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TeleMeloni

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Italy's television has long been a window into its political culture, from the avant-garde anarchism of the chaotic 1970s, to the cartoonish extremes of the Berlusconi era. Now as Italian fascism seems ascendant, RAI, the public broadcaster, has become fertile ground for the populist communication style.

Text by Matilde Manicardi

Once upon a time, Italy’s public television channel  Rai 2 aired a variety show called Stryx with a cast of elves, minstrels, devils, pagan priestesses and witches, including Grace Jones, Amanda Lear and Patty Pravo. They populated a Mephistophelian imaginary staged by director and scenographer Enzo Trapani, an assistant of Roberto Rossellini and René Clair. It was 1978. One Sunday evening, the songwriter Mia Martini performed while burning at the stake on national TV.

Four years earlier, on Rai 1, a young crowd confronted Pier Paolo Pasolini on the need to reimagine the Italian family unit, calling for non-normative forms of kinship and housing. Umberto Eco spoke about semiotics to the Rai 1 viewership alongside Roland Barthes. Rai 1 visited painter Giorgio De Chirico in his studio to film the realisation of Sun on an Easel from beginning to end. 

Between 1977 and 1981, the openly radical feminist programme Si dice donna (“She’s Called Woman”) on  Rai 2 aired interviews with art critic Lea Vergine and feminist Selma James, followed local groups of women  activists across Italian suburbs and conducted in-depth analysis on ongoing fights for women’s rights, including  on the newly created Law 194 legalising abortion in the country. 

That is, there once was a time – now buried  in our memory under years of Euro-trash – when  Italian public television was an innovative platform for multi-disciplinary artistic experimentation and radical cultural productions. Over the following 40 years, its intellectual relevance progressively weakened, endangering what survived of its anti-fascist legacy. 

Many factors contributed to this enfeeblement, including the need to compete with commercial channels’ proliferation of light entertainment, the sneaky manipulations of multiple governments, and, last but not least, Silvio Berlusconi’s hegemonic conquest of Italian media. 

Then, when it looked like it couldn’t get any worse, RAI hit its lowest depth of all: it was dubbed TeleMeloni. 

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A few months after the 2022 elections, Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government prepared to erase Italy’s anti-fascist footprint (was there any left?) from the public broadcaster RAI by forcing major strategic changes in governance and programming and occupying leading positions with her troop of devotees who swiftly wiped out troublesome content from RAI’s channels. Although an Italian government manoeuvring public television is anything but novel, the ruthlessness with which Giorgia Meloni exceeded her predecessors was still breathtaking. The board of trustees and producers of newscasts was now largely under the control of Meloni’s party Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”) and the like-minded Lega Nord (“Northern League”), barely leaving any space for opposition. Unsurprisingly, Meloni’s political agenda on RAI reflected populism’s critical relationship with public communication and press freedom. The media strategies adopted by populist parties such as Fratelli d’Italia, often frame fact-producing institutions, journalists and experts as anti-democratic as soon as they challenge populist standings. The dominance of ideology over facts and anger over reason characterises a post-truth culture that goes hand in hand with anti-expert populism, inevitably affecting mediated public debate. Within this rhetoric, the right-wing populist discourse insinuates an antagonism between “the people” – the patriots, the party’s voters – embedded into a manipulatory us, and “the experts” – leftist intellectuals, progressive media, academics – othered by an accusatory them; particularly when sympathising with minorities and multiculturalism. According to this discursive frame, there is an alleged elite of literati who control the media against the people. This rhetoric is instrumental in fuelling a sentiment of impatience towards the mechanisms of delay built into informed news and public debate that should constitute the foundation of democratic communication. 

By contrast, populist communication offers an immediate solution: removing from public debate platforms, including television programmes, the experts who mediate with their knowledge, thus slowing down public debate. The temporal dimension of urgency is crucial to anti-expert populism and populist communication at large. This strong tie between populism’s political communication and its temporal dimension inspired media scholars, including Henrik Bødker and Chris Anderson, to frame the concept of a proper populist time. The latter refers to a political communication style – i.e. how “political actors stage their political performances” – fundamentally focused on acceleration. Strictly related to acceleration is the promotion of unfiltered communication between political leaders, people and values such as impulsivity and authenticity. It doesn’t matter if what populist leaders communicate is, in reality, all staged and layered in filters; at its core, the populist communication style is none other than a political strategy. And one that, by legitimising anger, appeals to many.

The populist communication style, particularly in its tendency to popularisation, personalisation, anti-establishment rhetoric and simplification, is highly compatible with the logic of the media. This mutuality occurs insofar as politicians exploit the media by enacting a style crafted to fit into their formats and, on the other hand, the media turn populist by airing content that intertwines information and entertainment. Many populist politicians, such as Silvio Berlusconi – who, in this regard, was certainly a pioneer – bypassed a more traditional and time-demanding career in politics, instead exploiting the media to grow his electorate (alias audiences) at a much faster pace. Media organisations, especially those that are time-based, are instrumental to populist political performances. Indeed, Fratelli d’Italia didn’t hesitate to get its hands on Italian public television. One alarming signal came early, with the resignation of RAI’s former CEO and interim director Carlo Fuortes a few weeks before the release of RAI’s first year of programming under Meloni’s government. The resignation came with a declaration from Fuortes denouncing massive interference and pressure on RAI’s editorial line and expressing his refusal to compromise with such schemes. He claimed they would undermine RAI and the public service’s objective to offer quality and pluralist content to the benefit of partisan interests. In the blink of an eye, Giampaolo Rossi, a right-wing extremist and an admirer of Netanyahu, Putin, and Orbán, was appointed as RAI’s director, taking over the company, which is the only rival of Mediaset, the other pillar of the Italian television duopoly, also known as Berlusconi’s most famous success and favourite puppet.  

Following the resignation of Fuortes, RAI suffered the departure of longtime personalities Lucia Annunziata, Fabio Fazio and Luciana Littizzetto. After 30 years working for the public broadcaster, well-known journalist and presenter Annunziata resigned after denouncing Meloni’s government’s influence on her work and the changes forced upon the public television company. Equally, presenter Fazio and satirical comedian Littizzetto left one of the very few remaining spaces on RAI dedicated to progressive public debate, one of the most popular talk shows, Che Tempo Che Fa (“What's the Weather Like”) which, in its 20 years on air, broadcast hundreds of interviews with people from Quentin Tarantino and Greta Thunberg to Rita Levi-Montalcini and Lady Gaga. Often criticised for his moderate manners, now even Fazio is too far left to survive TeleMeloni. The cherry on top: to publicly greet their departure, Matteo Salvini, former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and current Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, tweeted “Belli Ciao”, mocking the well-known anti-fascist anthem. Adding to the list of disturbing changes forced on RAI’s programming, at the last minute the upcoming board of trustees cancelled the already-filmed second season of Insider, a documentary series where world-renowned investigative journalist Roberto Saviano uncovers the ties between organised crime, politics, and the above-ground economy. To justify this cancellation, RAI’s direction hid behind an alleged ethical code violation by Saviano for calling Salvini Ministro della Mala Vita (“Minister of Crime”)  – for which Saviano had been brought to court before filming the first season. It is clear that the cancellation is nothing but an act of censorship.

As Meloni has declared, “They always said that the left in Italy has a cultural hegemony. I don’t agree – the left in Italy has a hegemony of power.” According to Meloni, RAI’s new governance has the sole purpose of inverting this balance to return to the people a meritocratic and pluralist system. Meloni has claimed to want a nation “where to be a culturally relevant person and to publish a book you don’t necessarily have to attend leftist gatherings, where merit is recognised independently from the party card you have in your pocket.” Accused internationally of having occupied Italian public television, Meloni dragged Gramsci into her rhetoric to reflect the allegation back on her enemies, the leftist intellectual elite. We don’t have any intention of making RAI a system of power, she claimed; they did it. We, instead, can guarantee meritocracy and pluralism – this is the new motto. To the people, Meloni also promised a cut of RAI’s television tax, which is expected to further bring the industry to its knees, especially after the above-mentioned departures of high-profile presenters is set to depress TV ratings.

How can a policy of meritocracy and pluralism coexist with the obstruction of some of RAI’s most successful programmes and with the fierce influence exerted on RAI’s governance? Following the stylistic dictates of populist communication, Meloni found in the RAI issue a crucial outlet to elicit public consent by voicing the anti-elitist discourse that animates her government’s agenda. Meloni’s linguistic choices, magnified by her vehement tone of voice and gestures, stand out as pillars of a “politics of impatience” belonging to the wider populist style of communication focused on temporal acceleration. The performance of impatience serves to instil a sense of urgency in the people to act decisively and immediately on the threat invoked – an alleged elite’s cultural hegemony. By adding “I don’t read the newspapers, especially the debates, even though there are a few that make me laugh, like the one around RAI,” Meloni demonstrates her circumvention of the journalistic gatekeepers to speak the unmediated truth. In doing so, she acts as an uncontaminated channel of communication purely voicing the concerns of the authentic people. It is thus crucial to further stress the divergence of a populist temporal communication style relying on impatience from the mechanisms of delay built into progressive liberal democracy. Relatedly, populism’s antipathy for a critical press sees it as “a pretence of true governance designed to benefit ... cultural elites.” By committing to substitute the presupposed cultural hegemony of the left with a meritocratic and pluralist system, Meloni borrows and overturns a socialist argument to support her reactionary political agenda – a technique known as rossobrunismo (“red-brownism”), rooted in Mussolini’s rhetoric. Within Meloni’s right-wing populist discourse, the historical ties between RAI and Italy’s intellectual left (although greatly faded throughout the years) are therefore identified as the people’s first obstacle.

 

 

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Giorgia Meloni didn’t invent anything – her management of Italian television followed in the footsteps of Italy’s media mogul and four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a fundamental reference point for the development of populist communication through the use of mass media. The dichotomy between the public television of the literati and the private channels of “the masses” has a long history in the country, starting with Berlusconi’s creation of Mediaset, RAI’s private rival. From 1954 to 1976, public television retained the monopoly on broadcasting in the country. In 1976, Italian law was amended to allow private channels to broadcast at the local level. Promptly Berlusconi, then a successful real estate agent, grasped the opportunity and acquired his first private TV channel: TeleMilano 58. Located in Milano 2, one of the residential neighbourhoods he had recently built around Milan, Berlusconi staffed the broadcaster with some of the most popular faces from RAI and soon expanded its reach to cover the entire region. By 1984, Berlusconi had launched the private television channel Canale 5 and acquired Italia 1 and Rete 4 from his competitors, the publishing groups Rusconi and Mondadori, incorporating the three under a holding company, Mediaset. 

 To circumvent the restriction to local broadcasting the private channels simultaneously aired the same content across local markets, mimicking a national network. The latter system survived until 1984 when a coalition of judges ordered the confiscation of Mediaset transmitters for violating constitutional law. But Mediaset’s channels didn’t stay blank for long – soon after, Benedetto Craxi, leader of the Italian Socialist Party and Berlusconi’s political sponsor, came to his aid and pushed Parliament to promulgate a law removing restrictions to private broadcasting at the national level. In 1990, a new law officially set off the RAI-Mediaset duopoly, thus limiting the existence of new broadcasting licences. The divergence between the public and private channels suddenly showed: while RAI still built on its pedagogical and progressive legacy, largely focused on information, Mediaset bet its success on a wide assortment of light entertainment formats, many of which borrowed from American television. For RAI, keeping up with its competitor soon turned into a debasing challenge, further complicated by Berlusconi’s multiple attempts to limit the company’s freedom of expression throughout his political career, which began in 1994. In the wake of what was called Mani Pulite (“Bribesville”), an unprecedented series of corruption scandals that dismantled the conservative coalition in power in the early 1990s, Berlusconi decided to run for office. Despite the air of uncertainty behind this unexpected choice – some claim it was to gain political immunity, others an attempt to head off the electoral victory of the left-wing Democratic Party, longtime critics of Mediaset’s hegemony – what is certain is that this circumstance set the stage for a revolution of the Italian political landscape, one intrinsically linked to the coupling of politics and entertainment that allowed Berlusconi to launch his tremendously successful populist communication style.

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From the very beginning, Mediaset was the media mogul’s crucial key to success. Burlusconi built the political campaign of Forza Italia (“Forward Italy”) on a mass media-friendly communication style that he could easily spread through the various channels of his empire. After strengthening his party’s credibility by forging alliances with the post-fascist nationalist Alleanza Nazionale (“National Alliance”) and the separatist Lega Nord, he refined the pillars of his communication strategy: a self-made man’s cult of charisma, simplistic language and catchy slogans, and a fervent criticism of intellectual elites and professional politicians. Berlusconi thus carefully crafted a populist communication style relying on personalisation, popularisation, disintermediation and intimidation – the whole outlining an innovative populist temporality dictated by immediacy. Having originally gained popularity as a self-made successful businessman, the megalomaniac Berlusconi represented himself as the man who makes everything possible. Through his private channels, he could finally give voice to the Italian people’s real desires, reactions, and even prejudices – which were his own, since he shaped the media empire in his image and likeness. Availing himself of the latter propagandistic power, Berlusconi’s rightwing coalition led by Forza Italia won the 1994 elections, marking the first of four victories, the second in 2001, the third in 2005, and the fourth in 2008, and a decades-long career as one of the most influential figures of Italy’s contemporary history. 

Berlusconi’s politics of authenticity, impulsivity and unmediated performance crashed against the few remaining critical and informed debates, all of which demanded viewers’ time, on public television. Mediaset’s ready-to-wear dreams of a richer and more modern Italian society hid, in reality, a turbo-capitalist model of growth building on a reactionary set of values that struggled to comply with press freedom and pluralist thought. This led to several instances of censorship by Berlusconi on the public broadcaster RAI. One of those entered history as the “Bulgarian edict,” when three public figures – journalist and partisan Enzo Biagi, presenter Michele Santoro, and satirist Daniele Luttazzi – disappeared from RAI’s programming after being accused by Berlusconi of publicly taking positions on television that he deemed too critical of his government. In short, TeleMeloni is nothing but the heir of Berlusconi’s entertainment and political model; except it has proved to be even more ruthless and reactionary. As media scholar Silvio Waisbord pointed out, “What is new is not the presence of right-wing media that explicitly defends core populist ideas ... What is different is that populism is central to the content of the corporate news media that attracts substantial audiences and advertisers.” One of the main lessons that Berlusconi passed on to populist governments is the way he started to treat citizens more as an audience of consumers than an electorate. In this temporality where constructive criticism and reasonable debate seem to belong to the past, it is hard to see the image of RAI regaining its now-lost cultural and artistic relevance as anything more than a mirage.  ◉