The future of the Italian press
The future of the Italian press
«Foreign affairs», aprile 1945, pp. 505-509
«Nuova antologia», luglio 1945, pp. 207-216
Italy lost her last remnants of liberty when the freedom of the press was abolished in January 1925 and all Italian newspapers became, despite their different titles, nothing but Official Gazettes or Master’s Voices. A proper solution of the problem how to restore that lost freedom is essential to the restoration of truly democratic government in Italy.
Until Italy is completely liberated from the Germans and neo-Fascists, and so long as newsprint continues to be extremely scarce, some regulation of the number and size of newspapers is obviously unavoidable. The responsible occupying authorities limited the number of papers to one for each political party. This makeshift, however, cannot be prolonged if the aim is to revive truly free political life in Italy.
Italy has never had anything to compare with the weeklies of Anglo-Saxon countries, and past experience does not encourage us to rely on the weekly press for the political education of the people. Dailies will continue to be almost the only channel through which electors can be led to form a strong democratic government truly representative of the will of the people. Today nobody knows what this will is; probably, indeed, no such thing as a popular will exists. Hopes, fears, shibboleths, slogans, rumors sway the country. Without a truly free press, representing all shades of opinion, the general elections to be held eventually will be much more like a Napoleonic, Mussolinian or Hitlerian plebiscite than a reasoned selection of the best men to be put at the helm of the state.
The party press: its merits and limitations
The new dailies – whether published legally in Naples or Rome, or illegally in Milan or Turin, and including the local papers in the smaller cities – are organs of the different political parties. In this respect the old newspapers like «Avanti!» which were suppressed in Italy during the Fascist regime may be classified as new also; for they are party organs too. To the extent that the mouthpieces of the parties – Liberal, Conservative, Christian-Democratic, Action, Socialist, Communist – openly declare their affiliations their standing is perfectly honorable. Indeed, they form a strong and necessary pillar of any proper political structure. It is all-important that people who for 21 years were kept in absolute darkness about the differences of political parties should be able to consider programs and hear contrasting views as to how best to achieve the country’s economic, social and moral reconstruction.
In addition, there will, of course, be dailies which are organs of various economic and social organizations. Trade unions, for instance, will publish their daily newspapers. Well and good, provided they admit that they are published to represent the ideas and interests of such-and-such a group. But the party papers and those devoted to representing special economic or social interests do not together form the press which is needed most urgently in Italy. The party press and the group press are not an independent press. They are the loyal and useful organs of their respective parties and groups, cogs in the party or group machinery. Not the editor is master, but the party caucus, the organization meeting. Only conformist opinions will have any chance of reaching the eye of the public. An outsider, the independent critic, the man in the street, will find it as difficult to catch the public eye as it is difficult for a back-bencher in the House of Commons to catch the eye of the Speaker. If all dailies are bound to be the organs of a political party or of a social or economic group, it will be necessary to organize a new party or a new trade union before undertaking to publish a new daily, thus increasing the fearful profusion and confusion of parties already existing in liberated Italy. Too many parties are perhaps an unavoidable reaction to the one-party Fascist system; but the reaction threatens to go so far as to make any strong government impossible.
There lurks a danger in the party press. It is highly improbable that party programs will establish general political and social aims corresponding to what the people at large would spontaneously desire. In countries such as Great Britain or the United States, where political discussion has never been interrupted, the attention of the public is focussed on specific problems. Full employment, education, housing policy, reclaiming of arid or waste lands, flood control and the development of waterways offer American examples. They are usually concrete problems, more or less capable of solution in practical terms. The political class in Britain or America is an established group; it changes slowly and its leaders are well known. New men emerge from time to time; but their appearance does not revolutionize what happens in the political arena.
In Italy things are very different. On July 25, 1943, the Fascist world disappeared at a stroke. New men emerged whose names were as unknown as those of the old guard who had survived in exile. The best of them have spent years in Fascist prisons or camps. Born and educated in a climate of revolt and conspiracy, they think in terms of revolutionary change, of the inevitability of great social upheavals. Many of the younger men are pure intellectuals, with no background of solid economic and social training.
The so-called corporative theories which were taught during the Fascist regime were an ill-digested abracadabra of slogans, which changed rapidly according to the whim of the dictator. In their place, the generation 20 to 40 years of age is now eagerly absorbing other ill-digested propaganda, mostly abridgements of Marxism or Leninism.
In this climate, where old men, half forgotten, are reappearing, and where new young men are emerging and striving to form a new political class, radical solutions are apt to feature all party programs and their slogans in the daily press. Apart from how to liquidate the remnants of Fascism, the problems most discussed in Italy today are: republic or monarchy, the socialization of banks and great industries, distribution of the land, workers’ councils in the factories, profit-sharing, the introduction of the Russian kolhoz system on the land, etc. Nobody knows if the Italian people want these or other things, because none of them is discussed on its merits. All are accepted, more or less, by the parties because they think that something big must be done to satisfy the masses, which are suffering the consequences of 20 years of Fascist rule and the present war. With parties which court the electoral favor of the masses, and a daily press whose editors will not dare to do battle against slogans apt to catch votes for their masters, who will undertake the urgent task of forming a reasoned public opinion? Only a daily press whose editors have a strong background of ideals of political and social freedom, but who at the same time are independent of parties.
The independent press before fascism
Before 1922, and even until January 4, 1925, Italy had a great independent press. Its origin was very much like that of the great press in England, where the «Times« had at its start a Walter, the «Manchester Guardian» a Scott, the «Economist» a Wilson. A few cases may be mentioned. A strong journalist, Botero, created the «Gazzetta del Popolo» in 1848 in Turin, when that city was the moral capital of divided and Austrian-ruled Italy; and the newspaper remained the property of Signor Botero and of his associate and follower, Signor Cerri, and their descendants, until the advent of Fascism. In Turin, also, an even older daily with a small circulation, called until 1896 the «Gazzetta Piemontese», was renamed the «Stampa» by a young man, then a lecturer at the University, Signor Frassati, who worked hard and gained for it second place among Italian newspapers: its circulation in time reached 500,000 copies. He remained the exclusive proprietor until 1925. First place surely was held by the «Corriere della Sera» of Milan, created in 1876 by a great journalist, Signor Torelli Viollier, with the aid of a small group of devoted friends. At his death, the editor’s chair was given to his former secretary, Signor Luigi Albertini, a young man who began his career as an economist with a book on the eight-hour day. Under his editorship, the «Corriere della Sera» reached a circulation of over a million copies.
These dailies, and many others, had the following characteristics:
- They were independent of financial or economic big interests. In some cases, like that of the «Corriere della Sera», industrialists were among the proprietors; but the editor of that paper, first Signor Torelli Viollier and then Signor Albertini, was its sole manager, with unlimited liability and responsibility, and his associates had only control over the yearly balance-sheet. The «Gazzetta del Popolo» and the «Stampa» were exclusively family concerns.
- The editors were persuaded that honesty was the best rule and that the only road to financial prosperity was to rely exclusively on the daily nickel, the yearly subscriptions of regular readers, and advertisements. Once a newspaper accepted subventions from private interests it was doomed. Whereas the independent dailies achieved circulations of half a million or a million copies, those which were subsidized by financial or other interests sank to ten or twenty thousand copies and registered losses instead of profits for their proprietors. Advertisers had no influence whatever on the political or economic policies of the independent newspapers. It has often been alleged that almost all the big French newspapers sold their pages to various banking or economic interests and even to foreign governments: but no such reproach could be made to the great Italian press. Its moral standards were of the highest, and it made money, in some cases a great deal of money. Honesty did pay. The capitalized value of one of the above-mentioned newspapers, in which only $50 had originally been invested, was valued at one time at over $4,000,000.
- The newspapers were ruled by an autocrat called the editor. No party caucus or political friend had any power to influence his policy. A few editors, such as Signori Frassati, Albertini and Bergamini, after they had achieved supremacy in the journalistic world, were made senators, but they were not truly political men. The politicians in general hated them because there was no way of obtaining anything from them, their aim being the successful performance of a public duty. They had, indeed, political tendencies; but they remained above all critical. Their task was to report, as fully and as impartially as possible, facts and opinions. They tried hard to guide and form the opinions of their readers. In a country where protectionism prevailed in the programs of practically all parties, the economic pages of the «Corriere della Sera» and of the «Stampa» were entrusted by the editors to two university professors who for 25 years, from 1900 to 1925, struggled to enlighten public opinion about the vagaries and effects of protectionism, bad money, monopolies and economic privileges. The advent of Fascist totalitarianism marked the end of independent journalism in Italy. One by one, the old editors were obliged to surrender. Owing to a technical fault in the deed of association, Senator Albertini was obliged to withdraw from the editorship and his family from the proprietorship of the «Corriere della Sera». Senators Frassati (Stampa) and Bergamini (Giornale d’Italia) were likewise obliged to sell their property rights respectively to the FIAT concern and to a Signor Armenise. The «Gazzetta del Popolo» passed from the Cerri family and its associates to the SIP (electricity) concern. If they had not sold their interests, the newspapers would have been suppressed by the Fascist Government. Thus, violence – a legal violence indeed, but violence all the same – expelled the old editors and proprietors in 1925 from the guidance of the Italian press.
The present situation and the future
In the interval between 1925 and 1944 these glorious old newspapers were prostituted. They became mere propaganda tools in the hands of the Fascists. Therefore some say: «Their very name means shame. Suppression is the only way to make them expiate their sins».
Beware of too-logical reasoners. Their moralism cloaks a struggle among the political parties. Every party would be only too glad if it could become the master of the «Corriere della Sera» or the «Stampa»; but as it is afraid that some other party might be the winner in the race, it prefers that none should have them. This is the gist of the matter. This is the real reason why they want the old papers eliminated and only those dailies published which are party organs. Nor can the problem be solved by having the government, or some government-controlled committee, take over the management of the old papers.
Any such course means the suppression of critical independent opinion. The Socialist, Communist and Christian-Democratic Parties are mass parties, well organized. Their official newspapers, «Avanti!», «Unità» and «Popolo», will obviously have a following among the organized members of their respective parties. Intermediate, liberal opinions are to be found among the middle class, in the professions, both public and private, and also among independent agriculturists, artisans, small and medium landed and house proprietors. They were never organized in the past; and it is improbable they ever will be. These classes, which are the backbone of Italian society and control perhaps a majority of votes, cannot be reached by the party press. Cut them off from the great daily press, and they are practically cut off from political life.
The Italy of the future will be ruled by the men elected by the people at large. What is wanted is that all shades of opinion can be presented to the public so that the electors will make a reasoned choice. What is wanted is that independent public opinion should be placed again in the position of relying upon an independent press. This situation is not especially Italian; it is worldwide. Italy has a chance to give a sound solution to a general problem presented in many countries.
The principles which should govern the renaissance of the independent press are the following:
- Present proprietors must be expelled, for two reasons. First, their position is morally indefensible. They ignominiously made themselves subservient voices of the dictator. Second, they are suspected of being voices of private interests. The «Stampa» (Turin) is now the property of the gigantic FIAT concern (automobiles and engineering); the «Gazzetta del Popolo» of the SIP (one of the biggest electricity trusts); the «Corriere della Sera» of the Crespi family (cotton); the «Giornale d’Italia» of a Signor Armenise who was recently indicted before the Court of Justice as a Fascist profiteer.
- The present proprietors must be duly indemnified. A judicial expert can estimate the present value of the expropriated concern. The buyers will have to pay the price. If the state has a claim on the proceeds because of taxes, general or special, such as taxes on Fascist profiteering, a special lien should be placed upon it.
- An option should be given the old proprietors who were expelled from their property in 1925, or to their heirs, or to a group headed by them, to repurchase, at the stated price, the concern which was formerly their property. In many cases, the option will be taken up. In a regime of freedom, the daily press, if well managed, is bound to be again, as of old, one of the most prosperous ventures of the country.
- Guarantees should be exacted to make sure that special private interests will not acquire predominance.
- The editor should be solely responsible for the political, economic, financial and general policy of the newspaper. If he is willing, he should also be entrusted with the management of the concern (as was the rule before 1925 for the «Corriere della Sera», the «Stampa», and probably others also). Once appointed, the editor should not be dismissed nor have his powers restricted without the consent of the body outlined below.
The present offers an unhoped-for occasion for adopting in Italy a method which I think was first initiated in Great Britain, when the proprietorships of the «Times» and of the «Economist» were transferred from the Walter and Wilson families to shareholders’ companies. It was deemed necessary to guarantee that these world-famed institutions should not become the property of financial or other interests which might have policies running contrary to the public interest. A body of trustees was created – men enjoying universal respect – with the duty and right of consenting to the appointment of new editors and to any transfer of shares, thereby ensuring the future independence of the newspapers.
There would not be any difficulty in adopting some such device in Italy. Of course the system need not be enforced for the small fry. Only those newspapers which have reached a circulation of at least 100,000 copies and are not the official organs of a political party or of a trade union or other economic association need appoint a Board of Trustees. Once selected, the Board should be self-recruiting.
An editor who is bound to obey the directions of a party caucus is not a true editor. He is a servant of other men. He cannot create: he can only follow. His paper will never be great. Only the editor who is free to diffuse independent ideas can make and keep a newspaper great. Italy, and all Europe, needs great independent newspapers to lead men again into the ways of freedom.
 Ristampato con il titolo Il problema dei giornali [Ndr.].