As politicians here await the next blow from a newspaper driving the agenda over their expenses, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is involved in his own media scrap.
The Continental press tends to be much less intrusive than ours, but when his wife announced she was leaving him, and cited his relationship with a young girl, and his interest in others, as a reason, the Italian press went closer to the UK mode (though still way off the full monty).
Berlusconi has expressed his fury at La Repubblica daring to ask a few questions about the exact nature of the relationship with Noemi Letizia, like how they met, how often they meet, what they discuss etc. The one question I know a British paper would ask is not even among them yet he is livid at what he sees as ‘a media defamation campaign.’
As it happens I occasionally write for La Repubblica and I had a piece in early this week which touched on some of these issues, which I reprint below.
Silvio Berlusconi is the subject of considerable fascination outside his own country. With his ostentatiously dyed hair and spectacularly whitened teeth, his habit of saying and doing the controversial, some political, some personal, he is an unusual modern leader. More interesting than most. More popular than most among his own electorate, something outsiders sometimes find hard to understand.
In Britain, for example, the idea of a media mogul becoming Prime Minister, and in many ways remaining a media mogul whilst governing, is by and large unimaginable. But he has done it, and survived many scrapes that might have brought down less confident, less politically skilful men.
As for the idea of a British Prime Minister becoming embroiled in a divorce seemingly provoked by his wife’s anger at some kind of relationship with an 18 year old girl, no, this is definitely a very Italian, or more accurately very Berlusconic situation. Not knowing the facts about the nature of the relationship (and frankly reading the papers makes me none the wiser) I can easily imagine Berlusconi’s team complaining that the media are distorting and exaggerating and driving politics down a more trivial agenda than it should. But then one thinks – he IS the media.
And he is one of the biggest characters in the often personality dominated politics that seems to be becoming more the way in Europe. Think of President Sarkozy in France and the chances are the next thought is of Carla Bruni, or some of the situations involving some of the glamorous ministers M Sarkozy appointed.
Here in Britain, our media is currently gorging not on global economic crisis but 1.5 million expenses receipts Parliament is being forced to publish, which show many bizarre claims made by MPs, for bathplugs, in one case porn movies, tampons (this by a man) and more seriously, major charges on second homes.
Then think of America where as much of the focus – in the main positive – is on Barack Obama the personality, the family, the man, as on Obama the policymaker. Then think back to his predecessor but one, Bill Clinton, whose Presidency almost came to grief on the back of an inappropriate relationship with an intern, Monica Lewinsky.
Like it or not, we live in a media age. There is now in most parts of the media little distinction between ‘the public interest’ and ‘what we think the public are interested in’. So policy is boring, many in the media think. Personality is interesting. Rigorous analysis is hard. Sensation is easy. The day to day is dull. Scandal is not. The problem is that in many sections of the media – TV every bit as much as the tabloids in my view – balance is being lost.
Freedom of information has become a belief that people in public life are entitled to no privacy at all. Whatever they do, say or think can be the subject of incessant and often inaccurate speculation and comment based upon it. So the question becomes – how do the leaders have to deal with it? I go back to Clinton, a master of communications. When the Lewinsky scandal was at its height, and the so-called independent prosecuting counsel Kenneth Starr was about to publish his report, the then President was on the telephone to Tony Blair discussing the decommissioning of Soviet nuclear weapons.
Several years later, I asked him how he was able to stay focussed on something like that when all around him the world was convulsed by a report into his sex life. He said he had a clear objective – survival. He had a clear strategy – to get up every day and focus on those things where only he as President could make a difference. And his tactics were to make sure the American people knew that’s what he was doing. In other words, try to ignore the noise, and get on with the job.
I know from my time with Tony Blair that the moments when the personal and the political collide are among the most difficult to handle. Mr Berlusconi is at one of those moments now. He could do worse than adopt that same calm approach as Bill Clinton. Objective. Strategy. Tactics.
He might also take a leaf from the book of another public figure (one who herself commented on Mr Berlusconi’s behaviour recently) namely The Queen. She and her family have survived many scandals, crises and perceived public relations disasters. Yet I make two observations – she probably has the most enduringly positive media profile of any public figure, anywhere in the world. And second, she has never given an interview.