, Ms Marcegaglia called on Mr Confalonieri to “call off” the bloodhounds.

What is this all about? Could it be that the Berlusconi family paper wants to take a hard line with the Confindustria leader because she has had the temerity to express some relatively mild criticism of the government. In particular, she had suggested that the centre-right ruling majority has wasted a great deal of time this summer, caught up in absurd and damaging internecine warfare with one of its historic components, namely ex-fascist Speaker of the Lower House, Gianfranco Fini. That particular “warfare” was concentrated on a 60 sq m, relatively ordinary ground-floor flat in Montecarlo.

There is a link, of course, between Ms Marcegaglia and Mr Fini. The connection is one which also involves Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s separated wife Veronica Lario, not to mention former newspaper editor, Dino Boffo. What have all four in common? They have had the temerity to publicly criticise Mr Berlusconi.

When Ms Lario announced that she wanted to divorce Mr Berlusconi last May, one of the reasons she cited was that he “consorts with minors”, an apparent reference to the fact that then 72-year-old Berlusconi had cultivated a “friendship” with 17-year-old Neapolitan Noemi Letizia, a young lady who happily referred to him as “daddykins”. At the time, Ms Lario suggested that her husband was “not well”, adding that she had tried to alert his closest advisers to the problem.

By way of public risposte, Libero (not a Berlusconi-owned daily but one sympathetic to him and the centre-right) published a front page photograph of a topless Ms Lario, a picture taken from her days as an actress.

Likewise, when the daily, L’Avennire, run by the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference, last summer had dared to criticise Mr Berlusconi’s apparent lax morality (in reference to reports of sex orgies at his private residences), Il Giornaleagain got to work, pointing out that the editor of L’Avennire,Dino Boffo, had been convicted of harassing a woman with whose (male) partner he had had an affair. The implication was that Boffo (and indeed the Catholic Church) had no business taking the moral high ground with anyone. In the fallout from this particular attack, Boffo resigned his position.

Just one week ago, the Catholic media however returned to that same high moral ground with the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, complaining that blasphemous and anti-Semitic jokes told by Prime Minister Berlusconi (on a You Tube video shot in earthquake town L’Aquila) offended the “sentiments of believers and the sacred memory of six million Shoah victims”.

Could it be that by way of response, Il Giornale will now mount a campaign against Pope Benedict XVI, making who knows what allegations? In the current sick climate of secret dossiers and bitter accusations, however, a more serious question asks itself. In an Italy where policemen, teachers, pensioners, students and, of course, a whole gamut of opposition voices daily take to the streets to protest some aspect of government policy, has the Great Communicator lost his once formidable powers of persuasion?