Bad news for the old crook.
Through his family-controlled Fininvest empire, Berlusconi runs Mediaset, by far the biggest commercial TV broadcaster in Italy. His empire also runs the biggest national advertiser, the biggest publisher and much else. Given Italy’s long tradition of political interference with public sector broadcasting, this means that when he has been prime minister he has wielded influence over almost everything watched by Italians on TV, from news programmes to adverts.
But on January 31 the European Court of Justice made a first dent in Italy’s unusually concentrated media market when it ruled that the national broadcasting system failed to foster competition. In essence, the court recognised what anyone who has lived in Italy (I did so for five years) knows: the present system is a stitch-up between Mediaset and Rai, the state-controlled broadcaster.
This was an important moment because it reminded Italians that, even if they cannot fix what is wrong in Italy, Europe can sometimes do it for them. Since Berlusconi entered politics in 1993-94, turning his media dominance into a serious national issue, Italy has had two spells of centre-left government – 1996-2001 and May 2006 to the present day. In neither spell did the centre-left succeed in passing laws to reform the media sector or curb politicans’ conflicts of interest.
One can speculate as to the reasons why. In the late 1990s, it was perhaps because former premier Massimo D’Alema was too clever by half and Berlusconi outmanoeuvred him. More recently, Prodi’s government was probably too weak and divided to pass such laws – though it had promised it would.
In any event, the spotlight will now move to Brussels. Buoyed by recent victories such as the landmark Microsoft case, the EU competition authorities have never felt stronger when it comes to taking on corporate power. At some point in Berlusconi’s future premiership (assuming he wins the election), it is a safe bet that a test case challenging his media dominance will under the scrutiny of Brussels.
The credibility of the EU as a regulator with worldwide influence will be on the line. But so, too will the reputation of the multi-billionaire Berlusconi. It will be some spectacle.