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Focus September 2020

Freedom of the press, statistics and the restaurant crisis

Befuddled by contradictory news, we must be discerning and prudent.

We all feel that we inhabit a democratic nation where the press has absolute freedom: witness the proliferation of news outlets and television stations, with varying political inclinations, whether outspoken or subtle, but nevertheless all different. Alas, however, we live in a different reality. According to the prestigious international association Reporters sans Frontières, Italy ranks 41st for press freedom worldwide. Ghana, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Botswana are just some examples of countries with greater press freedom than Italy’s. Not that the government is issuing morning veline, the heavily censored news and instructions received by newspaper editors from the fascist-era Ministry of Popular Culture (Minculpop); nor is television news equivalent to the propagandistic Istituto LUCE newsreels of that era. Yet the concentration of news outlets under very few large publishing groups, the public financing of dailies and periodicals, advertising revenue and editors’ financial interests all influence content. Individual journalists can themselves be swayed by friendships, convention and threats from criminals.
Certain viewpoints are clearly proclaimed in an echo chamber, and some interviews of  ‘potentates du jour’ positively reek of reverence. Consider also the dossiers classified by governments and the indiscriminate overabundance of statistics, which many experts regard as the sneakiest, most effective way to lie and distort or conceal the truth. As Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Our own Trilussa, purveyor of no-frills Roman popular wisdom, expressed it thus: “If I eat two chickens and you eat none, we’ve eaten a chicken each”. The above represents everyday normality; however, for months the scene has been darkened by news of the coronavirus epidemic: a daily barrage of news, whether aiming to dramatise or dismiss the issue. Headlines are chock-full of ‘buts’. “Deaths are down, but infections rise”; “Fewer infections but more hospitalisations”; “Nobody hospitalised, fewer infections, but things get worse in India”.
Let it be clear that it is utopian to expect zero infections worldwide; corona silence will require years, not because the virus will be extinct but because other problems will supersede it and the barrage will cease when that news no longer sells. All this is to say that we recommend maximum caution and circumspection when reading headlines that scream contagion statistics in all caps. There’s a comeback of the ‘vulnerable demographic’, now renamed ‘vulnerable workers’, whose age now begins as low as 55. These are workers who risk being infected by irresponsible young plague-spreaders. We have already pointed out that the Covid problem exists and requires great caution, while also noting that numbers and percentages can be vastly misleading without their qualitative aspects. We have also described, in an earlier Focus, the “deafening silence” regarding the frightful restaurant situation. Well, that silence has now been shattered by a government representative suggesting that beleaguered restaurateurs change profession. Having noticed this faux pas, the authorities suggested credit card cash-back discounts to be paid into diners’ personal accounts, a proposal which obviously withered on the vine. Other luminaries recommended a freeze on restaurant licences. Restaurateurs are admittedly prone to moaning, but their situation is truly dire.
Let us leave aside bonuses and subsidies, which often end up in the wrong hands and have limited stamina. Good restaurants, if assisted by bureaucratic streamlining, less onerous taxes and the end of ‘working at home’ (which empties cities and nullifies socialisation), will manage on their own, in accordance with market forces rather than hypocritical laws portraying the dread coronavirus as a sort of modern Count Dracula who wakes at sundown, biting and infecting from 6 PM to 6 AM, and shrinking back into his sarcophagus at the first light of dawn.

Paolo Petroni  
President of the Accademia