Media law for a new future?

According to the government the new media law lays the foundations for the future of Italys media. According to the opposition, it is tailor-made for prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and is a brazen attack on the countrys democratic bread and butter.

Whatever your thoughts on the television reform bill, guided through parliament by the minister for communications Maurizio Gasparri, it is now the law of the land. Although there may still be some dramatic plot twists in store, it looks like Italy is stuck with it.

Any changes to a countrys media regulation system especially if they focus on most peoples favourite form of information and entertainment, the telly are bound to trigger passions. But in Italy the question is particularly delicate for a number of reasons.

First there is the problem of Berlusconis conflicting interests. As he owns Italys main private television network, Mediaset, private-individual Berlusconi can gain from measures that prime minister Berlusconi gets his communications minister to introduce. Then there is the fact that Berlusconi controls over 90 per cent of the Italians viewing, thanks to the influence his political position gives him over state broadcaster Rai. Many commentators point out that as Italians are not great newspaper readers this makes Berlusconis hold on the market especially powerful.

Rai has always been a highly-politicised organisation. Toeing the government line is imprinted in the broadcasters DNA. In the past though, peculiarly Italian ways were found to balance things out. Before the bribery scandals (Tangentopoli) of the early 1990s swept away the countrys old political establishment, Rai 1s output was controlled by the ruling Christian Democrats, Rai 2 by the Socialist party, Rai 3 by the Communists.

The system sort of worked, but it wasnt ready for Berlusconis arrival. This was partly because, when the left wing political parties were in government and enjoying the benefits of Rai coverage, they did very little to make the network more independent.

Berlusconi quickly showed after he was elected in 2001 that he would not be shy about swaying Rai his way. Journalist Michele Santoro and veteran political commentator Enzo Biagi were dumped for displaying anti-Berlusconi leanings. The most eye-catching of the numerous cases of alleged government meddling came last July, when the prime minister famously compared a German member of the European parliament to a concentration camp guard. Rai 1s evening news bulletin did not show Berlusconis extraordinary outburst and only paraphrased what he said, presumably to limit the damage.

Top anchorwoman Lilli Gruber left Rai last month complaining about attempts to "make information conform to the one-sided view of a parliamentary majority". Gruber now heads the opposition Olive Tree alliances list of candidates for the forthcoming European elections. The week after Grubers departure, Rai chairwoman Lucia Annunziata, the only left-leaning member of its board, also quit, claiming Berlusconi was attempting to "occupy" the broadcaster by cramming its higher management with his cronies. The government claims both Gruber and Annunziatas resignations were politically motivated and timed to maximise the effect they will have on voters at the European elections.

Given this context, its easy to understand why the Gasparri law had a torrid time getting to the statute books. The chamber of deputies and the senate voted on the proposal 410 times, it went through 90 parliamentary commission sessions and 44 floor sessions. Over 14,000 amendments were motioned during its one-and-half-year journey through the legislature by opposition members of parliament trying to filibuster it to a standstill. In December Italys president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who usually keeps his distance from political scuffles, refused to sign it. Citing his concerns that the law was unconstitutional, he sent it back to parliament for a final review.

Nevertheless, Gasparri got there in the end. After Ciampis refusal to sign, the government made some cosmetic changes to the bill and pushed it through parliament again. Ciampi would have been exceeding his constitutional powers if he had refused to sign legislation passed by parliament a second time.

The legislation is primarily aimed at preparing the changeover from analogue to digital terrestrial television. Under the terms of the law, Mediaset and Rai must reach half of Italys televisions via digital technology this year and be ready to go 100 per cent digital by the end of 2006.

The law also bypasses a constitutional court ruling ordering Berlusconi to remove one of his three television stations, Rete 4, from terrestrial broadcasting. He was ordered to scrap the station or screen it as a satellite channel. The judges, who in the same verdict decided advertising should be taken off Rai 3, hoped the move would loosen the prime ministers grip on the media.

Gasparri justified his decision to sidestep the ruling by claiming it would have had no real impact. The minister argued that, as Berlusconis position is so strong, moving Rete 4 from terrestrial to satellite broadcasting would not greatly alter his share of the overall pie it would just leave Italians with a channel less and cost a few thousand people their jobs.

In fact, the minister claims that it isnt necessary to clip Berlusconis media wings at all, as digital televisions arrival will do that a few years down the line. The logic is that, when all homes are linked to digital television technology, it will be much easier for other firms to set up national channels. New networks will enter the market and the Rai-Mediaset duopoly will get mashed up.

Naturally though, this does nothing to reduce Berlusconis present hold on things. Critics are also sceptical about Gasparris forecasts for the digital revolution. As of 2010 the legislation will also allow cross-media ownership, which is currently outlawed, and as a result broadcasters will be able to take more than 20 per cent of national advertising revenue. In addition, the definition of the advertising market under the new law includes advertising on all media, not just that on television. This means Mediaset will be able to expand its share of Italys advertising income without having to worry about hassle from the anti-trust authorities.

Many feel the measures are tailor-made for Mediaset as it is the only company with enough financial resources to buy into print media and expand into digital TV, while exploiting the new law to increase its advertising revenues.

Finally, the law makes plans for Rais privatisation and sets the future composition of its board of governors. The privatisation is something of a joke. No one will be able to own more than one per cent of the privatised Rai, except for the economics ministry (ie. the government). So political involvement in the network is unlikely to end soon.

Opponents of the measure have not totally given up though. There are plans to appeal to the constitutional court. If that fails the case will probably go to the European court of human rights.

The Gasparri law has arrived, but it isnt home and dry just yet.