05 July, 2010

Phone tapping in Italy

A fair old row is bubbling away in Italy, which must look quite incomprehensible to Anglo-Saxon eyes.

Silvio Berlusconi is trying to limit the amount of ‘phone tapping going on, and its publication in the press. People will remember that some fairly racy moments of his private life got into the press and on to the internet while the Italian police were checking out, if I remember well, a takeover his company had made.

Naturally the left wing press in Italy and the whole press outside Italy were up in arms against Berlusconi – it is the default line to take – but there are some interesting aspects to this.

What happens is that investigating magistrates order mass ‘phone taps – it is said 150,000 ‘phones are being tapped at any one time; so if each subscriber talks to an average 50 people (tiny for an Italian) then 7.5 million people, one person in eight, might be overheard by the State. Then the police (carabinieri, financial police etc) feed the evidence to the papers in return for who knows what. Sometimes the ‘phone tap ‘evidence’ is relevant, sometimes it reveals some juicy titbit of someone’s private life that has nothing to do with the trial.

Under Anglo Saxon law the revealing of evidence before the trial is strictly illegal. It would prevent the accused receiving a fair trial; if the accused is recorded speaking to a mafioso he is obviously tainted with organised crime. If he is recorded wanting some pretty girls to attend his party, he is a womaniser in the public mind. The jury would have had their opinion of him infected before they began to consider the case.

In Italy, of course, they don’t have trial by jury. Magistrates are supposedly professional and incorruptible. The left says that the papers cannot investigate the misdeeds of the likes of Berlusconi without receiving this information, and that Italian trials take so long that if the press doesn’t investigate it, nobody will.

But serious crime trials are conducted by three magistrates and three lay members. And these lay members could easily have their minds poisoned against a defendant. Look at the trial of ‘Foxy Knoxy’ in Perugia. Before she appeared for trial they had read lurid details of casual sex, drink and drugs; they had heard, who knows from where, that the deceased had not wanted to play. Easy – too easy – to imagine circumstances where they are all high as kites and the game turns nasty.

I don’t suppose for a minute that Berlusconi is pushing this through for altruistic reasons, but just because he thinks it is wrong does not mean it is right. Italian justice is not served by the flogging of phone tap transcripts to an eager press. The magistrates are politically biased (it is not just Berlusconi who thinks this) and the lay members easily corrupted.

Italian justice would be served by speeding up the trial system.

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