A queue of people – more than 100 metres long – awaits to enter the ‘Teatro Morlacchi’ in Perugia on the afternoon of 8 April 2017. They are there to pay tribute to Milena Gabanelli and to the work she has done for the past 20 years, leading and presenting Report, the investigative journalism TV programme on RAI 3.
The long round of applause when she goes on stage, and a video in the background showing her greetings at her last episode of Report, bring back the emotions of that moment.
Gabanelli remembers the first episode as lucidly as the last one. It was 1997, and the programme had a paltry budget of 10 million lire (corresponding roughly to 5000 euros). It was barely enough to refund the reporters expenses. Initially Report had no legal protection: it had to avoid ending up in court, and, just in case that happened, to get the facts right. The legal safeguard was granted by RAI (Italy’s national public broadcaster) 10 years later, but Mauro Masi, Rai’s director at that time, withdrew it shortly afterwards. Gabanelli says nobody wanted to insure them in Italy. However, a US company approved an insurance policy for the programme itself (against the “unsure risk” of losing legal challenges) as they trusted Report’s investigations would continue standing on good grounds. Yet, they did not insure them against the “sure risk” of Report being prosecuted. They knew those types of investigations would definitely trigger legal claims.
One of the biggest legal challenges involved a claim for refund by telco company ‘Three’ of more than a hundred million of euros. Eventually, the judge confirmed the validity of Report’s investigation. Of course these legal battles, lasting several years, were – and still are – a source of stress: as Gabanelli jokes, she could only deal with them thanks to a good dose of tranquilizers.
Responding to a question on her status as a freelance journalist, Gabanelli explains she has always been a freelance (until quitting Report), and most of her former colleagues at Report still are. Not because she chose it, but rather because nobody ever offered to hire her. When she replies to questions from aspirant or young journalists, she makes no secret that this job requires a lot of time (to study, build experience, become resilient etc.), gives little satisfactions and remuneration, particularly at the beginning, and needs a certain degree of loneliness, as you might need to avoid relations which may hinder your independence.
Before launching Report, Gabanelli was reporting from war zones. She says that new technologies have significantly shortened the time needed to find news, but they have not changed the necessity of being in-locum to be able to portray a sharp picture of the situation. However, when you are in a war-zone you need to be aware that your fixer might give you biased views on who is the victim and who is to be blamed. Gabanelli also says that only in the field you can see the brutality of the war, while to understand its motives and dynamics you should rather go to a Western capital (Washington DC, London, Paris or Berlin). What remains extremely difficult is also to find out the triggers and origins of wars. When it comes to Syria, Gabanelli thinks the situation had been significantly undervalued by Western countries: the fact that Italy awarded the Syrian president with a medal is a proof of this.
Gabanelli has left Report, but has not given up on her ‘activism’. She recently submitted a plan to the EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, and the Italian Minister Minniti, on how Italy could manage the migration crisis. With pragmatism, Gabanelli explains that exposure to migrations (“which will not stop”) forces Italy to roll up its sleeves and implement a public management system, just like an enterprise would do. Existing public spaces (former hospitals and barracks) which are not currently being used should be re-adapted for hosting migrants. This would lead to significant savings for the public budget, and create an infrastructure for the identification of migrants, assessment of asylum claims (within 6 months as prescribed by law), basic education (such as language courses). This would ensure migrants are not left at the margins of society, or be perceived as dangerous or parasites (popular concerns that Gabanelli does not dismiss), but rather become a resource. Gabanelli’s project is being considered by the authorities, and a long applause from the public pays tribute also to these ongoing endeavours. This is not the only thing Gabanelli is working on: she is also building a single online news gateway for Rai 1, which is certainly not a simple challenge.
Engaging with the audience at Teatro Morlacchi, Gabanelli says she still rejects the calls to join politics, but in her daily life she shows how journalism can serve the res publica. She is cautious also on the concept of truth, which she sees as a sacred one. She says that even tribunals work to attain justice rather than ‘truth’, and investigative journalists should have no pretension to affirm truth, but rather aim to explain how events went, get close to the reality of things, “clean up the ground from the waste”.
The closing comments from Gabanelli are a call to every citizen -beyond the tributes and investigations- to take up her or his responsibility to change things for the better.