‘When the press is gagged, the reader must read between the lines’

Contributed by Niamh Cullen

In a time of political crisis, when real power eludes us or there is huge uncertainty about what we want or how to solve our problems, words may be the best weapon we have. It is journalism and editorial comment that so often articulate the mood, and the concerns of a society, and through words – whether printed or increasingly online – that we manage to reflect meaningfully on what is going on, and even to sketch out, discuss and debate ideas and possible solutions. The value of good editorial commentary – whether in national newspapers or blogs; Fintan O’Toole or Ireland after Nama – has become increasingly clear during Ireland’s recent years of political crisis. The more immediate Egyptian crisis is another, urgent indication of the importance of courageous, independent voices, even if their medium is more likely to be Twitter than newspapers.

The outspoken antifascist Piero Gobetti attempted to play this role in Italy during the early years of Mussolini’s rule, trying desperately to raise the Italian people’s political consciousness, before his premature death on February 16 1926, eighty-five years ago today.

Born in 1901, this ‘boy wonder’ of Turin began his career as journalist and editor at the precocious age of 17, and at a time when Italy was in a state of chaos. Peace in 1918 had brought not a sense of victory, but of disappointment, division, unrest and outright violence. When Mussolini began to garner support for his band of extremist, war-hungry thugs, Gobetti was among the first to recognise the deep threat to Italian democracy that fascism represented.

He wasn’t particularly interested in party politics at first but as he saw Mussolini grow more powerful, he felt a duty to add his own voice – young, principled, outraged and unafraid – to the fray. His political magazine The Liberal Revolution quickly went from being a local magazine written mostly by Gobetti himself, his fellow students and university teachers, to a nationwide platform for political opposition.

How did a twenty-something year old student at the University of Turin become one of the leading voices of opposition to Mussolini in early fascist Italy?  Sheer force of will seems to have played a big part; by all accounts Gobetti had a magnetic personality and was both deeply persuasive and highly persistent. He had no powerful connections; what he achieved, he did entirely through his own intelligence and determination. He also believed utterly in what he was doing. He was no saint though and could often be an infuriating person to work with. He could be fairly sanctimonious too, and was scathing about his countrymen – whether the liberal politicians who were afraid to stand up to Mussolini or the people who, as he saw it, were stupid enough to accept a dictator as their saviour.

However, he was determined to continue his mission for as long as he could and the increasing censorship just prompted him to think of more imaginative ways of speaking to his readers. In 1924, The Liberal Revolution started to carry the tagline ‘When the press is gagged, the reader has to read between the lines’. The young editor’s days were numbered from the moment that Mussolini became prime minister in 1922. He was far too outspoken and chronically unable to compromise. Gobetti received two savage beatings from fascist Blackshirts, but it took the police chief’s order to close the magazine, for him to finally decide to leave Italy. He set out for Paris in early February 1926, intending to continue his editorial work there. Sadly, his health was already weakened from the beatings he had received and he died less than two weeks later on February 15. He was always fighting a losing battle in a divided, deeply unsettled and reactionary Italy, especially once Mussolini came on the scene.

However the fact that a university student who styled himself as an editor, and had his magazine headquarters above his parents’ grocery shop, managed to become one of the leading voices of opposition to the regime, is testament to the power of the printed word. Although he died in 1926, Gobetti remained a symbol of resistance to those who opposed Mussolini, whether in exile, underground or in private, for the duration of the regime. Even today, he is one of Italy’s most famous twentieth century personalities. A long way to go for the teenager who began his own magazine at the age of 17, when all he had was his pen and his opinions.

Niamh Cullen is an IRCHSS postdoctoral fellow in the School of History and Archives, UCD. She specialises in the history of modern Italy and her book, ‘Piero Gobetti’s Turin: Modernity, myth and memory’ is forthcoming in May 2011 (Peter Lang: Oxford). A longer version of this post is available on her blog, The Little Review.

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4 Responses to “‘When the press is gagged, the reader must read between the lines’”

  1. Tweets that mention ‘When the press is gagged, the reader must read between the lines’ « Pue's Occurrences -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Juliana Says:

    Excellent post, Niamh.

    I wish the current crisis would enable newspapers to shake off the preponderance of ‘lifestyle’ journalism which seems to be taking over most of them. A gold mine for future social historians, no doubt, but with a political impact factor of almost 0. And although the newspapers are not ‘gagged’ exactly, the fact their numbers are dwindling means that we will be getting an ever more limited perspective on the news.


  3. thelittlereview Says:

    Thanks Juliana,

    Your point about ‘lifestyle journalism’ does raise interesting questions about how we deal with political and economic crisis ie by avoiding it, or dealing with it in oblique, roundabout sorts of ways. It could make a fascinating study for a contemporary historian in a few years time!

    I just came across an interesting piece in the Guardian about Berlusconi’s control of the Italian media, particularly TV. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/16/italians-berlusconi-control-media?CMP=twt_gu
    The question of media freedom is clearly not just a historical problem in Italy. I was struck particularly by the point that only 20% of Italians read newspapers (newspaper and magazine circulation figures have historically always been low in Italy). Newspapers often represent the only independent voice in the Italian media since Berlusconi controls the TV networks. If people aren’t reading them, is this not their choice or can we blame Berlusconi?
    The debate about media freedom remains but things are clearly a little less black and white than in Gobetti’s time.

  4. Brian Hanley Says:

    We are far from Mussolini’s Italy here, but the fact is that a large chunk of the Irish media is owned by just two men, and most of the press broadly sings from the same hymn sheet when it comes to social and economic issues. The biggest selling Sunday is more a vehicle for egos and nepotism than a newspaper and even television talk shows seem to a have a single transferable list of guests/experts. Perhaps its rose-tinted glasses on my part, but reading newspaper coverage from the early 1970s, I’m struck by how high-quality it seems compared to now. And I don’t mean just the broadsheets: the Sunday World was a bloody good paper in the seventies. Still, it’ll make for lots of interesting studies by historians of the early 21st century!

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