The Church vs the Italian media machine

Posted by MeganFinnegan at 9/18/2009 11:38 AM ED

A few weeks ago, there was a media uproar in Italy. If you don't have the details, you can read the scintillating version from Gawker here or the straightforward version from the NY Times here. The basics:

The Roman Catholic newspaper of the Italian Bishop's Conference, Avvenire, ended its tradition of silent disapproval for Prime Minister Berlusconi's naughty behavior (he's BFF with many an 18-year-old hottie) and flagrant disregard for the Catholic principles that the Bishops, and many Italian citizens, hold dear. Editor Dino Boffo penned an piece calling out the PM for his unseemly actions and attitudes, which are well known but largely left alone by the Italian media.

Berlusconi owns many major media outlets, and those he doesn't own, he has influence over nonetheless. Case in point, after Boffo attacked Berlusconi, a paper owned by Berlusconi's brother, Il Giornale, in turn sunk its teeth into Boffo. Il Giornale "reported" that Boffo is a secret homosexual (gasp!) and that he harassed the girlfriend of a supposed male lover. (As it turns out, Boffo paid a fine in a harassment case but claims that a third party used his phone to make the calls.)

The outcome of the whole sordid mess was that Boffo resigned from his post as editor of Avvenire. The smear doctors win again in Italy, it seems. Berlusconi has taken to suing everyone who doesn't think he's swell. He sued Daniele Lutazzi, a TV personality, for remarks he made in a 2001 interview. It doesn't matter that Lutazzi eventually won the defamation suit; his career is damaged irreparably and he's no longer on television. The Times (London) spoke to Lutazzi in May of this year and has the story here in which the comedian calls the current Italian media climate "Fascism lite."

The question that comes to my mind, after all of this has blown over, is this: was Boffo acting as a good journalist or a good Catholic?

One can understand the impulse of the Bishop's Conference to speak out against a corrupt member of the government. But no matter what a newspaper's affiliation, if it purports to be an agent of journalism, it has to adhere to journalistic standards and take into account its place in the media.

You have to ask, what purpose did it serve for Boffo and Avvenire to speak out in such a direct way against the tyrannical PM? The Catholic paper has now lost a voice in disgrace and scandal. Did it really need to spell out its disapproval? It seems pretty obvious that the Church isn't too fond of politicians romping around with scores of young girls.

As the editor, Boffo could have encouraged more editorials or letters from readers denouncing the PM's behavior. He could have assigned reporters to actually find evidence of misconduct and how it's affecting the people of Italy. He could have interviewed Catholic readers and written about how they feel. Any of these options would have made clear the paper's position without inviting such severe retaliation.

This is not to say that people shouldn't speak truth to power and all that. But it's an interesting thing to consider - the bullhorn is tempting and it's nice to hear one's own voice so loudly. The option that's more difficult, but perhaps more effective under some circumstances, is one of slow, focused, deliberate work. It's obvious that the Catholic church disapproves of Berlusconi's behaviour. The real question, and one that maybe Boffo should have answered instead, is what will the Church and its people do about it?

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