Italy’s Populists Lost Power—And Now the Press

Much of the Italian press gushed over the far-right leader Matteo Salvini as he rose. Now that he is in opposition, it feels free to be more critical.

Matteo Salvini stares in dismay as Giuseppe Conte speaks at a podium.
Matteo Salvini reacts as Giuseppe Conte addresses Italy's parliament. (Yara Nardi / Reuters)

“Italians,” the great 20th-century Italian writer Ennio Flaiano once remarked, “always rush to the aid of the victor.” But what happens when there’s no clear victor? Or no coherent ideological line between government and opposition? Then where do you run?

Flaiano’s line has come to mind lately as we’ve watched Italy shift its tone and focus to adjust to a new reality: its recent switch from a right-wing government to a leftish one, one with the same anti-establishment party, the Five Star Movement, at its core, and the same prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, at its head.

Much has been made of how Conte has taken the time-honored Italian tradition of trasformismo—switching allegiances depending on how the wind blows—to entirely new dimensions. But it’s been particularly fascinating to observe how the press has changed its tone.

Coverage of Matteo Salvini has been instructive: The leader of the right-wing, nativist League party was riding high in the polls—and in the media—until he brought down the government last month in a bid for early elections, and failed, at least for now, after his rivals teamed up to block him. In the 15 months in which Salvini was interior minister, he had taken up all the media oxygen in the country with his constant campaigning, his Donald-Trump-inspired calls for “Italians First,” and his more-than-harsh stance on immigration—blocking ports so ships that had rescued migrants at sea couldn’t dock, and passing new security measures that further criminalized boats that rescued migrants. (The new government may roll back elements of the legislation.)

All Italian governments generally help dictate the line of the state-run news broadcaster, the RAI, and through the latest government, Italian television news was led by stories of immigrants, often people of color, who had committed crimes. This also seeped into newspaper coverage, which has less of an impact in shaping public opinion but has always been a barometer of power dynamics and business interests. This is not new: During the nearly two decades that Silvio Berlusconi dominated Italy in three stints as prime minister, he too set the agenda of much of the RAI.

Yet it was the Italian press and, perhaps more importantly, his private television channels which were key in cultivating the viewership that then became his electorate. Berlusconi’s channels were also crucial to helping Salvini.

When it seemed Salvini was on the way up, when he seemed to stand a chance of coming to power, powerful commentators were cautious with him, and respectful. Two days before elections for the European Parliament in May, a friendly host on a Berlusconi-owned channel interviewed Salvini, gushing that he looked very healthy and suntanned, effectively letting him give a campaign speech, and didn’t ask him any hard questions. As they were wrapping up, he handed her a rosary—part of a campaign strategy to win over devout Catholic voters.

After Salvini’s party placed first in those elections, with 34 percent of the vote, Maurizio Costanzo, one of Italy’s most famous television hosts, also on a Berlusconi channel, had Salvini on his show, and let him talk about how he’d gained weight on the campaign trail. Costanzo’s has never been a confrontational show, but still, he didn’t call Salvini out on any of his statements about how the European Union was subjugating Italy or how Europe ran the risk of being “replaced” by immigrants.

Italians have a pretty astute sense of how to interpret the media—or they did when it was clear who was in Berlusconi’s camp and who wasn’t. Things are more complicated today with the populists, who see themselves as part of a post-ideological landscape in which they have no use for the mainstream press. They prefer to use social media to communicate with the people directly, so the only way to get access as a “mainstream” journalist is to basically embed within the parties and drink the Kool-Aid, or as much of it as you can bear. Which isn’t great for democracy.

It’s not surprising that perhaps the most significant piece of reporting to emerge during Salvini’s tenure didn’t appear in an Italian publication. BuzzFeed News published a scoop with audio recordings of a secret meeting last fall in Moscow between associates of Salvini, discussing an energy deal that allegedly would have funneled money to the League, in violation of Italian campaign-finance laws. The deal didn’t happen, but Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation. (Italy’s Espresso, a center-left weekly magazine, broke the story in February, but BuzzFeed had the audio.)

Yet the following day, a prominent columnist in Italy’s leading daily, Corriere della Sera, wrote of how the League leaders “understandably” wanted to sue BuzzFeed for defamation. And he hinted, as other commentators have done, that the scoop might have had the fingerprints of intelligence agencies from other European countries. While Salvini was ascending, another columnist at Corriere often referred to him as “Il Capitano,” or “the captain,” the same term of endearment used by his fans. Once Salvini had fallen, or committed “political suicide,” as one columnist put it, the paper’s tone shifted and it was more openly critical of Salvini.

Corriere is the same paper that in 2009 buried the first inklings of a Berlusconi sex scandal deep inside, far off the front pages, and didn’t write anything decisively critical of Berlusconi until it was clear that he was definitely out of power. Only the center-left La Repubblica was openly critical of his government. But the debate was seen as tribal and partisan, less about the common good. That mentality persists today. Whose side are you on? Which winner will you run to? The battle lines are harder to discern, and so everyone, including the press, is running in circles.