The nightmare of Berlusconi’s media empire

The Film Interview: Erik Gandini on celebrity culture in modern Italy.

Erik Gandini is a Swedish-Italian director. His film "Videocracy" is a dark psychological study of the power of celebrity culture in Italy and the role of the media empire that belongs to the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. It won the Special Jury Award at last year's Sheffield International Documentary Festival.

Other film-makers have tackled Berlusconi's regime and rise to power directly, but you've taken a different approach. What was that, exactly?

I wanted to show the rise of his TV empire and the cultural revolution it has created in Italy, which we refer to as Berlusconismo. Television has incredible impact on Italy. Eighty per cent of Italians use television as their main source of information. And there is an expression that Berlusconi himself coined, that "What is on TV exists, what is not on TV does not exist".

So, for 30 years now, because he started his TV channels in the late 1970s, we have been subjected to a culture that is actually the expression, the mirror, of his own personality. For example, he likes women a certain way, he likes women to be big-breasted and very exposed. He started this probably as a business idea, to show something that the other TV networks were not showing. But then it became really totalising and dominating in a way that has no equal in other countries. And when I'm talking about the cultural revolution I mean that, we will all become like him somehow. All these cultural elements, which are typical of his own view of the world, of his values, have become Italian in a way that is actually kind of accidental.

One of the creepiest figures you introduce us to is Lele Mora -- a kind of Simon Cowell figure and a key ally of Berlusconi -- who shows off his collection of fascist-era songs on his mobile phone. What is the relationship between the fascist era and current celebrity culture in Italy?

Italy is not a fascist country, but if there is something totalitarian in our culture, it's in a very modern way. This celebrity culture has created a system of values which is actually a system of non-values where nothing really matters. I don't think Lele Mora is a politically convinced fascist -- I think he's more an example of lack of ideology rather than ideology. And that is even more scary, because in Italy now I think the core of this culture is the pressure to always be having fun.

The connections between Berlusconi and Mussolini are more on a physical level. Berlusconi is a very physical politician in a way that Italian politicians were not until Berlusconi came to power. Politicians were really brainy and hard to understand when they spoke, while Berlusconi uses his body, his smile, his virility, in a way that is similar to Mussolini.

Aside from that, he has such a modern way of running politics. And I would say it's a much more TV-savvy way. Everything is about impression. If you can create impressions that work emotionally, that is what Berlusconi is a master of. He is always presenting himself as a victim even though he is really the man with the highest privileges in the country.

He was hit in the face, for example, in Milan about a year ago and there was suddenly a picture of him bleeding. I think this was the best thing that could happen to him in terms of this, this image he wants to create of someone you feel sorry for. And as a matter of fact it was very successful because all the scandals that he was involved in were suddenly dropped.

I was in Italy myself at the time to launch Videocracy and I had several TV and newspaper interviews cancelled because the reporters had been given directions not to sort of raise the temperature of the hate against Berlusconi because in those days he had been hit in the face. This is the kind of self-censorship that is really present in Italy now.

As the film progresses it becomes less political and more psychological, particularly when you look at ordinary Italians who are consumed by their desire to be famous, or to appear on reality TV. Is that something unique to Italy, or is it a wider problem?

If you look at Italian TV, or if you live with it, you have constantly this message that you should have fun. There is something very scary in going to a shopping mall outside Milan [a scene from the film], for example, and watching these young girls dancing and preparing for a game show.

Yet the film doesn't sneer at people with these dreams. Do you see any way out for them? Is the desire to be famous fulfilling in some way, or is it just a trap?

This is one side of Italy that is very dominant now and it's not the whole of Italy, of course. Ricky [a young man who wants to enter Italy's version of Britain's Got Talent] is a good example, because he is really a victim of that. He is just a working-class guy whose dream is to empower himself. And in Italy the best way to empower yourself is to get into television somehow. Berlusconi even picks people from television and turns them into politicians, into members of parliament.

You've made a film, essentially, about television. In terms of techniques, was there anything you did to question the power of moving images themselves?

I know exactly what you mean. Many people perceive Videocracy as kind of a soft film, because it is not a classic investigation or challenging of power. But when this television is telling you to have fun, if this culture is really focusing on just showing the good side of life, then I want to use a cinematic language to tell the opposite. This TV culture would never tell you about the dangerous side of its own world, or the sense of fear that exists.

Somehow Berlusconi always succeeds because, as I said before, with the example of creating impressions, he always reaches for the stomach and the heart of people. And that's why I want to try to use this same language but to say something different. I'm not sure if it works, but I know that many people in Italy went to see this film -- people who would not necessarily go to see this kind of film otherwise. Because characters like Lele Mora were so famous there was a huge reason for people to go and see it.

So really you're taking elements of that celebrity culture and subverting them?

Somehow yes, because that world -- in Italian we call it il mondo della televisione -- has some sort of monopoly over itself. Lele Mora was very angry when the thing was shown; usually he has total control over how he's portrayed, and how he's presented on TV, because it's all his friends who run television in Italy. I live in Sweden and there's a strong independent film-making tradition, like there is in the UK, but unfortunately it's not common in Italy.

"Videocracy" is out now on DVD from Dogwoof.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.