Those in charge of civilisation have been quick to compare Donald Trump to Silvio ‘bunga bunga’ Berlusconi as part of their crusade to deliver us from evil. The similarities between the Yankie and the Latino – despite the racial chasm that divides them – are just too good to be true. Both are dodgy tycoons, sex criminals, and filthy fascists. Both have dangerous levels of respect for Vladimir Putin.
This, at any rate, is the message put out by those who tell us that we live in an era of post-truth but which we know is in fact the era of home-truth. In the case of Berlusconi, those responsible have not – nor ever will – admit that they were guilty of orchestrating the most relentless and untruthful smear campaign ever mounted against an elected leader in the free world. But what they did to Il Cavaliere (The Knight), they will do to The Donald.
The words of Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, in a speech to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual awards ceremony in New York earlier this week reveal how it is going to be:
‘We face an existential crisis, a threat to the very relevance and usefulness of our profession. Now, more than ever, we need to commit to real reporting across a real nation, a real world in which journalism and democracy are in mortal peril.’
She was referring, above all, to Trump and America.
Berlusconi was elected Prime Minister of Italy three times and the last time – 2008 – he won with the largest majority of any post-war Italian Prime Minister. But this apparently also placed democracy in mortal peril. It is conveniently forgotten that since Berlusconi was forced to resign in 2011, Italy has not had an elected Prime Minister. The silence on this point – both inside and outside Italy – is revealing. Just how important is democracy, I wonder, to the liberal elite?
In Italy, ‘cultural icons’ such as pop stars, actors, writers and professors threatened to leave the country if Berlusconi were elected or re-elected. None did (unless to avoid tax). In America, likewise. They were queueing up to run away from America if Trump won, not to Mexico – heaven forfend – but to Canada. None have.
But the shock troops in this war are not the celebrity cowards but the media and the judiciary. I’ve lived in Italy since 1998 and used to get so angry when I read or listened to the views of foreign journalists, especially British ones, on ‘Silvio Il Magnifico’ as I used to call him half in jest. They just regurgitated the nonsense spewed out 24/7 by the Italian press and television talk-shows which included the claim that he muzzled the media.
He was able to do this – so they said – because he owned three of the four national private television channels and because key staff at Italy’s three state-owned television channels are partitioned according to which parties get most votes. Those foreign journalists utterly failed to see the irony of a ‘muzzled’ media complaining so loudly and clearly, day after day, about being ‘muzzled’. As of course did the Italian media itself.
You just had to pick up a newspaper, or switch on the television, to see that the claim was very post-truth – i.e bollocks. The most important newspapers were all hostile to Berlusconi except for his own modest circulation daily – Il Giornale – plus one or two others.
As for the talk-shows, I do not think there existed even one that I would call pro-Berlusconi. Nearly all were even more cling-filmed by political correctness than is the BBC. But the Italian media had to explain somehow why it was that Italians kept on voting for this tycoon who famously told Boris Johnson and me in an interview for The Spectator in 2003 that Benito Mussolini, unlike Saddam Hussein, did not kill his political opponents but exiled them on Italy’s breathtakingly beautiful islands. He had told the truth, more or less, but the Italian media went bananas for a fortnight and said that to say such a thing – the truth – was proof that he was a fascista.
Yet the Italians continued to vote for him. This was because he had muzzled the media – the media explained loud and clear – and brainwashed them. Actually, the Italians voted for Berlusconi – perhaps the first populist of our times – because he was an outsider who like them despised the liberal élite.
He was conservative on social issues and the closest the Italians have ever come to a free marketeer but he was above all a deal-maker and therefore flexible and tolerant. I cannot recall him ever being racist, for example, unless you count as so many do but not me his remark in 2001 just after 9/11: ‘We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and – in contrast with Islamic countries – respect for religious and political rights.’
But the Italian media had a powerful ally in the Italian judiciary which like every institution in Italy, even the Round Table, is highly politicised – especially in Milan – and it too swiftly entered the fray. Suddenly, Berlusconi was the target for dozens of criminal investigations whose details were systematically leaked like clockwork to the media – despite it being a criminal offence to do so.
I am willing to bet my wife that no Italian firm could emerge unscathed from such treatment and not just because they are run by Italians. In Italy, there are so many laws against virtually everything anyone does that they – we – everyone – are all guilty – of something. This is a country where even leaving the window of your parked car open is against the law: it is called incitement to theft.
Despite this, Berlusconi was convicted only once after an eight-year trial and an investigation that had gone on much longer – for tax evasion – involving an off-shore company for which he had no legal responsibility. Those who did – including his eldest son – were acquitted. Given a four-year jail sentence in 2013, automatically reduced to one, and banned from public office for five years, he avoided jail only because he was over 70 and so instead did community service in a home for Alzheimer’s patients.
In the Bunga Bunga investigation in which he was acquitted of prostituting a minor in 2010 – 17-year-old Moroccan belly-dancer Karima El Mahroug, known as ‘Rubi Rubacuori’ (Ruby the Heart-Stealer) – prosecuting judges intercepted 100,000 telephone calls and well before the trial illegally leaked the juiciest bits to the media who as usual illegally published them. Both parties denied sex and there were no witnesses. He was a prostate cancer survivor and well into his seventies. The charge was absurd. But the damage was done.
Berlusconi did a lot of stuff that normal Prime Ministers no doubt should not do but what do you expect? Italy is crawling with sex maniacs and up to its neck in tax evasion and every other fiddle under the sun. Trump will now become the victim of an identical smear campaign in the American media and courts. But the American judicial system is not as Robespierrian and rotten to the core as the Italian one, and so his enemies may be forced to rely on the media alone to demonise and delegitimise him. That might make the difference.
Nicholas Farrell is the Spectator’s Italy correspondent.