For some time now, I have believed that when future historians look back at politics at the turn of the 21st century, they will place the blame for the collapse of Western civilization on the shoulders of one man, Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Though Berlusconi is out of power today, he invented an approach to politics that has been widely imitated around the world. He became a wealthy oligarch through his ownership of a large media empire, Mediaset, which had extensive properties in newspapers, publishing, and broadcasting. This control allowed him to become a celebrity in his own right, which he parlayed into winning the Prime Ministership in the early 1990s, just as Italy’s post-World War II political order was collapsing with the demise of the Socialist and Christian Democratic parties. Once in power, Berlusconi could use his newfound political influence to protect his business interests, and shield himself from criminal liability. This was a tragedy for Italy, which could have used the collapse of the corrupt Christian Democrats to renew Italian political life across the board.
Berlusconi’s success in combining media with political power has since then been widely imitated. While not a media baron himself, Vladimir Putin recognized early on the importance of bringing private media channels under his control, or under the control of his cronies. In the process he became personally one of the richest men in Russia. The same was true of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. In Eastern Europe, the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall saw newly privatized media properties being bought up by established foreign media groups, like Germany’s Axel Springer. With the rise of the internet in the late 1990s, however, legacy media became less attractive as an investment, and many of these foreign investors began exiting the market. Their properties were bought up by local oligarchs, who saw them not so much as attractive business ventures, but as routes into politics. In the Czech Republic, billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis is the owner of the country’s largest publishing house and other media properties. In Romania, the leading TV news station is owned by billionaire Dan Voiculescu, while Slovakia’s main independent newspaper was sold to an investment group that had been the target of its investigations.
The democratic country in which oligarchic control of legacy media has gone the furthest is Ukraine. There, virtually all of the main radio and TV channels are controlled by one of seven oligarchs, individuals who had grown illicitly rich after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, owes his own rise to the TV series he starred in, Servant of the People, which was carried on the 1+1 channel of Ihor Kolomoisky. Other oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov, Dmitry Firtash, and Viktor Medvedchuck have all used their media assets to protect their business interests, fueling the pervasive corruption of Ukrainian politics by the outright buying of parliamentarians.
The rise of Donald Trump in the United States had certain parallels to the Berlusconi saga. He styled himself as an oligarch. Though he did not control a media empire, he understood the value of celebrity status which he enhanced by becoming a reality show star. Early on, Trump recognized the value of Twitter which, he himself asserted, constituted a huge, cost-free megaphone for publicizing himself. He then entered into a mutually profitable symbiotic relationship with Rupert Murdoch and Fox News: Fox promoted Trump the candidate and Trump the president, which Trump showered support on Fox and greatly expanded its reach.
Our longstanding theories of press freedom prioritize decentralization and competition, under the principle “one person, one voice.” But with oligarchic control over the media, a very small number of powerful voices are amplified way beyond those of other citizens. Unlike dominant public broadcasters, these oligarchs are not motivated by any sense of public good, but rather by their own economic and political interests. Many are highly corrupt, and responsible for holding back economic growth and general prosperity. And some act as agents of hostile foreign powers. When German media groups owned media properties in Eastern Europe, they were not generally accused of promoting German foreign policy interests. The same is not true with other foreign buyers: there has been intense focus in the last few years on Russian and Chinese efforts to control media properties abroad.
This came to a head this winter when Ukraine’s president Zelensky issued an executive order shutting down 3 TV channels controlled by oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk. The latter is widely recognized as pro-Russian and an agent of influence often working on behalf of Vladimir Putin. While Zelensky was legitimately elected president in a landslide (as well as his party, Servant of the People), he has ever since struggled against oligarchic influence, not just from his early mentor Kolomoisky, but also from the pro-Russian bloc controlled by Medvedchuk. His canceling of the latter’s TV channels was immediately criticized by a number of Western observers on free speech grounds. But the action raises a number of difficult questions for traditional free speech advocates: is speech today in Ukraine, controlled as it is almost exclusively by a small group of oligarchs, really free? And if that oligarchic control is strangling Ukrainian democracy and fueling massive corruption, as well as promoting the interests of a rival power that has invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine, aren’t there larger equities than the abstract defense of free speech rules at stake?
Ukraine is but one example of the way that technology has permitted the amplification of certain voices over others. Since the days of public debates in the Athenian agora, no democracy has ever come close to the ideal of one person one voice. But the degree of power over speech continues to get more and more concentrated with technological change, and our normative theories have not adjusted adequately to take account.
Berlusconi photo courtesy of alessio85 - flickr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10482870
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