Mediaset and the freedom of TV in Italy

Starting with Canale 5 in the late 70s, the birth of Mediaset set the path for the liberalisation of the TV in Italy. Not all is clear about the situation of dominance of Mediaset in today’s Italy. The same liberalisation of the media, which was set in motion in the 80s, allows it to be publicly discussed on Italy’s television every day. 

Canale 5 and the other Mediaset Channels

TV in Italy was born in 1954, under a Christian Democrat government which led Italy between the post-WW2 years and the days of Mani Pulite (clean hands). Mani Pulite were the investigations that ran between 1992 and 1996, exposing the super-corruption nicknamed Tangentopoli (bribesville). The investigations exposed politicians from the main parties. The Christian Democrats (DC) ran Italy between 1943 and 1992 with only one major break — that between 1983 -87 when Craxi’s socialists (PSI) took power. Both Craxi and former DC prime minister Andreotti were later investigated.
TV has always been used by the party in power. Everybody in Italy understands the propagandist powers that the box in everybody’s living room and kitchen has. In 2005, Ambeyi Ligabo a UN expert on press freedom stated in his report on the freedom of opinion and expression in Italy, that “the public television network Rai has been strongly politicized since its creation in 1954. At the time and until the major political changes of the end of the 1980s, Italian public television was controlled by the political party in power, the Christian Democrats”.

The state-owned company Rai was the only one to hold a license to broadcast TV channels nationally. So much that when, in 1984 Fininvest acquired Rete 4 and Italia 1, Italian courts ruled that the acquisition was in breach of Rai’s right to a monopoly of simulataneous national broadcast. The courts ordered them to close doors. Craxi then rescued the situation with what many considered a rash decree which saved the Fininvest group. But that also ensured that Rai would stop being dominant.

  • It was a start of the end of the so-called lottizzazione (distribution) system of power in Rai, where the main political parties had agreed to control what went on the news and who got the top management postitions: the Christian Democrats within Rai 1, the Socialists within Rai 2 and the Communists at Rai 3. Of course, there still is lobbying and influence from government, but that’s Italy!
  • The European Audiovisual Observatory’s figures for 2008 show that the Mediaset and Rai channels together commanded over 80% of the market share. La 7, the channel owned by Telecom Italia, had a stable market share of around 3% which can be compared to the 10% of Italia 1, Rete 4, Rai 2 and Rai 3 and the 20+% of Canale 5 and Rai 2.
Berlusconi's Share in Mediaset: 38.62%
Berlusconi's Share in Mediaset: 38.62%

Are people wrong when they think that Berlusconi controls the media through his holding company: Fininvest’s share in the Mediaset group? Fininvest does not have a controlling share in Mediaset: the above chart shows it was less than 40% in Dec. 2009. In 2005 Berlusconi sold 20% of Mediaset to Kirch (10%), South African businessman Johann Rupert and the Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talaal. In 1996 he continued to sell shares and relinquished control.  Today Berlusconi is an ordinary shareholder with his children Pier Silvio and Marina occupying the posts of deputy chaiman and director on the Board respectively. 

I am not drawing any conclusions. These are the facts and the rest is opinion which anybody can liberally use the media to share with whoever cares to listen.


Saved by the Web!

As the Berlin wall was coming down 20 years ago, my grandfather encouraged me to keep my first newspaper cutting. In the eighties, cuttings were the standard way to keep a memento of a news item.

I bought the Economist (17 October) because I wanted to read what it had to say about cloud computing. It coincidentally took me until the 9 November to stumble upon the article that speaks about press freedom and the internet, and thus the link I am making with the fall of the wall. The move to greater openness, that the Western world celebrated on 9 November 1989, still finds obstacles to this day.

But there is no wall to stop bloggers from writing about anything and Google from finding it.

The Economist reported how a British court granted a “super-injunction” at the request of an oil company that wanted to keep the press off the story that it was allegedly found dumping toxic waste off the Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast).

On the 12 October, Labour MP Paul Farrelly put a related parliamentary question to the Justice secretary. On the same day, the Guardian published on its website that it was being “prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech”. By the following morning the Guardian editor was using Twitter to encourage listeners to watch his space and that the paper was “hoping to get into court today to challenge ban by Carter-Ruck on reporting parliament”.  Bloggers speculated online and according to a Wikipedia article it was Guido Fawkes’ blog that broke the news. The same Wikipedia article states that, in 2007, the oil company’s press officer “attempted to alter the Dutch Wikipedia article “Probo Koala” on three separate occasions, with intent to clear the company’s name”.

The gag was lifted on the following day when the firm’s solicitors withdrew their opposition to the Guardian.

The injunction had been obtained on the 11 September 2009. Political will to guarantee freedom of information, the existence of a persistent press and the sheer force of social media freed, in two days, what had been under cover for over a month.