Luca de Biase describes the Italian media landscape at Civic lunch

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Update: This post has been translated into Italian by Bernardo Parrella on ahref’s website.

Ethan introduces Luca as an innovator at the junction between traditional and professional journalism in Italy. He was one of the first in the country to have a blog and solicit ideas on the journalism he performs. He’s also a commentator on Italy’s place in Europe and world as a whole.

Ethan Zuckerman and Luca de Biase

Luca begins by describing the media landscape in Italy. Italy’s a young country populated by very ancient people, so they have both problems, he says. Italy has a long history and a rich culture, but Italians don’t speak much to the rest of the world these days.

He sees Italy as an interesting case study in what not to do in regulating the media, and how the civic media can overcome poor decisions at the policy level. Italian law allowed Silvio Berlusconi to own three television networks. Once elected Prime Minister, Berlusconi gained control of another three networks. Italy only has 7 total networks, so since 1994, Berlusconi has effectively controled 6 of the 7 TV stations. There’s only one commercial non-Berlusconi channel, owned by Telecom Italy.

As an example of the cultural and political power of television, Luca tells a story of his 1989 interview with Berlusconi. In an 8-hour interview, Luca says, Berlusconi said one interesting thing: They changed Italy by putting ‘Dallas’ on television in 1981. As far as Italians see it, the liberal capitalist wave began with Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Dallas coming on air in 1981.

Italy was a nation of Catholics and Communists. Whichever side you were on, you were sharing. At least, until this guy J.R. came along. Italians were obsessed; people started to call their children J.R. and Sue Ellen. And since then the liberal capitalistic culture was part of Italy.

The power of television in Italy is further enhanced by the fact that 35% of the Italian population has been assessed by the OECD as functionally illiterate, meaning they can’t understand a newspaper, job offer, or bank contract. Literacy has actually declined since television became popular. Another group, CHANCES, has found that 55% of the Italian population gets their information only from the TV news.

The extreme consolidation of television networks makes civic media and the internet very important politically, even more so than in other places with more voices represented on television. The law in Italy dictates that if fewer than half of all eligible voters turn out to vote in a referendum, the referendum fails. Campaigns to defeat referenda don’t communicate why one should vote AGAINST a referendum, they need only ensure low overall turnout. For the last 20 years, turnout has been a function of how often the referendum has been mentioned on television. When the networks don’t mention the referendum, no one goes to vote, and it doesn’t pass.

Two months ago, 3 referenda were held, on nuclear power, privatization of water, and one of Berlusconi’s laws dealing with judges. As usual, the TV networks didn’t mention the three referenda, until 4 days prior to the vote, at which point they provided the wrong election day date. But this year, thanks to civic media and the internet disseminating the information, the referenda passed the minimum threshold for voter turnout, with 55% of the population voting.

As of this year, according to the CHANCES institute, over half of the Italian population is now online. Luca argues that the internet is a major area of hope for the Italian economy and for jobs for Italy’s youth, and that we need to understand what’s ahead in this space. Luca offers an example: A single Italian starts a design firm, which has redesigned furniture from the ‘60s, gets the furniture manufactured in China, and then exports it all over the world.

Like other nations, Italy’s in the middle of a financial crisis over its public debt. Any chance to overcome this crisis, as Luca sees it, lies in exports. Italy needs to shift from exporting furniture and food to exporting ideas and professional services. There’s evidence that things are beginning to move int his direction. The value of Italian exports grew 10% last year, even as the value of exports of shipped goods dropped 4%. The non-material economy will depend on more and more products, companies and ideas being developed online.

The networked space is an opportunity for the economy and for young people, and also an opportunity to change the situation in favor of democracy in Italy.

Luca shifts to the dark side. What can go wrong in the online space, and what can we do about it? “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” he says, “as you can see by my hair” (his hair is gray).

His main concern about the space is that there’s no reason for those online to share a common agenda. Small groups have their own agendas and communicate mainly within their small groups. How can we use the internet to reach a common purpose? [What deliberative mechanisms can we build?] The national referendum brought everyone together, but once the vote was over, the unity dissipated.

We need to build some incentives to work together, and find out how we can influence the general agenda together. Groups can still work towards their own interests, of course, whether you’re in the Christian Fundamentalist party, or the Communist party, the “Fix My Roads” party, but there needs to be a shared agenda as well.

Q&A time!

Karen’s curious about the environment in the film world in Italy.
Luca says there’s lots going on in the documentary world, less in the rest of the film industry. There’s a network of 600 filmmakers that started with just 5 people in 2006. They covered the earthquake and report via short films.

Ethan: Italy made a terrible mistake in allowing concentration of ownership of television, and the practical implication of this is that you can take issues off the agenda entirely. But people have managed to rally and turn out the vote. How does that happen?

Luca: It’s a hopeful story. Beppe Grillo, a comedic actor, was very popular in the 1980’s and managed to say at a show, in front of 15 million people, that the socialists were robbing the country [they were]. He was thrown off of television and never went back. He began touring theaters and his popularity grew. He started to blog and his blog became one of the 50 most popular blogs in the world, and #1 in Italy.

Ethan: In 2004-2005, he’d show up at #11 on all of Technorati.

Luca: And that was writing only in Italian. He never links to anyone, just broadcasts what he does, information, different ideas, but isn’t responsive. He’s created a social party now, yet another party. But back to the main point, citizens are different islands of different values and we speak only with our similarly defined people, more often than not.

Luca’s interested in how we establish a shared agreement around the basic facts before we begin debating. Why can’t I know just the facts? Why must everything be an opinion? Luca brings up as an extreme example the weather in the region around Venice. After noticing that fewer tourists show up in Venice when the weather is predicted to be bad, the governor of the region declared the need for a new weather forecast system that didn’t damage the tourism economy. Facts count, Luca says, and we should agree that some things, like weather forecasts, should remain outside the realm of political alteration.

Sasha Costanza-Chock comments: Italy has a strong history of free television and free radio, as well, for 70 years, before the consolidation in TV. Through the end of the ‘90s, into the 2000s, Pasquinelli, and so on.

  • BiFo: [Franco Bifo Berardi: What is the Meaning of Autonomy Today?
  • Radio Alice | Wikipedia
  • New Global Vision (movement TV)
  • Telestreet, Orfeo TV
  • A documentary about the telestreet station TMO (TeleMonteOrlando))
  • A short movie about the movement
  • These theories and media practice have been tied to social movement practices, for example the squatting movement. So, a question: How can we recuperate that fascinating history of Italian radical media/theory production, and have that be the narrative we reproduce worldwide instead of the story of Berlusconi and control of television?

    Luca answers: Being creative is a good way to be Italian, and if you are against the system and creative, that makes what you say more notorious, more popular than the real importance of what you are saying. It’s very important to say something in a strange, interesting, or creative way. But there is one part in these movements that has always been weak….these kind of movements start by defining themselves as losers. They are victims of the system. They will never win. They will only testify their ideas…Nobody really thought that any of these movements would truly change the system. It would only change the way we think about the system by having more critical ideas, and by having more spaces for saying that things are wrong. It’s not the best situation, because sometimes you would like to win or change things.

    Sasha responds: So, we would have to draw from the creativity of the radical media and autonomous movements, but transform them from resistance identities to project identities, with real proposals for the transformation of society, and the possibility of real victories.

    Luca: Just to agree on what is a fact for everybody, that would be a revolution!

    We’re seeing similar things with economic forecasts made by international organizations. Empirical, historically credible organizations like Cofindustria [which also owns the newspaper that employs Luca] have been questioned by the government and accused of releasing reports that superstitiously create bad luck for Italy.

    So, can we agree, as professional journalists do (accuracy, independence), on basic principles, like how we gather information?

    “It’s not that you don’t have Fox News, it’s that we ONLY have Fox News.”

    Luca started a foundation in Trento called ahref. He says the people in Trento aren’t really Italian; they start meetings on time. Trento’s 2nd biggest industry is research. They’ve invested heavily into knowledge creation.

    They’re running experiments to answer questions like, “Is it possible to encode positive civic behaviors into platforms?” In their first experiment, citizens have to accept a small terms of service saying that they’ll try to be accurate, behave, and so on, and the experiment will see if taking that pledge changes behavior.

    Another Timu (Swahili for ‘team’). It lets citizens participate in research alongside the professional researchers. Already, in just two weeks, the citizen participants have helped make discoveries. A foundation in the south of Italy is trying to improve the rate of school attendance amongst children. At a school near Naples, citizens have reported that the teachers and parents agreed to bring children to school only one day a week, so they have less work to do, and that the teachers will then pass the students at the end of the year.

    Another program is in partnership with the Falling Walls organization in Berlin. The group organizes around the day the Berlin Wall fell and gathers scientists to discuss which other walls around the world should fall. They’re using Timu to decide which other walls should fall, and the aforementioned group of filmmakers is also participating.

    Jim Paradis: How do you reconcile the power of television in Italy when the internet is available?

    Luca: When 35% of Italians cannot read, they only access information on TV. Another 20% basically get their information from TV because they only get their news from word-of-mouth.
    55% only had access to information through TV in 1999. This is the first year that more than half of Italians are online, meaning 49% are still not online.

    Those that are online are reading newspapers, watching on-demand TV, and some read foreign papers. It’s hard for outsiders to see the millions of Italians who aren’t online and can’t read a newspaper because they’re not represented.

    And there are different assessments of literacy. OECD says 35% are functionally illiterate, but other studies say that number’s even higher. Tullio de Mauro, professor of Italian studies, has just published a book about illiteracy in Italy. He’s looking into how the National Statistical Organization should interview people to find out whether they read books. The handbook for interviewers says something like: “When people tell you they don’t read books, ask if they have every read a cookbook or a tourist guide. If they tell you yes, put down that they’re literate.” [ see “Levels of participation in the life of the culture in Italy” by Tullio De Mauro, Adolfo Morrone (2008)].

    Jim: But isn’t there a legal mandate for fundamental literacy? Are the institutions either nonexistent or failing?
    Luca: “It’s interesting your faith in institutions.” Much of Italy is elderly, and of those, many left school early, and since then, if they didn’t read or write for their job, they lost the ability to read. There’s also the problem of young people: 25% of 14-24 year-olds find it very difficult to read, which is a problem of the educational institutions. There are many stories of children not going to school, even if it’s the law. The educational budgets have been cut for 20 years.

    Jim: Literacy is a problem for civic media around the world.

    Ethan: There are two kinds of literacy. Newt Minnow was head of the FCC overseeing TV in US, and famously called TV a vast wasteland because it wasn’t doing its job for civic engagement and education. He was just as angry and frustrated the other night at the Berkman Center. Jonathan Alter said maybe 10 million people in the US seriously follow politics. 130 million vote in the Presidential election. What do you do about the 120 million gap between knowing anything and voting? There are different levels of ability to participate throughout the population, and it’s really complicated to consider the tiers of where people are in terms of civic engagement.

    Ian: Changing the norms of journalism is interesting. How does accuracy and bias become part of that change?

    Ian worked for several years at a major Japanese newspaper. Values like truth and balance were shared, but there was an allowable form of bias accepted in “the angle” your story took. One of the most powerful structures in getting coverage was the “other news” category, outside of the usual. This was the real iron fist of control. Why was the popular story of the day what people gravitated towards? Topics that took time to explain the background and context of weren’t given coverage. How do we expand what can be covered by journalists to include new topics?

    Luca: People need to do entertaining or revolutionary things together to get the coverage.
    It’s helpful to find new angles, new formats (Matt’s note: Groups in the US will often use shiny new technology to provide an angle to get journalists interested in their issues, because they know journalist want to cover Facebook, iPhones, etc.).

    People often talk about doing journalism from the bottom-up. The best way to do that is to give cameras to children. Since they’re shorter than one meter, you’re literally doing journalism from the bottom up. You take a funny angle to get interest from journalists. It’s not possible to just have a boring platform where you agree to be accurate. You do that, and then you go do something compelling on top of it.