Mamma mia, what double standards

It’s a bit rich for British commentators to be outraged over Berlusconi’s ‘gag bill’. He got the idea from us.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Free Speech

It seems that Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi just can’t stop embarrassing himself. If he’s not being caught out paying bribes, courting young women or appointing scantily-dressed TV stars to political posts, he’s comparing himself to Benito Mussolini at international summits.

Now, in the midst of a string of corruption investigations involving the Italian PM and members of his cabinet, and just a year after a call girl made public tape recordings of her pillow talk with him, Berlusconi is pushing a bill which would severely curb the freedom of investigators and journalists to use wiretapping.

The law, which the Italian media have dubbed the ‘gag bill’, unquestionably represents a clampdown on press freedom. It would prevent journalists from revealing the contents of bugged conversations and it stipulates fines and prison terms for anyone making unauthorised film or audio recordings.

The proposed law has met with outrage from journalists and crime investigators in Italy and abroad. Peter Preston, writing in the UK Observer, said it is an assault on press freedom not just in Italy but for the whole of Europe. Benedetta Brevini, writing in the Guardian, called on the European Union to intervene in the name of securing a free and balanced media in Italy.

Italy’s media-mogul-cum-political-buffoon has indeed made himself an easy target for international outrage and ridicule, yet again. He claims the law will protect ordinary citizens from having details of their private lives splashed across the press, but critics regard it as a brazen attempt to prevent details of his dealings from coming to light.

Still, British commentators would do well to examine the state of press freedom here before engaging in too much moral posturing in relation to Italy. This might even provide them with some clues as to where Berlusconi got his ideas from. Indeed, Berlusconi should probably be comparing himself to Tony Blair rather than Mussolini, because it looks like he has taken a leaf out of the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, which was introduced in 2000 ostensibly to crack down on internet crime and paedophilia, but which in fact has seriously assaulted Britons’ freedoms.

The RIP Act is a draconian, authoritarian surveillance law, an attack on privacy and press freedom. It makes it a criminal offence to intercept any communication or to access material stored on a communication system, such as an email account or a voicemail inbox. That is, it forbids anyone except the state from doing these things.

The RIP Act has granted the British state extraordinary powers to snoop on citizens, to intercept our emails and to force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to hand over information about individual web users. At the same time, it prevents journalists and private investigators from scrutinising and publishing information that might be in the public interest.

Journalists accused of breaking the RIP Act have no recourse to public interest defence. That is why the former royal reporter for the News of the World, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, were jailed for four and six months respectively in 2007 for hacking the phone messages of members of the royal family.

In many ways, the RIP Act is even more illiberal than Berlusconi’s bill. Like the RIP Act, the Italian act will gag journalists and hamper crime investigations, but at least it does not stipulate the right of the state to ride roughshod over citizens’ privacy. The RIP Act hampers the investigatory powers of all citizens and is designed to preserve such powers for the state and state-approved bodies alone.

It is ironic that the Guardian should be so outraged at Berlusconi’s actions when only last year it was defending the RIP Act, demanding that the British state use it to prosecute journalists for intercepting private phone calls. Back then, the Guardian published revelations about the News of the World’s alleged hacking of hundreds of celebrities’ mobile phones and campaigned for the Sunday tabloid to be investigated for breaking the law.

Yet now Guardian writers are likening Italy to a dictatorship, demanding that the EU step in to stop Berlusconi’s democratically-elected government from passing this new law. For once, the EU has recognised that it should not meddle in individual countries’ affairs and has said that this is a national matter for Italy.

It is not the EU’s role to stipulate national laws. No, it is up to the Italian people to challenge Berlusconi’s gag bill – and it looks like they are doing so, loud and clear. Various judges, prosecutors, journalists and free speech activists have protested against the law, which was passed through the Italian senate and is due to go before the full upper house of parliament. Prosecutors have said the bill would undermine efforts to combat crime and terrorism and editors across the otherwise polarised Italian media have joined forces to demand that the bill be scrapped.

Of course, any journalist in any country has the right to speak his or her mind on the state of press freedom in Italy or anywhere else for that matter. But while Berlusconi is an easy target for broadsheet outrage, British journalists should take a more critical look at press freedom here at home, rather than, without any sense of irony, getting all snooty about ‘corrupt Italians’.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tessa Mayes argued we can have privacy and a free press. Brendan O’Neill demanded that we rip up the RIP Act. Tim Black asked if Italian judges had broken the internet. Sandy Starr suggested that critics of state snooping stop appealing to the Human Rights Act. Or read more at spiked issues Privacy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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