Dear Mr Berlusconi…

01.07.03 Publication:

Dear Mr Berlusconi…

Why we are sending an open letter to the Italian prime minister

Why we are sending an open letter to the Italian prime minister

TO HIS many other talents, Silvio Berlusconi has recently added that of ironist. The Italian prime minister entered the role of president of the European Union´s Council of Ministers with a bang, by likening a German member of the European Parliament to a Nazi-era concentration camp guard. Many failed to see the joke. And the resulting imbroglio with the German government had a paradoxical effect: it distracted attention from the very accusation that the German MEP had been noisily making, namely that Mr Berlusconi has exploited his parliamentary majority in Italy to put himself beyond the reach of the law.

For that is indeed what he has done. Dogged by a series of judicial investigations and court cases when he entered office in 2001, Mr Berlusconi has managed to defeat the prosecutors and the courts. He secured the downgrading of the charge of false accounting for private companies, with retrospective effect, thus making accusations against him barred under the statute of limitations. He tried to change the rules on the admissibility of documents obtained from across the border in Switzerland, and tried to get the jurisdiction of his big remaining criminal trial moved. Finally, having failed with those measures he managed to bring in a law making Italy´s prime minister, along with the country´s other top officials, immune from prosecution during their time in office. As a democratically elected leader, with grave and onerous responsibilities to the people, Mr Berlusconi argued that he should not be made subject to the indignity of a trial. His justice minister, Roberto Castelli, went even further, causing a furore within the governing coalition last week by trying to block a judicial investigation into alleged tax fraud at Mr Berlusconi´s biggest media company. (This week he was forced to relent.) It is beyond the prime minister´s dignity even to be investigated.

A serving prime minister should be answerable, on this argument, to the court of public opinion, not to courts of law. So, in an effort to make Mr Berlusconi answerable to the public, The Economist is this week sending him a challenge. We have drawn up a substantial dossier concerning his alleged misdeeds, backed up by documentary evidence. Most notably, for the criminal case which prompted the passing of the immunity law, concerning the alleged bribery of judges as part of the blocking of the sale of a state-owned food company, SME, the evidence we have assembled stands in sharp contradiction to the supposedly factual claims Mr Berlusconi made in court on May 5th this year, proclaiming his innocence.

We believe that, having made claims that appear to be at variance to the evidence, Mr Berlusconi must explain publicly why that evidence is wrong. Therefore, on the SME case, and on Mr Berlusconi´s other trials and actions, we are sending our whole dossier to the Italian prime minister at Palazzo Chigi in Rome as an open letter, challenging him to answer our many questions. The full dossier, including the section concerning the SME case and his declarations in May, can be found here. We look forward to his reply.

Some readers, familiar with our previous investigative article on Mr Berlusconi published on April 28th 2001, when we said that he was not fit to run Italy, may wonder why we are continuing to investigate him and to pose questions. Does it matter whether Italy is run by a man investigated by magistrates for money-laundering and accused by prosecutors of being a perjurer, a falsifier of company accounts and a briber of judges, among other things? Mr Berlusconi evidently thinks it does, as he brought a lawsuit against us for defamation following that 2001 article: he must think these accusations are damaging to his reputation, and (since he continues to pursue the case) that the courts are suitable for protecting that even if he wants immunity from other cases. Our modest case, though, is immaterial compared with the wider issues.

Those wider issues begin with Mr Berlusconi´s efforts to put himself beyond the reach of the law, and thus to evade both scrutiny and punishment. They extend to the series of attacks Mr Berlusconi´s government has conducted against the judiciary, including threats of criminal charges against judges and prosecutors, and most recently the prosecutors who are conducting the SME case. Moreover, when our first article was published in 2001 many of the cases involving him were in their early stages. Since then, in one of the cases, concerning the purchase of Mondadori, a publishing group, his close friend and lawyer, Cesare Previti, has been found guilty of bribing judges and sentenced to 11 years in prison. (He is certain to appeal.) Since the verdict finds him guilty of giving these bribes for the direct benefit of Mr Berlusconi, it seems to The Economist that the prime minister needs to explain, to the public, what was (or was not) going on. Instead, he has managed to use the statute of limitations to avoid trial.

This is more than just a matter of political pride, arrogance or evasion. The SME case from which the prime minister has now obtained immunity while in office has opened a window on to Mr Berlusconi´s business techniques. The case involved a successful effort by Mr Berlusconi to block the sale in 1985 of a state-owned food conglomerate, SME, to another Italian businessman, Carlo De Benedetti, a sale for which a contract had already been drawn up and signed. Beyond the accusations about what was done, perhaps the most noteworthy point about SME is that neither Mr Berlusconi nor his companies benefited directly from blocking the sale. They did not buy the firm instead, nor have they done so since. Yet they went to remarkable lengths to prevent Mr De Benedetti from buying it.

Why? On Mr Berlusconi´s own admission, it was because he was asked to by the then prime minister, Bettino Craxi. Was this on ideological grounds? No: the late Craxi was head of the Socialist Party, and as a self-proclaimed free-marketeer Mr Berlusconi is supposedly in favour of privatisation. The real reason is that Craxi had issued a decree that made it possible for Mr Berlusconi´s television companies to build the national networks that have now given them a near monopoly on commercial broadcasting. Another case, which ended in 2000, found that in 1991-92 Mr Berlusconi´s companies had made illegal donations to bank accounts under Craxi´s control totalling 23 billion lire (then $18.5m). In other words, for Mr Berlusconi politics has been a means to his business success.

And it continues to be. Mr Berlusconi´s government has brought in a new communications bill which would ensure that the state television network is privatised in such a way as not to challenge his own private TV business and will permit him to extend his newspaper empire. This is not a matter of a rich businessman now applying his talents to reforming Italy and giving it a greater voice in the world, though no doubt Mr Berlusconi is sincere when he says he would like to do those things. It is a matter of a rich businessman using his political power to foster his businesses, both by defeating judicial investigations against him and by enacting new laws and regulations in his own interest. The Economist is thus concerned about Mr Berlusconi both as an outrage against the Italian people and their judicial system, and as Europe´s most extreme case of the abuse by a capitalist of the democracy within which he lives and operates. Far from being, as he claims, the man who is creating a new Italy, he is a prime representative, and perpetuator, of the worst of old Italy. Ironic, really.