Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Ten years of controversy
La Stampa - June 10th 2011

If anyone had told me, ten years ago, that in 2011 I would be writing regular editorials for an Italian newspaper and would have published a book about Italy, I would have said that they were mad. After all, as direttore of The Economist, I was travelling a lot in America and Asia, but not in Italy, and my personal writing background had been about Japan. But then, almost exactly ten years ago, we at The Economist published our notorious cover, declaring that Silvio Berlusconi was “unfit” to govern Italy. And, though I didn’t know it at the time, my life was going to be changed by that cover.

                At first, I thought it would be changed simply by having to avoid Italians, to many of whom The Economist, and therefore its direttore, had become public enemy number one. This was even true for many readers who did not actually support il Cavaliere: they were still outraged that a foreign publication had dared to state such a strong view about Italy’s elections and its probable next president of the council. Many readers, however, were of course delighted.

Mr Berlusconi, naturally was not one of them, though he did claim that he had been a former subscriber.  He showed his lack of delight by calling us “communists”, and his newspaper, il Giornale, reinforced this view by publishing my photograph on its front page and pointing out that I look like Lenin. He then took out the first of two libel lawsuits against the magazine.

Ten years later, I look back on those origins of my new Italian-linked life with a mixture of pride and puzzlement. Pride, because publications should stand up for important principles, and do their best to tell the truth, and that is what we were doing. But puzzlement because of the unusual and hard-to-understand role that foreign critics and commentators are given in Italy. That role, from which I now benefit, is very flattering. But I am not sure quite how to interpret it.

In this respect, Italy is surprisingly similar to Japan. Most countries pay little attention to what foreigners say or write about them. The British media rarely reports what French, American or Italian media say about Britain. France gives virtually no role to foreign commentators either. And nor, really, does America, even if immigration makes it hard to define who is domestic and who is foreign. But Japan and Italy both seem to pay much more attention to foreigners’ ideas and analysis of their countries than those others do.

Why? The answer is, I have concluded, that foreign critics are used in a mixture of good and bad ways. The good is a genuine feeling that no country holds a monopoly on knowledge or judgement, and so a genuine interest exists in learning from other people’s ideas and experience.

The bad, however, pushes in a different direction: it is that political debates in both countries are very parochial and inward-looking, and that both Japan and Italy are quite resistant to participating fully in what we call globalisation. As a result, foreign critics are often used as tools in an essentially domestic argument, as political weapons to help one side or another. In such use, the need for a weapon is of more importance than what the foreign critic is actually saying.

In my book, “Forza, Italia: Come ripartire dopo Berlusconi” I argue that there is a “buona Italia” and a “mala Italia”, and that the balance between the two needs to be changed. There are so many positive energies and ideas to be liberated. After ten years of writing about Italy, first as public enemy number one to the centre-right, then as what il Giornale called an “anti-italiano”, then as a searcher for the good things and good potential of Italy, I also feel that the balance between the good use of foreign commentary and the bad use needs to be shifted.

What I mean by that is that foreign analyses of Italy, its problems and its potential, could be of greater benefit to Italian readers and thinkers if political partisanship could be put to one side. Foreigners have many weaknesses in writing about another country: naivety and ignorance of subtleties are chief among them. But their strength can and should be their independence from domestic politics and positions.

The great virtue of the speech on May 31st by Governor Mario Draghi to the Bank of Italy’s shareholders was that he is a genuinely independent figure, independent from politics and indeed someone who is about to leave the country. His speech deserves to be read and re-read many times. His speeches are certainly not the “useless sermons” of which he lamented. The best ambition that any foreign analyst of Italy can hold in their heart is that their sermons should also not be useless.


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