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Televised history

BEMACC student. When I’m not reading a book or visiting some exhibitions, I like to investigate the topics of power and representation, photography, art and media developments.

Reading time: 5 minutes

The Genoa G8 meeting of July 2001 represents an unforgettable moment of the recent Italian history. The summit of the most powerful leaders in the world reunited to solve the problem of world poverty turned into four days of a street war that saw the police brutally repressing the peaceful protests organized by the No-Global movement. But if this event marked the collective memory of Italy so profoundly it was above all because of the news narration that was made of it on television, which altered the truth in order to protect the state when violence escalated to unprecedented levels. On the 20-year-anniversary of the summit, this article critically analyzes the news service description that was made of it in 2001 in the light of the shocking truths about those days uncovered in two decades of trials and lawsuits.

In AIDS and its metaphors, Susan Sontag, a well-known American journalist and author, stated that the military metaphor is potentially very dangerous, because it not only provides a persuasive justification for authoritarian rule but implicitly suggests the necessity of state-sponsored repression and violence1The quote referred to the rhetoric of the “battle against AIDS” the US were facing in the 1990s; but I think this concept is true also when applied to television communication. Indeed, when the state feels under threat, as in the case of particularly violent and unwanted protest, we always hear news reporters talking about civil wars, streets under siege and cities falling under fire and sword. Agenda setting works in this direction because, on one hand, words related to the imagif war make news reports more captivating and dramatic, allowing to attract larger audiences.On the other, television is never against the state, not just because of the public financing it needs, but also because a stable political system is a primary condition for the television industry to flourish. This means that when the state defends itself by unleashing the police force, television usually backs it up too: it becomes important to convince the public opinion that the democratic system was stronger than those disrupting it. But what happens when the violent response of the state is more than proportional and completely unjustified under the democratic rules?The Genoa G8 meeting that took place in July 2001 was a landmark event in the history of media coverage. Indeed, never before in order to safeguard the image of the state in such a critical political moment, were news broadcasting services forced to report a falsified representation of facts.  

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Before the beginning of the summit, news reports started to disseminate anxiety among audiences about the protests that had been announced for that occasion. On July 19th, TGLa7, a popular private news service, declared that “restlessness can be felt among policemen lined up in riot gear, with shields, blackjacks and gas masks. Already a metropolitan battle is certain”2. Images of policemen patrolling the streets and of the three-meter-high gates surrounding the “red area” of the city were shown on TV. This widespread fear incentivized the particularly aggressive behavior of the police in those days, which obviously was not totally unjustified, because violent protests did break out once anarchists and blackblock rioters infiltrated the peaceful manifestations. But as in the case of all complex situations, television provided a simplified narration of the event,that was strongly biased in favour of the police authorities. Indeed, starting from the evening of July 20th, only the most dramatic moments of the protests and the blackblock devastations were broadcasted. In fact, the TG2’s news presenter opened the evening edition on July 21st with the following apocalyptic description: “Hundreds are the wounded, streets are devasted, shops were burned, gas stations uprooted to create Molotov bombs”4. In front of such a disastrous civil war scenery, the public opinion is clearly moved to approve the videos of military tanks and policemen-soldiers marching in an array down the streets, since they are presented as fairytale knights trying to save the city from its besiegers. What was left out of this simplification is the police lines attacking by mistake the pacifist pocessions, long after the blackblock had moved away with unprecedented violence, leaving hundreds injured without reason.

But the climax of this ideological conflict between the necessity of justifying the state repression and the journalistic goal to properly inform audiences only emerged with the death of protester Carlo Giuliani and with the police blitz inside the No-Global movement headquarters. Giuliani, 23 years old, was shot in the head by a policeman younger than him, just 20, while trying to throw an extinguisher at the car the officer was in. As public opinion can tolerate images of beatings, but hardly murder, yet the news justified it by saying: in the end, he deserved it. An example is TG1, that reduced this episode in the following statement: “on the ground, the lifeless body of a boy who had chosen violence to fight the powerful in the world; an absurd death at just 23”5. Agenda setting led to this death being perceived as absurd not because he was shot by a teen police-boy sent in the middle of the chaos with a gun, but because Giuliani had senselessly tried to fight something that was undefeatable, something too big and powerful for him. Italy’s complete failure in managing protests and protecting its cities and citizens, along with controlling the behavior of its police force that had resulted in a citizen’s death, made concrete actions necessary to redeem its reputation and justify the violent actions so far committed. Those responsible for Genoa devastation needed to be found and punished. Here comes the most shocking evidence of how information channels can contribute to the distortion of reality. The story narrated by the news about the police breaking into the headquarters of the Genoa Social Forum was the following: the police broke-in to arrest black suits that were protected by the No-Global movement, was brutally attacked by the protesters and had to defend itself in a “long and tough battle” leaving injured people on the ground and a policeman miraculously alive after being stabbed. The images used to support this narration were those of young people shackled and arrested or carried to the ambulances covered in blood. Moreover, policemen were shown carrying out closed bags full of “improper weapons, black suits, iron bars and Molotov bombs” – proof of a “true subversive plan against the police”; all this weaponry – the bombs, knives, crowbars, “even a pickaxe” – was displayed and broadcasted in the news the following day. TV news therefore provided enough visual evidence to believe President Berlusconi declaring in the G8 final press conference that there was “connivance between the Genoa Social Forum and the violent”5, and to approve of his proposal to raise the heroic policemen’s salaries. As anticipated, this was the media story. The facts were that when the police broke in, no member of the blackblock was found but the police raged against the sleeping and defenseless people anyway, leaving 80 with injuries, broken limbs and head traumas – one was in a coma, one never fully recovered – destroying whatever was found in their way. No black suit or weapon was found, and the bags police were carrying out in the news reports actually contained nothing, because the weapons showed to journalists the following day had been taken from a nearby construction site – by looking at those images, you can indeed see they are covered in dirt and dust. It was even discovered that the Molotov bombs found in the school had been put there by two policemen. But the reassuring tale that was given away in the news on that infamous July 22nd was: the war is over, the bad guys were defeated, the initial balance is now restored; or, in President Berlusconi’s words: “The G8 meeting was a success”7.

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There’s no doubt that television has a vital social role and can inspire people to live as proper citizens. But it’s also true that when the relations between politics and media get tangled and twisted, television can be exploited and become a tool of state propaganda, even if it comes to justifying injustice and creating a hyperreality that differs from the actual events. This is the reason why we have to look out for the metaphors that are used by the media, and be aware of the consequences they imply under the agenda setting rule. Indeed, as the poet Robert Frost once said in a beautiful speech, if you are not home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere8. And I think the Genoa G8 case is a clear example of these words becoming a living truth.

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BEMACC student. When I’m not reading a book or visiting some exhibitions, I like to investigate the topics of power and representation, photography, art and media developments.

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