Award-winning television anchor Lilli Gruber resigned from embattled state broadcaster RAI in April 2004, charging Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with ignoring conflict of interest issues and intentionally undermining the free flow of news. Berlusconi owns the country’s three main private television channels. Running on the center-left Olive Branch coalition ticket, the Bolzano-born Gruber was elected to the European Parliament in June, out-polling even Berlusconi. A television journalist since 1982, she anchored TG1’s top-rated 8 p.m. news at the time of her resignation. She has also been a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., and in 2002 wrote a best-selling book on her experiences covering the war in Iraq, “I miei giorni a Baghdad” (My Days in Baghdad), published by Rizzoli. Fluent in German, French and English, she answered questions from Christopher P. Winner via email. These are excerpts from their exchange, conducted before the June 13, 2004 elections. She has since served in EU Parliament in Brussels. She returned to television in October 2009 with the Italian network La7.
How deep is the political bias at RAI?
Political interference in RAI is not new. I know it and I have never been naïve or silent about it. But the passage of time does not make right that which is wrong. It makes it worse. We have reached with Berlusconi a level where what has been so far considered as a bearable ailment has taken the dimension of a life-threatening disease.
There is no other democratic country where one man can control six television channels, plus various radios, newspapers and magazines and at the same time be prime minister.
There is no democratic country where the same man controls directly or indirectly (RAI and Mediaset together) over 90 percent of the advertising revenues of the television sector. We are not talking here about old fashioned political mingling with the press business; we are talking about monopolistic control of electronic media by one man who represents one political side and reduces access to public television to his political enemies.
But American media, Fox News, say, is often propaganda-driven.
I would certainly not compare the situation in Italy and the situation in America. Bush does not own Fox, CNN, or any other TV networks.-His influence over the airwaves is as a president at war, not as a major shareholder. There is no doubt that since 9/11 the networks have been extremely discreet in their criticisms of the president. But it is not because the president has a direct control over the networks, it is because the networks recognized how sensitive the issues of war and terrorism can be with the American public. They have played into the mainstream notion of patriotism that makes dissent almost impossible and prevented them from taking a more critical or objective approach to those problems.
Some critics label the European Parliament a joke, saying it has neither political potency nor reach. How, then, do you imagine your eventual role?
Those who say that it is a joke show a dangerous disregard for the democratic principle of direct elections. They also demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of European history.
I will remind them that 60 years ago next month, hundreds of thousands of American, British, Canadian and French soldiers moved into the killing fields of the beaches of Normandy to free Europe from totalitarian rule. I would also remind them that 10 new countries recently entered the EU and will have representatives in the Parliament.
For some of those countries this meant coming back home after more than 50 years in the “cold.” For them it meant that the great divide of Europe, the Berlin Wall, has been finally destroyed, that the Cold War has finally ended.
To their citizens, considering the European Parliament as a joke is a grave insult that I will certainly not condone. I believe that I can play a role in this democratic forum to defend the values of a unified Europe.
Do you see political change on the horizon in Italy?
The majority of Italians seems to be fed up with Berlusconi. Recent polls suggest they feel misled by his promises of almost three years ago. More than 1,000 days in power in Italy is certainly a record. But 1,000 days of political standstill is also a record. One thousand days of political make-believe is also a record. Unfulfilled promises don’t take you very far in politics. Even in Italy.
The Italian people are fed up with his lack of understanding of their daily problems. His disregard and disrespect for the intelligence of the common people is blatant. The people resent his arrogance that comes from a misguided use of wealth and power.
So the question of his political demise has become rhetorical: Berlusconi is about to be defeated by … Berlusconi.
But it does not mean that the left in Italy is ready to take on the challenge of fixing the damage of years of mismanagement.
Should Italy withdraw from Iraq? And what about the American role?
Let’s be clear about Iraq. Italy had no reason to go there in the first place. The “peace mission” has never materialized and the occupation remains an occupation by every possible legal and political definition. UN Resolution 1483 is perfectly clear about that and even [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld has admitted that we are in the situation of occupation. Those who say otherwise are straight-face liars.
Now that we are there, thanks to Berlusconi, we have to find a way out. The only way out is to go back to international law: If an Iraqi government, fully sovereign, asks us to remain in Iraq to conduct a specific mission, then, and only then, will we have all the reasons to stay. If that request does not come forward or if there is no fully sovereign Iraqi government, we have to leave.
The time frame is extremely clear: it is June 30. If after this date the Iraqi government is not fully sovereign, no authority can guarantee the legal and political conditions for the Italian mission in Iraq — not even the current UN Resolution 1511, which does not authorize waging war in Iraq but asks the multinational force to assist the UN and the Iraqis in rebuilding the country, not destroying it.
When it comes to the US, it is a completely different set of circumstances: The Bush administration has come to Iraq to reshape the Middle East, bring peace, democracy, stability, and prosperity to the peoples of the region. So far this experience is going nowhere in terms of a positive outcome for the Middle East. But Washington can pretend that this is necessary to turn over the table, to reshuffle the deck of cards, to prepare the ground for a new beginning … Washington can argue that time will show that Bush was right, that going to war in Iraq, occupying the country was a necessary evil … I am very skeptical. History, even recent history, shows that imperial ambition of that nature always fails, but it might take some time for that truth to take hold.
Does John Kerry stand a chance against Bush in November?
It is a decision for the Americans to make. I believe that whoever is at the White House is a legitimate speaker. It is up to the Europeans to get organized and to become a legitimate interlocutor for the White House. I don’t believe that the Americans want less to do with Europe. They will deal with whatever European reality we are capable of shaping. If it is a strong one, they will have to take notice. If it is weak they will ignore us and create whatever mess they feel like creating.