UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD REUTERS INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF JOURNALISM REUTERS MEMORIAL LECTURE 2009

“Newspapers and Democracy in the Internet Era. The Italian Case” By Carlo De Benedetti Chairman Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso Oxford, 23rd November 2009 – St Anne’s College If everything is changing around us in the world of information, does it also mean that the relationship between citizen and democracy is changing in any way? This is the fundamental question facing us in the years which have seen an unbelievable multiplication of centres of information, a decline in printed news, the unstoppable advance of the internet, and public opinion fragmented over the various websites, influenced by blogs and grouped into the new social network communities. Everything is changing, except one point which remains the same: information is a right of all citizens, information is a function of democracy. According to some scholars – and I cite Robert Dahl to represent all of them – to have a good democracy, citizenship is not sufficient because it is more useful to have an “illuminated citizenship”, made up of subjects who are informed and thus are aware, or rather are aware precisely because they are informed. We are all equal as citizens, that much is obvious and thank goodness this is the case. But only citizens who have the information needed to understand certain phenomena can really give life to that delicate element, indispensable for western democracies, which goes under the name of public opinion. If citizens are not aware, we are not talking about public opinion but about common sense, which is something completely different from the point of view of the physiology of a democratic society, and also from the point of view of the relationship between citizens and power. In the last twenty years the growth in information has been explosive in terms of quantity, and this is in itself a value, because it is accompanied by a greater ease of access, a multiplication of sources, and a concrete realization of pluralism. But if the quantity of information is important, the quality is also fundamental, indeed a particular type of quality, which helps people to distinguish, understand and form a judgement: i.e. organized information, which means information inserted in a broad scale of references which not only give visibility to the protagonists but also to the interests which influence them, relating these interests to the general interest, going back to precedents and making projections about consequences, taking ultimate responsibility for a comment. In short, giving the reader a summary of the general context in which the fact or event takes place.

Reuters Memorial Lecture 2009 by Carlo De Benedetti

Starting from a fact, which flashes naked and unembellished across internet screens – unmatched in terms of speed and immediacy – or across TV screens or radio waves, a newspaper organizes this fact, giving the reader an overview which aids understanding and puts it into context. It thus creates an authentic information system that enables citizen-readers to map out the issue and by reading about it form their own independent and complete final judgement. This passage is the difference between knowing and understanding, between looking and seeing, between being informed and being aware, to the point of ultimately being able to take responsibility for a reasoned personal opinion: which may of course not be the same as the opinion of the newspaper, because the exchange between a newspaper and its readers is not merely a question of passing on views - that is not its function. The exchange is in the quality of the information given to the citizen to foster his independent free understanding of the facts. A newspaper cannot and does not aim to bind readers to its own opinion because it is not a political party: it is much less although in reality it is much more than that – albeit with totally different functions – because the relationship between the newspaper and its readers transforms the whole into a live community where the one influences the other, in the name of what it actually is that is bought and sold on the news-stands, which is to say an identity, a system of ideas which organizes and prioritizes the news of the day, putting it in order. In the name not of a political orientation, which fortunately ended with the century of ideologies: but rather in the name of a way of viewing the world and one’s own country, in the name of a window on life, of a system of values, of that which Piero Gobetti called (in a way that means a lot to us at Repubblica) “a certain idea of Italy”. Bearing in mind that in a democratic society it must be politics that sits at the head of the table, because it is politics that must deal the cards and look after the pack, because only politics can regulate the free-for-all of legitimate interests at play, reconciling it with the general interest. Thus we can understand what a scholar like Neil Postman meant when he said that democracy is “print-related”: because the mind of the citizen-reader who is at the heart of community issues in the western world is print-related. Indeed we could say that the readers of newspapers are the ideal subjects of a democracy, citizens who are aware because they are informed. Going one step further: the citizen reader is probably the homo sapiens of this century, in which at a superficial level we are celebrating the end of newspapers. If this is the relationship between newspapers, citizens and democracy, if this triangle can hold up against the crisis and the triumph of the internet, what sense is there in the old question which gets asked of newspapers: “Who do you support?” It is high time we abandoned this question and moved on to the real question for liberal democracies to ask of a newspaper: “Who are you”? Because it is only if I really know the nature, the soul and the culture of a newspaper, its editorial history, the transparent identity of its ownership, only then can I understand what its “idea of the country and of the world” is. Only then can I finally understand why the paper takes certain positions, and is for or against these or those people. Not as part of an abstract ideological design but because the way it is leads it to support a measure, to pass judgement on another one and to conduct a political and cultural battle.

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Because in this confusing phase of globalization, loss of identity, and crisis, newspapers have discovered that they have an amazing role as cultural mediators because they are so close to daily life, so flexible in adapting to facts as they follow them, because of the almost technical connection that they can create between events and ideas, for the intellectual energy that they can summon up, for their crucial translation of scientific or academic language of the experts for consumption by the general public. Mediation even in the literal sense of the term: because the internet in the richness of its blogs and the ranking by number of clicks inevitably rewards polarization and the most radical and extreme positions, while newspapers select, summarize, prioritize, make choices – and in so doing introduce elements of rationality and rationalization and take democratic responsibility. In Italy, where the political party crisis means that all of the parties are new and have no cultural or historical background, the newspapers have been processing events for readers, interweaving them with opinion and values as a point of reference, reinterpreting the controversial everyday issues of post-modernity in an ethical, cultural and political key. One could say that by doing this in the tiny space they have at their disposal, the papers work on the cultural foundations of a community, trying to give the reader, disorientated by the lack of sound and permanent points of reference, those elements of experience and intellectual cohesion which make it possible to view events in a way that is not purely one-off and emotional. A particularly useful function at a time when, as Zygmunt Bauman says, “nothing lasts long enough to be fully acquired”. If all this is true we can understand why the conflict between newspapers and power still exists even in the internet era, as their relationship remains perforce a difficult one. Indeed if this is the democratic function of newspapers, apart from their obligation to give the news, those in power (of whatever political view) are bound to find it a nuisance, an inconvenient filter between what governments call the people and what the papers consider as citizens, and the sphere of government. The Italian situation is even more complex, even starting with structural data. For years now, the ratio of newspaper copies sold to population has not exceeded 10%, which is a Mediterranean ratio, nowhere near the 28.9 copies per one hundred inhabitants sold in Germany, the 30.3 in Austria and the 41.2 in Sweden. This phenomenon can be partly explained by the space that television occupies. Italy is a country in which television devours a proportion of the whole advertising pie which is unequalled in any other democracy. According to World Press Trend 2003 the share held by television in the US is no higher than 36 per cent, in Germany it is just over 33 per cent, while in Italy in 2007 it reached 54 per cent, forcing the newspapers to raise their prices in order to survive, and making it virtually impossible for the weaker sectors of the population, the hardest hit by the economic crisis, to buy them. In the very special media diet of the Italians – studied by Censis in 2004 - 9.1 per cent of the population only watch television, 37.5 per cent never read a book and do not even know what the internet is. This is what Censis defines as a condition of “television isolation”, an isolation common to 46.6 per cent of the population who have exposure to a single media instrument on which they depend for all items of information and opinions on public affairs.

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The other structural fact is that of control over this television system which has such influence on public opinion. Italy is in fact the only democratic country in the world where a single individual – who is also at the head of the largest political party, leader of the parliamentary majority and head of the legitimate government – to all extents and purposes dominates the national television universe, with control through ownership of three private channels and political control of the publicly owned channels. This means that his control is of what we could define as the modern agorà or meeting place where public issues originate and take shape, an extremely delicate area where the market of consent is formed and where public opinion, that essential subject of a western democracy, is formed. This imbalance, which is evident to any observer, has an effect particularly on the underlying cultural background of television channels, now uniform in terms of language with identical ways of viewing things, and on the television news. In this environment the task of newspapers – with their range of opinions – is even more significant. Even though in this same environment it is easy for a paper to become “heretical” vis-à-vis the mainstream precisely because it operates outside the common knowledge given by the television news. At this point is it better to kowtow to the mainstream or to accept the branding of heresy? The question is purely rhetorical: but the answer is awkward. Because isolation, like solitude, is not a condition of freedom. Everybody knows the 10 questions that Repubblica, the main newspaper of the publishing Group of which I am chairman, had since May been asking the Prime Minister every day for five months to answer (at last getting an answer albeit in an indirect and oblique form) regarding the scandals which in the summer attracted the attention of newspapers the world over. These questions arose when the paper believed that it had found clear contradictions in the Premier’s statements, or between his statements and those of other people involved. Repubblica officially asked the head of the Government for an interview, to ask him the ten questions and clear up the contradictions. It agreed with the undersecretary on a term of four days to obtain an answer. After four days and no answers, it went ahead and published the questions. It is the view of this newspaper, a view that has been expressed on many occasions, that where there are contradictions in power, there is a natural space where journalism must carry out an investigation. I don’t wish to speak here about issues concerning the Premier, I want to talk about the relationship between the press and those in power that arises from these issues. The Prime Minister has in fact attacked the papers that have dealt with his scandal, especially during an official meeting of young entrepreneurs at Santa Margherita Ligure where he asked companies not to advertise in papers which he defined as “doom and gloom merchants”, explaining later that he was referring specifically to Repubblica. This is the first time, as has been noted, that a western political leader has tried to put economic pressure on a paper which has been criticizing him with a view to weakening it, thus interfering with the free market. That same political leader then publicly invited the business people to boycott Repubblica (“you must rebel against Repubblica”, were his actual words), and described two journalists of the paper who asked him a question as “criminals”. He also told the correspondent of the Spanish paper Pais in Italy that he hoped his paper would go bankrupt, because he had asked him about the scandal. He has also advised Italians not to read the papers, explaining that there is good information

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only on television, while that of the newspapers is bad information. Lastly, the Premier has taken legal action against Repubblica’s ten questions, requesting damages of one million euro: this is another first, never had it happened before - a Prime Minister taking legal action against questions that he wants the judge to cancel and get rid of. At this point the question of the truth and of accountability underpinning this issue, which has been round the world, has also become a question of freedom. The Prime Minister in attacking Repubblica is attacking the whole of the press of the western world, accusing it of being part of a subversive plot to overturn his government, as if there were some kind of information international. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is still possible in Europe to carry out ongoing investigative journalism on those in power or not. And under what conditions it is possible to do such work. I would like to quote an opinion expressed by the young writer Roberto Saviano: “freedom of the press also means the freedom not to have your life destroyed, not to be attacked on a personal level, not to live under constant threat, having against you not a different opinion but a campaign that aims to totally discredit anyone who expresses it”. Clearly, political leaders the world over have the right to defend themselves from those who attack them and even from those who criticize them. In a democracy, these leaders defend themselves using the exceptional arms of their political influence - backed up by the popular consent that elected them – and their role in the media. Never before has it happened in the western world that a Prime Minister has used television channels and newspapers under his control or ownership to attack on a personal level – not at the level of ideas or opinions, as Saviano notes - anyone who criticizes him or expresses opinions that are out of line. In Italy this is what has been happening in the last few months and the editor of the bishops’ newspaper knows something about it because after he had criticized those in power an anonymous statement was published accusing him in police-style language of homosexuality. He was forced to resign from his position. The question of freedom of the press, in a democracy in the heart of Europe in 2009, must therefore be reformulated in these terms: can intimidation, attacks, court action and insults condition the free exercise of journalistic criticism, or even merely the investigation and enquiry work? Can they be allowed to interfere with the serenity of a journalist’s work, with his or her freedom of expression? Is there anyone who, on switching on their computer to write a critical article about those in power, first thinks about themselves, their personal life, any possible weaknesses they may have, any fears and then thinks it’s better to keep well away, avoid problems, better not to bother? Does all this reflect or not on the right of the citizen to be freely informed, i.e. on his or her right to know about things, meaning to be able to take part in the normal physiological confrontation between press and those in power, in total freedom and independence on both sides? There is also another question: do these methods of avoidance and intimidation in a democracy actually help those in power? On November 5, after six months of attacks and allegations, the Italian Premier finally had to answer the ten questions posed by Repubblica This decision shows that the questions were legitimate, that it was journalistically correct to ask them, reiterate them

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and demand an answer. The delay with which the answer arrived was definitely politically significant. Equally significant was the method chosen for the answers: rejecting a direct confrontation with Repubblica or a dialogue with public opinion, opting instead for a journalist friend and his book, published by the publishing house owned directly by the head of the Government. A controlled and protected political operation. Repubblica acknowledged the decision to respond and the embarrassed and generic way in which the Premier responded: showing an awareness of the limit, which is the true answer and it leaves the question of the truth intact and the journalistic investigation of those in power still open. As this matter shows, we have here a cultural and political question that is still unresolved, a question that concerns all our democracies, which are tending more and more towards leaderism and a direct relationship between the leader and the people. In the modern populist culture, which is advancing in the West, the leader elected by the people, precisely because of this special sacred “anointment”, considers him or herself above all other powers, rejecting the idea of any balance of power, of any check – whether by the press or by any other institution – because he or she does not recognize their legitimacy. However when the constitutional order is that of classic western parliamentary democracies, the conduct of leaders who follow populist culture often leads to clashes, conflicts and abuses of power, which free journalism must of course capture, highlight and denounce when it is convinced that it exists. In Italy in the last few days the papers have a new case in front of them: the Prime Minister is designing a law which, by reducing the time required for trials, will cancel two of his own trials currently in progress in Milan, using a format which is a western anomaly that we could define as follows: the executive using the legislative to stop the judicial. Naturally the culture of the press as a free agent, not subordinate to anyone, representing public opinion comes into conflict in all countries with those in power and even more so with the culture of populist leadership, which is superordinate and above all control. Indeed any criticism made by a newspaper in any country my be presented and stigmatized as an act against the sovereignty of the people, against the vote which in electing a leader admits no objection, against the union in one mystical body of the Leader and his people, an entity in comparison with which the concept of citizen becomes weaker day by day. This is cultural conditioning exerted against the press: anyone who criticizes the leader is criticizing the popular vote, therefore criticizing a power which is not only legitimate but is intangible, thus anyone who does so is automatically a subverter. One step further and it is easy to accuse someone of being unpatriotic. Because the leader and his people are united in a kind of sacred charismatic rite which consecrates power in the interest, in the destiny even, of the nation, anyone who criticises this union, weakens it or threatens it is acting against the interest of the country, is doing something anti-national, unpatriotic. This is another of the threats – as I have said, of a cultural nature in this case – to the freedom of the press, to its full autonomy of action and its freedom to be critical. It is obvious that anyone who criticizes the legitimate power – for something that they consider to be a mistake, an error, an abuse – loves their country at least as much as those actually holding power: they love their country through democracy, the constitution, respect for the institutions, public rules of rights and obligations which are valid and must be valid for everyone, those in government and citizens. Indeed, in the part of the world that we live in –

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Europe, land of democracy of rights and democracy of institutions – there is no other way of loving one’s country. What is more, we all serve our country when we do our duty freely and conscientiously, carrying out our role in life. And democracy includes those many cases where in carrying out their functions freely, press and power come into sharp contrast which often becomes conflict. When this confrontation-clash is considered to be a part (albeit inconvenient, that is obvious) of the physiology of the system, freedom benefits and the right of citizens to learn and know is enhanced and grows. When this conflict is considered illegitimate or, even worse, subversive and therefore criminal, the right of citizens to learn and know is conditioned, impoverished and the quality of democracy pays the price. Many citizens (this is the case of Repubblica and also of the Chicago Tribune) have gone back to reading the papers regularly now that their papers are investigating those in power on a daily basis: because they want to know about and understand what is going on. So the reason for the survival of the printed paper lies at least partly in the following factors – its independence of those in power, its rational exercise of criticism, based on a consistent journalistic tradition, and on a certain idea of the country, as we said before. In the flow and immediacy of information, in speed, in the massive capacity of the internet to deliver undifferentiated news feed, the battle of the newspaper is lost, against a competitor that has managed to change history (because on the web everything happens at the same time) and geography (because on the web everything is everywhere). Only newspapers are not just flows of news. Newspapers are immersed in the flow and as they let it go by they keep those pieces of news which they can use to build a cathedral each day, which has the task of resembling the day we have passed, the phase in which we are living. In so doing, the newspaper does the opposite of what the great internet river does, it selects, prioritizes, discards and chooses, keeping the items of news that carry meaning, that can have significance. In this search for the sense of things, newspapers re-read the day, broaden the scope of meaning of the news items that readers have seen cross their computer or television screen, penetrate the interests that they contain, trace a context in which they can exist in relation to other facts, and lastly express an opinion. In combination with the internet, which amplifies brands and multiplies their audience, the continuous cycle newspaper takes shape, with the news feed running right through the day on the web, and in the morning becoming a newspaper, handing readers the best of what they have seen running across their screens, lifting it out of a horizontal dimension into a vertical plane, where concepts meet, where facts lead to ideas, where information becomes knowledge, citizenship, responsibility. All of which is always useful in a democracy where it is necessary to understand phenomena in order to take a real part in public discourse. But, as Bauman explains, it is essential in this phase, when citizens no longer believe in the effectiveness of lasting public actions and it is the moment of a modern “idolatry”: with “notoriety replacing fame”, celebrity taking the place of esteem, politics transformed into events which change citizens into an audience, into delegating spectators, who with the strength of their numbers and their applause give charisma to their leaders, who have become idols. Quite simply, newspapers are a counter-measure, an antidote, which can carry out a highly modern function. Because citizen-readers, freely informed citizens can develop

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an independent critical capacity of their own: that “immunity to eloquence” that Bertrand Russell talked about, i.e. the capacity to resist the magic of words and their deceptiveness. The good old newspaper is against all false magic precisely because of its dogged and selective sifting through of the facts for the meaning of things: what is worth knowing, what deserves to be remembered, and what still has to be understood.

Public Relations Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso Stefano Mignanego mobile +39 348 320 8281 s.mignanego@gruppoespresso.it www.gruppoespresso.it

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