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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006, 10:49 GMT
Meeting Italy's silenced satirist
By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News, Genoa

As an Italian schoolboy, Beppe Grillo's talent for making people laugh used to keep him out of trouble.

Beppe Grillo at his computer near Genoa, Italy
Beppe Grillo: first a television funny man and now a barefoot blogger

Now, his irresistible urge to point out the absurd and the unjust in his country's politics and practice constantly lands him in hot water.

Indeed, the charismatic comic, who shifted from slapstick television comedian through political satirist, to campaigning blogger, has built a career on stepping gleefully, and angrily, over the line.

Shunned by Italian television after daring to make allegations about then-Prime Minister Bettino Craxi in 1987, who was later brought down in the Tangentopoli corruption scandal, one of Italy's best-loved comics all but vanished from the small screen during the 1990s.

Instead, he stoked a loyal fan base by taking his show on tour across Italy's piazzas, theatres and even football stadiums.

During his performances he works himself up into an incensed - and sweaty - frenzy.

He throws himself around the stage with white hair flailing, blue eyes glinting and drops of sweat falling on those with front row seats.

New renaissance

But his most powerful ally and tool has become the internet, an information source that resists control and, he says, promises a new renaissance.

Beppe Grillo (left) meets Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi (picture courtesy of Beppe Grillo)
Angry but engaging: Mr Grillo (l) meets Italy's prime minister

His personal blog, kept religiously from its launch in October 2005, has become a phenomenon, often among the top 20 blogs worldwide and almost always the most-read blog in Italy.

"Comedy has always been my way of engaging with the world," Beppe Grillo says from his study high in the hills above the port city of Genoa.

"I've just changed the subject of my comedy. It used to be politicians, but then I realised that [cleaning agent] Mr Muscle was far more dangerous than Mr Politician. He has far more on an impact on my life than a politician."

Now the politics of energy and the environment is what absorbs and worries him, but his exasperation at those in power continues.

"Nobody is looking forward, everyone looks to the past," he says of Italy's political elite.

"Most of them are 70 years old! They aren't interested in the future - they won't be around."


In one of his campaigns he investigated the criminal records of the country's members of parliament, publishing the details on his website, in a catalogue of Cowboy-and-Western style "Wanted" posters.

Of his role in uncovering the billion-euro financial scandal that brought dairy conglomerate Parmalat crashing to its knees, he says simply that anyone could have seen it coming, if they had bothered to look.

The problem is not between right and left, but between them and us
Beppe Grillo
His new blog has also proved a rich source for exposes as, he says, whistle-blowers or guilt-ridden managers get in touch.

His line of work ensures his lawyers are kept very busy and the invites to return to Italian television never arrive.

He also instigated what he calls "Citizens Primaries" - discussing, debating and drawing up proposals online about how to improve the country's economy, health and transport.

He even managed to secure a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi to present them in person.

But, although relieved at the defeat of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's richest man and a favourite target for Mr Grillo's wit, he seems unimpressed by the new centre-left coalition.

"The problem is not between right and left, but between them and us. Between millions of citizens who have become invisible and politicians who just talk among themselves.

Direct democracy

His solution is to encourage direct contact between people, avoiding the distorting barriers of advertising, information filters or middlemen.

According to Mr Grillo, retailers, journalists and politicians will be among the inevitable fatalities of the web revolution.

Beppe Grillo in front of his library
This is such a huge transformation, so large, that many cannot perceive it

"The net!" he exclaims, rolling his eyes, "This is such a huge transformation, so large, that many cannot perceive it - it blinds them."

Mr Grillo has embraced the blog format as his own, with daily postings on uncomfortable topics that are rarely given space in the mainstream media.

It appears to be working - up to 200,000 people read his blog daily and some posts can generate up to 2,000 comments.

His critics accuse him of having become the very thing he hates - an over-exposed brand in his own right; a shameless self-promoter who has created his very own international distribution network, selling his books, DVDs and tickets to his performances online.

They doubt the veracity of his outrage at a system which provides him with so much material.

To this he responds that his success is due to his sincerity and the power of the medium he champions.

People trust him as a source of information, he says, because has no skeletons in his cupboard and he is paid only by himself.

Even the sceptical have to admit that he manages to engage and enrage a whole section of Italian society disillusioned with its fragmented yet static politics.

Ironically, the "censoring" of Mr Grillo has been the key to his success.

His efforts to circumvent his silencing by shifting from television to the internet, from advertising to word-of-mouth, have only heightened his popularity.

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