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06.10.09

Murdoch's Italian Offensive

The compulsively aggressive Australian is a great businessman, writes press baron and Rupert frenemy Conrad Black. But his war against Silvio Berlusconi is unlikely to dislodge the prime minister.

The developing dispute between Italian prime minister and media owner Silvio Berlusconi and News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch is a brave new frontier for the insatiably expansionist Murdoch. When General de Gaulle was shown the rubble of Stalingrad in a visit to the U.S.S.R. in 1944, he scandalized his Russian hosts by saying “What a great people!” referring to the Germans, “for having reached the Volga.” It is not clear who will win this battle of media giants, but it is a credit to the invader that it is happening at all. Berlusconi could not mount such an offensive against Murdoch in Australia.

Though Italians may tire of Berlusconi’s circus antics, they won’t warm to a colorless, cynical, Austral-American interloper.

Though an affable enough personality, Murdoch is a compulsively aggressive businessman. Like Napoleon, he has no policy except war and no apparently amicable division of a market or enterprise with him is any more than a truce before he launches a new assault. He has made endless friendly arrangements with businessmen and politicians, but except for Ronald Reagan and perhaps Tony Blair, has deserted them all—Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Jimmy Carter, the Clintons, and a lengthy sequence of Australians.

It need hardly be said that Silvio Berlusconi is not a run-of-the-mill political leader. He has enjoyed the greatest electoral success of anyone in Italian history. Mussolini did not conduct serious elections, and the long-serving Christian Democratic leaders Alcide de Gasperi and Giulio Andreotti led fragile coalitions and received a great deal of help and guidance from the popes of the day, as when Pius XII preemptively excommunicated all Italian communist voters just before the 1949 election.

Some patterns of behavior are familiar in these events. Berlusconi assisted Murdoch in assembling a virtual pay-television monopoly in Italy while his company, Mediaset, was the market leader in conventional programming, ahead of the state-owned RAI. Murdoch made a great success of Sky Italia, which now has revenue of $3.2 billion annually, against Mediaset’s $4 billion and RAI’s $2.9 billion.

The relationship started to come unstuck with raids on each other’s leading on-air personalities. As the tocsins sounded, the facts weighed more heavily each week that Berlusconi controls the government and parliament and, effectively, RAI; that Italy is not a puritanical political environment; and that its public opinion is not much stirred by questions of financial and sexual ethics that would topple British or even Australian governments and lead to impeachment proceedings in the U.S.

Berlusconi put through a doubling of the tax on pay-TV operations—i.e., on Murdoch’s company—from 10 percent to 20 percent, a heavy hit below the belt by most Anglo-Saxon standards. He is also taking Mediaset and RAI off Murdoch’s channels. This is hardball, but it is Murdoch’s preferred style, too, and he was aware that they were in the country of Machiavelli and the Borgias, not Bermuda or Switzerland or Denmark.

As is his custom, Murdoch replied with sanctimonious editorials in The Times of London and elsewhere, effectively accusing Berlusconi of being a corrupt aspiring dictator and a sexually depraved rake in constant pursuit of underage women. This played in with Signora Berlusconi’s announcement that she was seeking a divorce from her husband, who “consorts with children.” This operatic couple has had a hilarious series of public disputes with allegations, threats, public apologies from him, and tearful reconciliations for some years.

Prim and proper English-language publications like The Economist have long bemoaned Berlusconi’s preposterous behavior, but Italians have generally found him an effective head of government and an endearing character. He is extremely wealthy, flamboyant, has packed his cabinet with attractive if not always obviously well-qualified women, and entertains his countrymen, who generally, and for obvious historical reasons, consider politics to be an absurd activity.

Berlusconi shows admirable human qualities in crises, as when he moved the Italian government to Naples during the prolonged garbage strike there a year ago, and when he personally supervised distribution of assistance to recent earthquake victims. The only election he has lost in 10 years was by a very narrow margin, when his desiccated socialist opponent, Romano Prodi, left him flat-footed by claiming that his only initiatives in office had been “a hair transplant and a nose job.”

It is a bit rich for Murdoch’s Times of London, which has no influence in Italy, and which Murdoch has reduced from one of the world’s greatest titles to another shabby News Corp. tabloid, to accuse Berlusconi of “contempt for the Italian people.” Murdoch can safely leave that determination to the Italians who have elected him.

The grandson of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, Murdoch fancies himself something of a moralist. As he has done more than anyone in the history of the English-language media to debase public standards of information and entertainment, and is no poster boy for marital fidelity himself, this ranks as one of the wildest of his many public forays into make-believe.

Berlusconi has sworn there was nothing “spicy” in his relations with the latest 17-year-old girl in his life, and the girl and her mother support this. As long as nothing emerges implying coercion, Italian voters are unlikely to be much bothered by it. The support of Murdoch by the Agnelli family’s newspapers, Corriere della Sera and La Stampa, indicates that he has done some careful coalition-building.

Murdoch has been a skillful judge of political men and events for many years, jumping at the right time and even slightly plausibly (or not) taking credit as breaker and maker of governments. But though Italians may tire of Berlusconi’s circus antics, they won’t warm to a colorless, cynical, Austral-American interloper. Rupert Murdoch is a great businessman, but he will never make it as a nightclub comedy act, especially in Italy, where politics are often measured by that standard. He could be a providential butt of Berlusconi’s pseudo-populist and slightly xenophobic demagoguery.

This time, Murdoch is unlikely to dislodge a strong and clever prime minister, despite Berlusconi’s threadbare disguise as a hyperactive buffoon. But in a worst case, Murdoch will suffer a modest profit erosion in Italy and a good verbal cuffing about in a language he does not understand. Neither will do him much harm, or good.

Conrad Black is the author of biographies of Maurice Duplessis, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Richard M. Nixon, was the publisher of the London Telegraph newspapers and Spectator, and founded the National Post of Canada. He has been a life peer in the British House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour since 2001.