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The Ethical Crisis of Italian Journalism

April 29, 2011

Italy is an anomalous country. And one of its most dangerous anomalies concerns newspaper ownership. Business, economic and political interests within the press favor censorship, thus destroying press freedom in a 21st-century, Western country. Even though, in Italy, we have a joke that, whatever happens, it is Berlusconi’s fault, for once, I can proudly admit that the problem is not only Silvio Berlusconi and his conflict of interests. Conflict of interest concerns all major Italian media groups and news organizations, such as RCS, L’Espresso editorial group, Fininvest, Caltagirone editore and many others. Of course, Berlusconi is part of it, but he is not the major player as he is in television. The type of political and business control concerning the press is even more dangerous. Italian newspapers are affected by an astonishing ethical crisis that is far from being solved.

Press freedom in Italy has always been fragile and tamed by powerful politicians, whether Napoleon or Mussolini. However, it is worrisome that after so many centuries, wars and dictatorships, journalism has failed to regain its complete independence. This fact still surprises foreign journalists. In his book L’Informazione Spettacolo, Felice Froio gives voice to the historical El Pais journalist Juan Arias, who escaped dictator Franco’s Spain and came to live in Italy as a foreign correspondent. Arias wrote that “the intertwining between politics and journalism is one of the cancers of Italian journalism.”[1] He complained that, in Italy, journalism is completely tied to power: “every journalist had been accepted because of a politician’s recommendation and to that politician, in one way or another, the journalist had to respond.”[2]

Over and over in his book, Froio goes back to this point and to the lack of independence of Italian journalism. In particular, he talks about the amount of political news that makes it to the newspapers. But Froio also comments on the fact that Italian journalists, unlike their colleagues in other countries, “address almost all politicians by using the second person singular,”[3] which, in Italian, is used to address friends or family members, as opposed to the third person singular, which is used with strangers and important people.

During our interview together, former Economist journalist Tana De Zulueta, who has been working in Italy as a freelance journalist and correspondent since the 1970s, recounted a funny, yet alarming episode she experienced in 1995, when she began working for an Italian music channel. She worked as news editor for five months, then the company was sold to Cecchi Gori, a famous Italian media entrepreneur and politician. De Zulueta recalls a “quite heavy-handed political interference … with phone calls into the newsroom” influencing which news she was allowed to put into the bulletin.[4] De Zulueta, who had left the Sunday Times when it was bought by Rupert Murdoch because she couldn’t accept his new editorial approach, didn’t yield to Cecchi Gori’s political interference and, eventually, she was fired with these exact words: “Nothing personal. It’s just that when I bought this company I didn’t expect to find you in it.”

Ties with politicians are not the only type of “cancer,” as Arias called it, affecting Italian journalism. Unfortunately, there is another type of control that I deem even more worrisome and dangerous. After all, we all know that Silvio Berlusconi controls newspapers such as Il Giornale and that he owns the Mondadori group, which publishes several popular magazines such as Panorama, Tv-Sorrisi e Canzoni and Focus. In Italy, many newspapers are official organs of political parties (for example, L’Unità is the newspaper of the left-leaning Democratic Party), thus allowing readers to be aware that they are not going to get objective news. What I deem even more dangerous is that many industrial groups have interests in news organizations. Therefore, they control newspapers and they set the agenda of the press.

Many books I have read deal with this Italian “anomaly.” In his book Morte e Resurrezione dei Giornali, Enrico Pedemonte refers to the conflict of interest concerning important national newspapers such as Il Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica. The same is reported by Vittorio Sabadin in L’Ultima Copia del New York Times and by Felice Froio in L’Informazione Spettacolo, where the author dedicates a whole chapter to newspaper ownership. Specifically, Froio quotes the influential Italian journalist Piero Ottone, who says that “when the press is controlled by industries it cannot be totally independent … Journalists know that industrialist-editors are first of all industrialists, then editors.”[5]

However, none of these books give precise numbers or facts about who controls newspapers, which companies and which entrepreneurs in particular. The reason is simple. Finding this sort of information is extremely difficult. Italian newspapers don’t even know what the word “transparency” means. If you go on the website of The New York Times, there is a section on the left called About Us. A link titled About NYT Co. will redirect you to the website of The New York Times Company, where you can read about the company, its social responsibility, its media outlets, its executives and their biographies. Try to search the same information on the website of La Repubblica. The only seemingly relevant link you will find is named “Network” and shows all the media outlets of L’Espresso group. What about the shareholders of the group, investing their money in the second most important, national newspaper?

The only way to get clear and transparent information is to access the Commissione Nazionale per le Società e la Borsa (CONSOB), the public authority responsible for regulating the Italian securities market and the place where all companies must report their official data. I collected these documents and found out some interesting information about the major Italian editorial groups such as RCS, L’Espresso group, Caltagirone editore, Il Sole 24 Ore Spa, and Editoriale Libero Srl.

RCS, for example, is one of the major media conglomerates in Italy. As we can see from the image below, RCS controls several Italian newspapers such as Il Corriere della Sera, La Gazzetta dello Sport and the free press City. RCS also controls many magazines, not only in Italy but also in Spain, such as Oggi, Max, L’Europeo and Io Donna.

According to the official documents deposited by RCS at the CONSOB, among the major shareholders of the group we can find different banks, insurance and industrial companies. Mediobanca Spa, for example, owns 14.21% of the group, while Intensa SanPaolo Spa 5%. Among the industrial companies there are FIAT (10.50%) and Pirelli&C (5.17%). In his book, Sabadin reported that RCS Honorary President, Cesare Romiti, in an interview with TG3 journalist Lucia Annunziata, admitted that Il Corriere della Sera, owned by RCS, is “less free than it used to be” because of all its industrial and financial interests.[6] The fact that RCS is owned partly by FIAT will make Il Corriere less objective on whatever issue concerning the famous car company and its managing director Sergio Marchionne.

Another one of the most important media groups in Italy is the Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso, owned by the De Benedetti family. As we can see from the image below, L’Espresso group owns numerous magazines, La Repubblica, one of the most famous national dailies along with Il Corriere, radio and TV channels.

According to the official documents deposited by L’Espresso group at the CONSOB, the Compagnie Industriali Riunite (CIR Spa), whose president is Carlo De Benedetti, owns 53.95% of the editorial group. The CIR is the holding company of a leading Italian industrial group active in five business sectors, energy and healthcare among them.[7] It is clear that L’Espresso editorial group has strong conflicts of interests. But it is not the only one, as we have seen.

Caltagirone Editore Spa is another important editorial group controlling Il Messaggero (particularly strong in Rome), Il Mattino (strong in Naples), the free press Leggo, and other important dailies all over Italy.[8] Francesco Gaetano Caltagirone, who owns the group and detains 18% of its stocks, is a famous builder and also President and CEO of the Cementir Holding, which manufactures and distributes cement and concrete all over the world.[9]

Again, from the CONSOB documents, we can see that 80% of the Editoriale Libero Srl, an editorial group that produces the right-leaning newspaper Libero, is owned by the San Raffaele Foundation, which is into healthcare. Il Sole 24 Ore, the major Italian financial newspaper, is owned by Confindustria, an organization representing Italian manufacturing and services companies. Half of the Mondadori group, which is a leading Italian book publisher and produces several popular magazines such as Panorama and Focus, is owned by Fininvest, which is Berlusconi’s company. As we can clearly see from all these examples, the Italian press is controlled by corporate business interests. Newspapers and magazines are not independent. “They have other agendas,” journalist Tana De Zulueta told me, “It’s very difficult for newspapers that belong to industrial corporations that are interested in being nice to politicians to exercise the US notion of watchdog.”[10]

The only newspaper named by De Zulueta as “absolutely independent” is Il Fatto Quotidiano, the new daily created by journalists Antonio Padellaro and Marco Travaglio, among others, in September 2009. On its front page, and on its website, Il Fatto boasts that it is the only Italian paper not receiving state funds, thus claiming to be truly independent. So far, Il Fatto Quotidiano has been extremely critical of Silvio Berlusconi’s government, but also against left-wing politicians, thus proving to be “refreshingly free of constraints. Even though they are hardline opponents of Berlusconi, on other issues they sometimes manage to find an independent point of view.”[11] Two years after its first issue, Il Fatto is still very popular. In October 2010, Il Fatto journalist Marco Travaglio wrote an article in response to Maurizio Belpietro, director of Libero, who claimed during the Annozero TV show that Il Fatto Quotidiano was losing readers. In his editorial, Travaglio argues that, even though his newspaper doesn’t receive state funds and earns only 418 thousand euro from advertising, it earned more than 21 million euro from sales and subscriptions.[12] Travaglio also claimed that Il Fatto is steadly increasing his readers.

We will see in the future if the new Fatto Quotidiano will continue to succeed, even after Berlusconi leaves the political scene. So far, its success demonstrates that a segment of the Italian population appreciates a free, independent press. I find it shameful that all other newspapers in Italy are controlled by industrial groups or by politicians. This conflict of interest defines an ethical crisis of Italian journalism which, in my opinion, is even more serious than any other financial crisis of the Italian press tied to declining sales and ad revenue. As Il Fatto showed in these two years, some Italian citizens welcome free information. A way of improving the financial crisis of the Italian press could be that of getting rid of all the business, economic and political interests that keep it from being independent and from functioning as the real watchdog of power.


[1] Felice Froio, L’Informazione Spettacolo: Giornali e Giornalisti Oggi, (Roma: Editori Riuniti, 2000) 179.

[2] Froio 179.

[3] Froio 71.

[4] Tana De Zulueta, Personal Interview, 10 Feb. 2011.

[5] Froio 194.

[6] Vittorio Sabadin, L’Ultima Copia del New York Times: il Futuro dei Giornali di carta, 2nd ed, (Roma: Donzelli, 2007) 160.

[7] “About CIR,” CIR Official Website, 30 March 2011, 23 April 2011 http://www.cirgroup.com/group/about-cir.html

[8] “Il Gruppo,” Caltagirone Editore Spa Official Website, 23 April 2011 http://www.caltagironeeditore.com/gruppo.php

[9] “Group Profile,” Cementir Holding Official Webiste, 23 April 2011 http://www.cementirholding.it/group-profile.php

[10] Tana De Zulueta, Personal Interview, 10 Feb. 2011.

[11] Tana De Zulueta, Personal Interview, 10 Feb. 2011.

[12] Marco Travaglio, “Io Libero, Tu Occupato,” Il Fatto Quotidiano Website, 23 Oct. 2010, 23 April 2011 http://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2010/10/23/l%E2%80%99altra-sera-ad-annozero-fra-una-palla-e/73196/

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