Il Giornale used to be an excellent Italian newspaper. Or at least, since most Italian newspapers aren’t what you and I would call real newspapers (meaning they’re purveyors of opinions, not news), a well written one.
True, the paper was pretty right-wing, and also true, ultimately purchased by Silvio Berlusconi, which is always sooner or later the death knell for quality. But for a while Silvio kept his hands off his newsprint acquisition. Then he became prime minister, and didn’t. He fired the editor and made his brother the new owner. Il Giornale became a rag.
How much of a rag? Well in August, the newspaper printed a front-page headline above a photo of Angela Merkel, in the unfortunate posture of raising her right arm. The caption: “FOURTH REICH.”
To cite an even better example: five years ago, when a Berlusconi party parliamentarian was outraged by a lower court’s decision to grant a 13-year-old the right to an abortion, Alessandro Sallusti, now the editor of Il Giornale, published his unhinged column. It read in part: “If there were the death penalty and it were ever applicable in a situation, this would be the case.” By which the writer meant “the parents, the gynecologist and the judge” should all face death if only a more sensible Italy had the death penalty.
Except that Italy doesn’t have the death penalty. And idiots who sign badly written, imperfectly reasoned columns with the nom de chutzpah “Dreyfus” should probably be ignored. Alas, the 14-month jail sentence of Sallusti, convicted of libel because he allowed the imperfectly reasoned column to be published,has just been upheld by Italy’s supreme court. Alas, too, that puts me in the category of those who have to defend both the editor and the column’s writer, whose real name, as everyone in Italy just discovered, is Renato Farina.
Worse, Italy is far from the only nation in Europe where free speech is shaky, sometimes non-existent. Last year, Astellas Pharma, a Japanese multinational, sued the French periodical Prescrire for its lousy review of an eczema ointment. The venue was a French court, and for good reason. Although Prescrire also has an English-language website, no smart thinking Japanese lawyer would test the corporation’s luck in the US, where libel laws aren’t necessarily the free-speech bludgeons they are elsewhere. As a CBS News blogger put it, “European libel laws are infamously medieval, designed to protect the ruling classes against criticism from their underlings.”
And speaking of the ruling classes: last year, too, Monaco’s Prince Albert sued—in a French court—an American former underling who claimed the prince had accepted lavish gifts from Russia, which is a violation of Olympic Committee rules. On the other hand, the wealthy don’t have to go to Paris to make a killing. Cameron Diaz, Roman Polanski, and Jennifer Lopez all prefer London for their libel suits.
Best advice for those who choose to speak their minds these days? Write whatever you wish to write—in the United States.