There is a crack that has opened all of a sudden between Silvio Berlusconi and his voters, between the Italian prime minister's mythological image and reality. It is nothing more than a crack, in a wall of consensus that is very high and very robust. But it is an important crack and one that is growing. It showed up in the European elections last month (the prime minister had announced that he would bag 45% of the vote, he ended up with 35%); it widened with the church having to take a stand against his behaviour. What happens now?
For the first time, the prime minister is on the defensive. He has to operate according to an agenda that is not his and over which he has no control; he is feeling the pressure from the international media; and he is being forced to speak about his troubles every time he appears in public.
First of all, one might reply, the majority of his compatriots know nothing about the scrapes their leader has got himself into in the past few days. In Italy, the television channels have done nothing to cover this affair, despite the fact that it revolves around sex, money and power, all ingredients that would interest their viewers.
You have to remember, of course, that Berlusconi – as well as being the head of the government and the biggest party in the country – controls the entire universe of Italian television. He owns three private TV channels, because he never felt duty-bound to get rid of them on entering politics. And he effectively owns the three public stations over which the party in power, whether left or right, has always exerted control. Just consider the fact that 73%of Italians made up their minds about who to vote for in the last elections through the television, and you have a concrete idea of what conflict of interest means.
The new element that the latest scandal has exposed is that the television monopoly does not only guarantee a favourable presentation of the prime minister, it can actually cancel out reality, prevent things from becoming part of the public consciousness. Last week, the week of the escort tapes, six primetime TV news bulletins did not let their viewers know what others across Europe were able to read about in their papers.
The Italian bulletins eventually included Berlusconi's exasperated reaction to the news, but without ever explaining what that news was, what he was reacting to. "I am not a saint," the prime minister said last Wednesday after the recordings of the night he spent at his home with the escort, Patrizia D'Addario, emerged. This headline finally made it on to TG1 (flagship news programme of the Rai state network) and TG5 (the main news programme of the Mediaset empire owned by Berlusconi) but their viewers had been told nothing about the tapes that prompted it.
In some senses, George Orwell has already said it all: "And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past', ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'" But there is something more subtle going on Italy. Fifteen years ago, the Left lost its cultural hegemony, that is to say the capacity to promote its values through cinema, television, glossy magazines, through the debate in newspapers and academic circles. The Right has become the ringmaster of the new hegemony and it is culture on a different scale.
The country no longer has a public opinion, capable of reacting autonomously or making spontaneous judgements. On the contrary, Italians are immersed in a 'common understanding', which is something else altogether. It is Berlusconi who is the great architect of this 'common understanding' and at the same time the interpreter of its success.
As far as the latest news is concerned, the new hegemony has imprisoned the opposition in a web, using tried and tested defences: the protection of privacy, the belittling of gossip, and a clear distinction between the professional and the personal.
But there is nothing private about a statesman who turned his own family photo album into a manifesto and sent it to 50 million Italians, who recounted his life story as the destiny of the nation. And there is nothing private about his wife Veronica Lario's denunciation that highlighted a general political problem: the trashy exchange of a young woman's favours for a place on the list of electoral candidates. There is, in short, a fundamental problem: Berlusconi has kept Italy in a state of high tension for 15 years. Using emotions is the most effective way of introducing a modern populism. This is a populism that asks citizens to mobilise, not so they can get involved in public debate, but so they can anoint the leader with their vote. He then thinks that this direct coronation by the people makes his power neater and above all others.
In this state of permanent tension, you have the Berlusconian phalanx who are engaged in a perennial defence of their leader. It's a story of a power that is ready to transform every criticism into "campaigning", "manoeuvring", even "plotting" and "subversion". A power which is curiously abusive and uncertain, as if it lacked an absolute legitimacy despite the consensus, a power which might be ready to destroy the temple to save itself from the ruins.
But the smiling superficiality of a power that considered itself invulnerable has been broken. And all the while Berlusconi continues with his lies, faced with a series of questions that he doesn't know how to answer, because he can't.
Silvio: I'm going to take a shower too. And if you finish before me, wait for me on the big bed.
Patrizia: Which bed? Putin's?
Patrizia: Oh, how cute! The one with the curtains.
Patrizia: You know how long it's been since I had sex like I had with you tonight? Several months; since I broke with my boyfriend.
Silvio: May I? You should have sex with yourself. You should touch yourself often.
Silvio: Everything good?
Patrizia: Yes, you?
Silvio: Me, yes. I've worked a lot... and I don't seem too tired.
Patrizia: Ah, me neither... It's just my voice that's gone.
Silvio: How come? We didn't scream.