THE SACK OF ROME
How a Beautiful European
Country with a Fabled History
And a Storied Culture Was Taken
Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi
By Alexander Stille
Penguin Press -- 384pp -- $25.95
The Good An engrossing account of what happens when an Italian media mogul turns prime minister.
The Bad The investigative detail and enormous cast of characters is at times a bit overwhelming.
The Bottom Line A blistering expose--and a frightening case study with parallels in the U.S.'s media-driven politics
Media mogul Silvio Berlusconi leaped onto the Italian political stage a decade ago and cast himself as the country's most successful businessman -- an outsider untainted by corrupt politics and a go-getter ready to apply American-style entrepreneurial verve to an ailing economy. Given his $14 billion net worth, who was going to challenge that claim? For millions of voters disgusted by rampant political sleaze, Berlusconi's carefully honed image as an earnest, hard-working, financially capable chief executive answered a deep national longing.
The real Berlusconi is less the talented CEO than a savvy, unscrupulous salesman, argues investigative journalist Alexander Stille in his blistering account, The Sack of Rome. Despite his nose for the market, Berlusconi stumbles repeatedly in business, skirting financial crises by appealing to rich and powerful allies. The book describes deceptions ranging from claims of having studied at the Sorbonne (he attended the state University of Milan) to making repeated vows to remedy his colossal conflicts of interest. The engrossing tale describes Berlusconi as someone who seduced secretaries to make high-level contacts, ruthlessly deployed cronyism for maximum financial gain, bought off critics and tax inspectors, changed laws to derail criminal lawsuits against himself, and kept men on his payroll who bribed judges and colluded with the Mafia. The book's only weakness: Its detail can be overwhelming.
As Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006, media impresario Berlusconi owned or controlled all six of Italy's national television networks -- 90% of the country's airwaves. The author, whose previous books include an illuminating history of the Italian Mafia, Excellent Cadavers, artfully documents the raw might of Berlusconi's media to warp public opinion by ignoring and distorting the truth or broadcasting outright lies. For example, Stille shows how Berlusconi's allies planted and then fanned mysterious, unsubstantiated claims of bribery against a possible rival, Antonio Di Pietro, the former star prosecutor who had pilloried a corrupt political class during the 1990s. By 2001, he writes, 77.4% of Italians got their information from TV and only 6.4% from newspapers. Berlusconi knew his audience: millions of voters with little better than a 7th-grade education who "knew little about politics and cared even less."
Berlusconi's approach is at once straightforward business and appalling politics. His advertising executives founded his party, directed his political campaign, and then ran for office themselves. Many associates, including his defense lawyers, stayed on his payroll after becoming Parliament members. Stille contends that Berlusconi steadily stuffed public institutions and public TV with backers until he controlled thousands of key positions in the state bureaucracy and the media. "After nearly a decade of Berlusconi in public life, Italy had increasingly begun to resemble a kind of company town, where everyone works for the local factory, lives in company housing, buys at the company store, and in which order is kept by the company guards. Berlusconi filled the average Italians' days from the morning newspaper to the nightly news," says the author.
Berlusconi constantly claims that left-leaning, politically motivated prosecutors have been out to get him. Stille debunks that myth, tracing many key charges against the Prime Minister to the days before he entered politics. By tracking several trials and the laws passed by his government, Stille highlights how Berlusconi and his cohorts thwarted the criminal justice system. Political allies were elected "so that they could enjoy parliamentary immunity from arrest and vote on legislation to water down the Italian penal code."
Having deflated the idea that Berlusconi is an efficient CEO, Stille explains his appeal as an alluring showman-politician. A former cruise ship crooner, Berlusconi is portrayed as distracting the masses from bad tidings by boasting about his sexual prowess, disappearing for a face-lift, or likening himself to Jesus. Like a talk show host, he is relentlessly upbeat, a tad outrageous, and always entertaining.
No question, Berlusconi's reign was disastrous for the economy: Italy's global competitiveness ranking slipped from 28th to 41st, lower than that of Namibia, according to the Institute for International Management in Lausanne. But the broader lesson of the mogul's political career is even more depressing: Western democracies remain dangerously vulnerable to media manipulation, allowing countries such as Russia to easily dismiss Western criticism about political control of their media as gratuitous. The Sack of Rome is a frightening case study and one that has plenty of bearing on our own media-driven politics.
By Gail Edmondson