Is Italy flirting with fascism?

Silvio Berlusconi is back in power. Rome's mayor won on an anti-immigration platform. The right is n

Is Italy going fascist? Is Berlusconi like Mussolini? Will the past repeat itself - this time, unquestionably, as farce?

The signs are ominous, and as Silvio Berlusconi emerged victorious in Italy's elections in April, the international press reached for the history books. The triumphant coalition included, along with a "party" financed almost entirely by Berlusconi's media empire, a "post-fascist" party (the National Alliance, which merged its list with that of Berlusconi) and the xenophobic Northern League, still led by Umberto Bossi despite a stroke that has left him semi-paralysed and his voice a barely audible croak. Two weeks later Rome had a new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, a post-fascist elected on an anti-immigrant platform.

To add insult to injury, Berlusconi appointed as minister for equal opportunities a 33-year-old former glamour model and Miss Italy aspirant, Mara Car fagna, who is, apparently, deeply committed to "family values".

This Italian saga may be distressing, demoralising and upsetting. But fascism - a word that some use to signal their indignation and mortification - is the wrong diagnosis. The opposition will still be able to regroup and go on fighting without being threatened by black-shirted bullies or anti-democratic legislation. There will still be elections, a few strikes, and the odd demonstration. On the other hand, broadcasting will be more servile, because Berlusconi, owner of almost the entire media private sector, will, by appointing cronies, also control the state sector. Yet even 20 years ago a Jeremy Paxman would not have lasted five minutes. The daily press remains relatively free from Berlusconi's control.

There is no denying that Berlusconi's victory was stunning. His coalition obtained almost 47 per cent of the vote - far better than any British government since 1966. He triumphed throughout Italy with the exception of the centre, the left's last redoubt. The various radical and unreconstructed communist parties that had made life difficult for Ro mano Prodi's short-lived centre-left coalition were wiped out.

The Italian electorate was not in search of novelty. Berlusconi is no longer "new". He is now a seasoned poli tician who won in 1994 and 2001. When he lost in April 2006, it was by only 25,000 votes.

Nor is it accurate to suggest that the electorate was punishing Prodi. Considering his tiny majority and the absurdly fractious behaviour of some of his partners, he could never have been a great success. Yet it was not a disaster. In his two years in office, Prodi abolished a host of petty bureaucratic restrictions, took decisive measures to counter tax evasion and succeeded in reducing the budget deficit to less than 3 per cent of GDP (to plaudits from the European Union but the dismay of Italy's taxpayers, who had to pay for this feat).

Not much unites the victorious coalition save an appetite for power, but that is usually enough. The Northern League is in favour of regional devolution to ensure that the wealth generated in the north will stay there instead of subsidising the south. More recently, the League has refocused its target, toning down its usual verbal abuse of southerners. The main enemies now are immigrants to Italy, accused of being behind a recent spate of serious crimes - a new pinnacle of chutzpah in a country where the Mafia, the world's best-known criminal organisation, is entirely home-grown.

Vigilantes now prowl among the Roma and burn their camps down. The post-fascists, too, are keen on their law and order, but they cannot share the anti-southern mindset of the Northern League because they are strongest in the south. Berlusconi is supposed to be a neoliberal; his past rhetoric was conventionally demagogic, however: lower taxes and more public spending. His liberalism stops where his business starts. Monopolies are fine if you happen to own them.

Why did Berlusconi win? One obvious reason is that he was the leading conservative candidate in a country in which the majority will vote for whoever is to the right of the left. In the early 1990s the bribery scandals that wiped out the Christian Democracy party (DC), the linchpin of Italian politics since 1945, created a vacuum. Berlusconi stepped in, legitimising at a stroke Gianfranco Fini's neofascists, hitherto confined to pariah status. Then he made a deal with Bossi's Northern League. No other force, not even a somewhat reconstituted Catholic party, has managed to dent this fierce trio. The three hate each other, but they also need one another - the solid foundation of many political partnerships.

The fascist past no longer bothers voters. They do not ask themselves why Fini, born in 1952, decided to join the neo-fascists when there were so many parties to choose from. Fini once described Mussolini as "the greatest statesman of the century". Now he knows better and presides over the Chamber of Deputies. Success is a great teacher. It is the communists who are expected to show contrition. Once, they could proudly claim the mantle of the heroic struggle against fascism. Now to have been a Red is a political embarrassment, as anti-communist pundits have taken up disparagement of the Resistance with enthusiasm. A spate of books and articles on postwar revenge killings by partisans against former fascists has helped to put communism and fascism on the same level.

In search of political virginity, the post-communists keep on changing their name. In 1991 they were the Democratic Party of the Left. In 1998 they dropped "party" and the hammer and sickle, becoming the Democrats of the Left, with a rose as a symbol. In 2007 they dropped "left" (turning themselves into the Democratic Party), discarded the rose and adopted olive leaves.

Honest government

Many Italians feared not communism as an ideology, but what the communists or the post-communists might bring about: honest government. They might have to pay taxes. If you have spent your entire life cultivating personal relationships with those who have power and influence and who can protect you and help you with the endless bureaucratic tasks that plague your life; if you know that no one will investigate too closely if you have built an extension to your home, or built a home where one cannot be built (as is the case with so many houses constructed in Italy); if you know that your fiscal evasions and frauds will be overlooked because "everyone does it" - then, of course, you will be afraid of "the communists", that is to say, of those puritanical, holier-than-thou characters who threatened the foundations of Italian civic culture. To many Italians, nothing, not even the Red Army, is more frightening than good governance or "il buon governo".

Then there is the enormous weight of small enterprises in the country, coupled with the very large number of self-employed workers (three times the ratios of Germany and Japan). Compare a high street in Italy with one in Britain, let alone a shopping mall in the United States, and you will see the difference between a country whose economy is dominated by large companies and supermarkets and one that is at an earlier stage of development.

This makes Italy a much nicer place to shop in, especially if you are a tourist and have time to shop, but these shopkeepers have been protected and featherbedded by the state and they know it. The political masterpiece of the old Christian Dem ocracy party was that it protected this huge petty bourgeoisie while modernising the country. Berlusconi is the DC's natural successor.

His problem is that he does not have the margins the old DC had. Italy's manufacturing system - the production of machine tools, shoes, handbags, tiles, cheap furniture, ready-made clothes - is being steadily wiped out, above all by China. Between 2001 and 2005, under Berlusconi, Italy dropped from 14th to 53rd place in the global competitiveness index.

The phenomenon of Italy's small enterprises is at the root both of Italy's past successes and of its present political and economic predicament. This petty bourgeoisie is naturally "neoliberal", but in a very peculiar sense: it does not want an efficient, minimalist state, because this would annihilate the petty bourgeois class. They want things to remain as they are, even including the terrible bureaucracy so universally hated and so obviously absurd that it is reasonable for everyone to do everything possible to bypass it.

Berlusconi is the expression of this petty bourgeoisie. He thinks like them. He acts like them. He does, almost instinctively, what they do. He has the same tastes, the same sense of humour. The only difference between him and them is that he has more money. This is why Berlusconi has done little to cut down on the red tape and restrictive practices that plague Italians. Meanwhile, an economy which 15 years ago overtook that of the UK is now on a par with Spain and may soon be overtaken by Greece. What lies ahead is not fascist resurgence, but the economy's decay.

Donald Sassoon is professor of comparative European history at Queen Mary, University of London and author of "Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism" (2008), published by HarperPress (£14.99)

ITALY BY NUMBERS

  • 62 governments since the end of the Second World War
  • 80% of voters turned out for the April general
    election
  • 5 major TV stations are now controlled by Berlusconi
  • 7% of the economy is generated by organised crime
  • £15,000 average income

Research by Owen Vanspall

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

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Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.

***

For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.

***

The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

***

Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit