Until recently, Beppe Grillo was just another controversial Italian comedian. Now he is also the founder of V-Day in Italy. V doesn’t stand for victory but the Italian equivalent of “Get Stuffed Day”, or something a little more rude. He’s raising the V-sign to what he calls grey-haired, corrupt, politicians advocating a revolution in Italian politics.
But who is the man behind the headlines? “Who am I? I am Beppe Grillo,” he says. “A comedian. A variety artist. I started with cabaret – first one, then two, then five. It’s like with my blog. First one reader then two then thousands.”
But Grillo fell foul of the Italian media in the mid- 1980’s for a barbed joke against the-then socialist leader Bettino Craxi. He was effectively banned from the airwaves but he didn’t let it silence him. “I am a respected person. In 30 years of speaking out I’ve earned respect. And respect is everything if you are in information. If you write something on the net which is wrong, within 24 hours you have 2000 messages from people telling you that you are a liar. So you can’t lie.
“This is democracy. If you speak through television and newspapers you are generally unchallenged but on the web your reputation is at stake. “Everyone in Italy has tried to start a blog – politicians, journalists – but they never last. Our Minister of Justice, Clemente Mastella, has one and he talks about me in it. That’s like Gordon Brown in England answering Mr Bean!
“And what about our political leaders? Prodi, our “Mr Valium”, you know him? He’s the one who speaks with his hands. Well, he tried to start a blog. He closed it down 15 days later. Not to mention that psycho-dwarf Berlusconi. He doesn’t really exist. He is human advertising. He’s like a hologram.”
Grillo is very proud of his blog. It is Italy’s most popular with more than 200,000 hits a day. One recent poll claimed 50% of Italians would vote for him if he ran for election. When he called rallies to support his political ideas more than 300,000 people signed his petition. V-Day, every 8th of September, is part of that movement. “This V-Day has been organised in a perfectly constitutional way,” the comedian insists. “It has been marked by one and a half million people, young people, without any violence and in a very spontaneous way.”
The protest movement was born on the internet. “The net provides an opportunity to demonstrate in a non-violent fashion from your own home. We have a protest march going on all the time on our website, http://www.Beppegrillo.it It looks like a silly game with tiny, tiny characters. But when you click on one of the tiny little people – and there are 235,000 of them – you will see a real person’s name.”
Grillo is quick to stress that this is not a protest against politics but against politicians. He says political parties have tried to ignore him but they can’t anymore because of the size of the movement behind him. He says the way Italian politicians behave they give him all the ammunition he needs to swell his ranks.
“We have 24 convicted criminals in Parliament. The outlaws are making the laws! One in ten members of parliament has had a run in with the law. One in ten! One in ten has a criminal record. In the New York Bronx the number of people said to be involved in crime is estimated to be one in fifteen. The Bronx would fear our Parliament.
“My movement wants a new law. We say no to convicted parliamentarians. That seems perfectly obvious and normal. We say no to people being able to serve more than two parliamentary terms. We don’t want professional politicians. Two mandates is 10 years. In 10 years you have the time to make a difference. We’re not talking six months. Ten years! And we want direct elections. Candidates must be chosen by the people. You choose someone and you propose him to parliament.”
So is Grillo a left-winger or a right-winger? “That’s an old fashioned way of thinking,” he counters. “There is no left or right.” The turn-out for Beppe Grillo’s V-Day stunned the political establishment. Politicians have attacked Grillo as a demogogue, an ignorant popularist who ignores the law. But Grillo doesn’t only attack politicians.
Earlier this year he went to the General Assembly for Telecom Italia to demand the resignation of the board. He blamed company chiefs for the state of the industry. “Do a favour to the country and show some dignity by leaving,” he told them.
“The owners of huge firms like Telecom Italia are the small investors,” said Grillo. “ Take the CEO. He pretended to be this great capitalist but then we saw what he really was. A fake. He showed that by his insider trading. In the US, for something like that, he would have been sentenced to 20 years in prison. Here, in Italy, he earned 240 million euros and now he is sailing in his boat after ruining two companies, Pirelli and Telecom. I went to that meeting to represent the small investors. I asked small investors to delegate me to represent them in order to give them a voice.”
Grillo is also known abroad. In 2005 he was nominated by Time magazine as one of Europe’s rebel heroes of the year. He was also the first-ever comedian to be invited to the European Parliament where he announced the V-Day initiative.
Grillo’s other bete noire is the media, with the exception of one channel, he said: EuroNews and its “No Comment” feature. “It’s fantastic. It’s extraordinary. I posted a comment on EuroNews. This is the only news bulletin to watch. And the “No comment”, silence, is marvellous. You can hear the voices. Even in a football match you can hear the coach screaming. You can feel the game. Italian journalists are useless. They are toast!”
Next V-Day he intends to go after the state-financed Italian media: “We need to cut off the public financing for this rubbish service.” Grillo likes to play the joker but his message is serious. He even has the Italian president concerned. Giorgio Napolitano said the anti-politician movement is “dangerous” and the media should stop its attacks on Italian politics.