Politics Italian Style

Interview, LabourNet, 20 October 2000

Italian journalist's union official Rodolfo Falvo talks to Peter Lewis about Italy's Rupert Murdoch and why Italian politics is so crazy.

You currently have a government described as ‘centre left’. Has this been beneficial to Italian unions?

In the last ten years the Left has been working with the unions through a principle of permanent consultation. With the Left now in the government, this has helped us raise our issues—although we do not agree with everything being done.

This relationship has been underlined by agreement on the process of entering the European Union and, particularly, an acceptance of the need for wage restraint to keep inflation down as the Euro is introduced. The Left wing has been part of a government that has pushed through the privatisation of nearly every public utility. On the other hand, it has given protection to those who work in the public sector and intervened on their behalf when the state pension scheme fell into crisis.

We have a lot of old people, as life expectancy increases, and this is creating a drain on the current workforce. We also have big unemployment problems, particularly in the South—coupled with a shortage in skilled IT workers. So there's a problem with training that the government has yet to come to terms with.

The government is now bound by directives from the European Union—they have to enforce sacrifices by the Italian people. The unions are officially supportive of the European Union—all three union bodies—but personally, many have doubts. There was a pact between the three union bodies to control salaries; but for journalists, for example, the employers are making increased profits and the workers are told they can’t seek their share. Today, it is always the pact! Keep salaries low for the Euro, but the same restraint is not exercised by the media owners.

One of the interesting things about Italy is that one of your big media owners—Berlusconi—is actually a political player in Parliament. How does that effect his journalists?

Berlusconi is very correct in his dealings with the unions. He has accepted the contract we are currently negotiating before a lot of the other media groups, including agreement on new technology. On the three television news outlets that he has control over, the news directors have full independence. Also, he has a lot of journalists employed who belong to the Left wing, even though he is a major figure on the Right. What is more problematic is the issue of conflict of interest in media policy. How can you be a Member of Parliament and a media owner? This has concerned the Left, who are pushing for laws that separate these responsibilities.

What degree of diversity is there in the Italian media?

There are a lot of different groups. It is difficult to give a picture. In TV and newspapers there are different groups with different political orientations. For example, there are the Della Sera publications with implicit control from the Fiat Corporation, another linked to a construction firm. There are right-wing and left-wing. There is Berlusconi in TV and the public stations. The Communist Party newspaper, which closed down earlier this year, is about to recommence publications, although with a much smaller staff.

Is the Communist Party still strong?

The Communists have evolved into a Democratic Left party, part of the broader left grouping. It still has representatives in Parliament, but not in the same numbers. The demise came in 1992 with the Tangetopoli, a big corruption scandal that hit all the parties, but hurt the Communists and socialists in particular. That was the impetus for Berlusconi to create his political base, Forze Italia—in one moment he turned the system upside down. Forze Italia is now the dominant right-wing party; it is in partnership with Alliance Nazionale—the ex-fascists, at least they say they’re ex-Fascists; the Christian Democrats and the Northern League who want to break from the South. As well as a lot of smaller right-wing groups. The point is that Berlusconi has provided them with a new identity under Force Italia, his own political party. On the Left we have just as many groups—the socialists, the PEE, the Communists and other smaller groups. In our Parliament we have 32 different political organisations! It is a problem.

Is there a recognition that the system is not working?

After 1992 we had a push to reduce these parties into two different groups; but we maintain proportional voting so smaller parties can get elected easily. This gives rise to confusion and allows small parties to bring down governments by shifting their allegiances. This makes it harder for government to carry out its agenda. There have been cases of senior ministers leaving the government and moving to the opposition. Tangetopoli exposed a lot of the problems with the Italian system, it exposed political corruption through all levels of government, Right and Left. There was an explanation: after World War II, Italy had elections for everything, from provincial and local government, to the power plant and the public hospital. But at the same time we had no tradition of political fundraising—it was forbidden. Hundreds of people were employed by political parties to run these elections, but where were the funds for these positions? Something had to give. The reality is that Italy suffers from an excess of democracy—too many elections, too many levels of authority.