Time to turn off the TV: Why Italians should once and for all break up the ties between television and politics

By Andrea Masini

The word “clowns” has been used by influential analysts (such as “The Economist” and Peer Steinbrueck, Chancellor candidate in Germany) to describe Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo, the real winners of the Italian general elections of 24th and 25th February.  As a matter of fact, both political leaders share outstanding entertainment skills, combined with a certain lack of institutional stature. As usual, Mr Berlusconi, whose right-of-centre coalition surprisingly obtained around 29,5% of the vote, has been conducting a flamboyant election campaign. He has been fighting on TV against journalists and has sent a letter to 9 million families, promising to refund an unpopular property tax introduced by the last government. On the other hand, Beppe Grillo, whose “5 Stars Movement” has gained almost 25% of the vote, has been travelling all over Italy in a so-called “Tsunami Tour”, drawing huge crowds. Grillo´s rallies were one-man shows, with the leader performing at the centre of a stage.

“Clown” might indeed be the right word to define the two politicians. However, it is far more useful to focus on the reasons why two “clowns” are actually taken seriously by the electors, and are eventually able to gain such impressive results in democratic elections. I argue that the main reasons why this happened lies in the deep connections between politics and television. The latter has been playing a key role in altering the good functioning of the Italian democratic sphere, eventually allowing two entertainers to run for office. It should not happen anymore.

A special relationship with TV

First of all, both Berlusconi and Grillo owe their popularity to television. A lot has been written on the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who has built his career as entrepreneur within the TV industry, creating a private broadcaster model based on entertainment and financed by commercials. That’s exactly the same context in which Mr Grillo became popular in Italy. In fact, during the 80s, he was taking part as a comedian in a number of successful TV shows, and was the face of a well-known brand of yoghurt.

Concerning this point, one might argue that the success of Grillo’s “5 Stars Movement” has been mainly based on the Internet, and doesn’t have anything to do with television. The candidates have been chosen through the Web, and Beppe Grillo is using a Weblog to communicate with his followers. Actually, this is just the outward appearance of the movement’s dynamics. As noted by Evgeny Morozov (author of “The Net Delusion”), Grillo has been clever in using the “rhetoric of the Web”, conveying the idea that the rise of the “5 Stars Movement” was an Internet-driven, popular revolution. De facto, the political patterns used by Grillo still belong to traditional politics. Firstly, the turnout of the primaries held by the “5 Stars Movement” on the Internet has been rather low (around 20,000 voters out of 230,000 registered members). Secondly, although he mainly communicates through a Weblog, Beppe Grillo still uses a vertical downwards model of communication with his followers, which does not leave great space for interaction.

On top of that, Grillo’s supporters argue that there is a substantial difference between the election campaign of Silvio Berlusconi and the one conducted by their leader. In fact, while Berlusconi has literally invaded the television arena, participating to almost a TV program per day, Mr Grillo has refused to show up on that medium. Nevertheless, I argue that he has made an indirect use of television. Continuously launching attacks against it, Beppe Grillo has put the TV system at the centre of his political discourse. Also, with his absence from the TV screens, he has performed a sort of “empty chair politics”, forcing the television news channels to focus the attention on him and his movement.

The influence of TV on the electoral choice

Furthermore, in the last twenty years television has been playing a key role in influencing the dynamics of electoral choice in Italy. The nature of politics has ultimately been distorted by the TV: it has become a show, with information and opinions losing out to exteriority, sensationalism and infotainment. In other words, the primacy of the television format has relegated the complexity of the political reasoning to a secondary role.  According to the political scientist Giovanni Sartori, the development of TV, especially in Italy, has been the underlying reason of the involution of the human kind from homo sapiens to homo videns (literally: man who watches), whose political judgment is based on the candidates’ stage performance.
In this sense, it is not surprising that the candidates who perform better on TV are the ones who have run a more successful campaign. Berlusconi and Grillo have mastered the communication modes typical of television, and can therefore communicate better to the electors, who are more prone to receive a message shaped for TV.

 Please, turn off the TV

To sum it up, the main reasons why two “clowns” have been able to gain political consensus during the last general election in Italy lie within the broad spectrum of the ties between television and the political sphere. Firstly, both Berlusconi and Grillo belong to the world of TV, and know therefore very well how to communicate on TV. Secondly, because of the influence of television on people’s judgment of an election campaign , electors are more likely to vote for “clowns”, who can run a  campaign as if it were a TV show.

Ultimately, if he wins the elections, the clown has to rule the country. Unlike campaigning, this involves more than entertainer skills. When people realise he is unfit to do that, they won’t like the show anymore. Perhaps, in the next elections, they might consider turning off the TV and choosing a more competent candidate.