I’ve been reading Guardian and Economist journalist and Rome correspondent John Hooper‘s articles on events in Italy for some time, then I found John Hooper tweeting on Twitter.
One day, John Hooper actually started following my newsfromitaly persona on Twitter, which meant I could send him a private message. Not that I thought he would agree, but ever hopeful, I fired off a private Tweet to ask him if he’d like to do an interview, albeit via email, for Italy Chronicles. Much to my delight (and surprise), he kindly agreed.
Here is the result, and I hope you find the set of Italy-centric questions I put to John Hooper interesting. I suspect you’ll find his responses insightful – I certainly did.
First of all, can you introduce yourself briefly. Say who you are and what you do, and for how long you’ve being doing it. And I’m curious to know how many languages you speak.
I’m the correspondent in Italy for the Economist and Guardian. I came back to Italy in 2003 after leaving the Guardian (for the second time — I’m a serial resigner). Before that, I was the Guardian’s correspondent in Central Europe, based in Berlin. Altogether, I’ve spent more than 25 years outside Britain as a foreign correspondent and that has involved hoovering up quite a few languages. I speak six, though one of them is pretty rusty these days.
You’ve been in Italy for some time John, haven’t you? How did you end up here as an Italy correspondent for The Guardian and The Economist? Was it your choice to cover the country, or were you assigned to Italy?
Both times it has been part-assignment, part-choice. When I first came here as a correspondent, I’d been freelancing in Madrid, having left the staff of the Guardian for the first time. The then foreign editor told me they wanted me to rejoin the paper as its southern Europe correspondent, based in Rome but covering an area from Portugal to Turkey. I considered his offer hard, for about 15 seconds, and accepted. That was in 1994. When I came back, it was because the Economist made me an offer and when I went to London to resign from the Guardian, the editor, Alan Rusbridger, decided he wanted to come in on the deal. So they split me.
I understand you live in Rome. How do you find life there compared to life in the UK? What aspects of life in Italy do you like, and what annoys you, if anything?
Rome’s a more beautiful and eventful city than London. But also more backward-looking. Sometimes I miss the edginess of London or Berlin. I find that life in Italy is a constant see-saw: one moment you’re delighted by the food or the wine or the beauty of the countryside or a city; the next you’re grinding your teeth with frustration over some quite unnecessary delay or obstacle. Thus far, I’m sure my experience is the same as that of most expats who live south of Orvieto. My particular situation is influenced by the current political and economic stagnation: it’s frankly depressing to be writing week after week a bad news story. But with the economy at a virtual standstill and the politics in a logjam, it is very hard to find a good news one.
How easy is it for you to do your job as a journalist in Italy?
Really no problem at all. The people I need to speak to are accessible (Italians are very PR-conscious) and I have never come under pressure from governments of either stripe.
Do Italians welcome the attention of the press?
Yes and no. I think Italians like the idea that their country is at the centre of attention (which it rarely is, frankly). But they sometimes confuse criticism of their government with criticism of their country.
Or are they reluctant to speak to you at times?
No. But they are often reluctant to give their names in a way that I have never before encountered in a democracy.
The Economist has been highly critical of Italy’s flamboyant leader Silvio Berlusconi. Has this had repercussions for you? Has anyone refused to speak to you, for example?
Yes. I have had interviews cancelled at short notice, and have been told afterwards that this was on orders from above.
On the subject of journalism, what are the differences between the profession here in Italy compared to the way journalists operate in England?
I and most of my colleagues in the foreign press corps have a great respect for Italian journalists. The problems have more to do with the ownership of the media and the effect that that has on the way that papers, magazines and news bulletins are edited. And I’m not just talking about Berlusconi‘s TV channels. Even the main newspapers are run, not so much for profit, as to give their owners a say in the public arena.
From the Wikipedia entry about you, I see you covered post Franco Spain. Have you noticed any parallels between Italy and Spain, seeing as both were once under fascist rule, even if the reign of Italy’s dictator ended long before that of Franco.
In my opinion, the differences between Spain and Italy are much greater than the similarities. And they are becoming more different as Spain integrates more with the rest of Europe and Italy drifts in the opposite direction.
Do you think Italy is heading for a new totalitarian regime?!
No. But it may well be heading for a perilous institutional showdown. And I would say it is a less democratic country than the one I arrived in in 1994.
In your opinion, have the scandals surrounding Silvio Berlusconi really damaged Italy’s public image or do you think he may have raised Italy’s profile at international level, and even perhaps piqued curiosity and encouraged a few people to come to Italy on holiday?
I doubt if people would base their holiday choices on scandals like the ones we’ve seen. I think the damage to Italy’s image caused by Berlusconi in the past few years has been immense. He has made his country a laughing stock.
And finally, who do you think will become Italy’s next Prime Minister?
Either Bill Emmott or Rocco Siffredi.
For those not in the know, Rocco Siffredi is a noted Italian porn film star. Enough said! Bill Emmott, on the other hand, is not Italian! Still, this former editor of The Economist may be just the person to sort unruly Italy out!
Many thanks to John Hooper for taking the time to complete this interview, and you can find Hooper’s articles here: The Guardian – John Hooper, and some more information can be found here: John Hooper on Wikipedia.
Photograph of John Hooper by Nick Cornish.