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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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.