John Hooper, my predecessor as Rome correspondent and my guide


Long before even meeting John Hooper, affectionately known among foreign correspondents in Rome as “the Hoops”, I considered him a guide.

In 2018, in preparation for the March general election, I bought his book, The Italians, seeking insight into Italian history, culture and mindset

At the time I was freelancing for the Guardian and the election was my first big story. Italy was on the cusp of a political change. The Five Star Movement (M5S), a populist party formed by the comedian Beppe Grillo nine years earlier, was commanding a significant lead in the polls. As I travelled to rallies, the historical context outlined in The Italians helped me to understand why, after more than two decades of reckless politics and meagre economic growth, people wanted change. A few months later, in Italy’s second most dramatic political shift since the second world war, M5S, which had captured the lion’s share of parliamentary seats in the election, formed a coalition with the far-right League.

When Hooper arrived in Rome as the Guardian’s Italy and southern European correspondent in early 1994, his debut story, too, was an election – the one that brought Italy’s original populist, Silvio Berlusconi, to power. Berlusconi, a property and media magnate, had formed his Forza Italia party only three months earlier, capitalising on a corruption scandal that had decimated the old political order, and savvily using his media outlets to give rise to Italy’s first postwar rightwing government.

“I thought that what I was seeing was totally new, that nothing like this had ever happened before,” said Hooper. “I mean, here was someone who was breaking all the rules – up until then, parties who gained power had to have been in existence for many years, to have built up a vast base of support in the country, and here comes a guy who just throws money at it.”

The government, which included the Northern League (today called the League) and National Alliance, a descendant of the neofascist Italian Social Movement, lasted less than a year, but with Berlusconi later twice returned to power, it nevertheless charted Italy’s course for the following two decades.

“That first government was immensely colourful and hugely divided,” Hooper said. “Berlusconi put in place people who had never been anywhere near power before.”

Guardian reporter Angela Giuffrida talking to residents of a small town in the Molise region of Italy.
Angela Giuffrida talking to residents of a small town in the Molise region of Italy.

Short-lived governments have been par for the course in Italy’s political story since then, although it is Berlusconi’s second administration, between 2001 and 2006, that reigned the longest.

Another ongoing theme is immigration. Italy’s experience with mass immigration only really began in the 1990s, and since then the story has changed little – people still regularly drown in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe on rickety boats. Hooper’s first big migrant trafficking story came on Boxing Day 1996, after 283 people drowned when their boat sank off Sicily. The story became known as the Ship of Death, and Hooper was among the award-winning Observer team that investigated the aftermath.

But he almost missed the scoop. “That story came because of a telephone call from a foreign editor in London,” said Hooper. “He had seen something on the wires and called my home just as I was walking out of the door – if I’d shut the door and walked off, the story would have been lost.”

Few journalists had mobile phones in the mid-90s. “Those were the days when you’d go to a bar and ask for the phone number to give to your editors in case a story happened while you were there. You always lived with the paranoia that you could miss a story.”

The anxiety over missing a story is still there, although nowadays, with smartphones, the internet and social media, a foreign correspondent can check the news continually and is always reachable.

However, the differences in story gathering then and now are stark: much of Hooper’s morning would be spent collecting his facts, making calls and, in pre-internet times, cutting stories from newspapers for his clippings library. With less pressure to file instantly, he could spend time chatting to contacts on the phone or over long lunches, often getting the best stories that way. The telephone was his golden tool, the means by which he sent his story to the newspaper, dictating it over the phone to a copytaker: “There were constant misunderstandings, especially when the line was bad.”

Nowdays, copy can be filed in an instant. With time being of the essence, it is sometimes written on a mobile phone from wherever you may be – on the bus, train, in the supermarket aisle.

Hooper did two stints as the Guardian’s Rome correspondent, returning in 2003 and continuing to write for the newspaper until 2015. He is now Italy correspondent for The Economist.

Other memorable moments over the years involved covering the mafia – he once unwittingly drank tea with a mobster in Sicily.

The one constant has been the political instability, with the shadow of Berlusconi still looming large. “Over the last 20 years, Italy’s story has been a dismal one – one of economic underperformance and political instability – and I think Berlusconi bears a very heavy responsibility,” Hooper said.

However, as Italy finds its way out of the coronavirus pandemic – undoubtedly the biggest story of our time – Hooper is sensing a more positive vibe. The government is now led by Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief called on to form a broad coalition after the most recent government collapse.

“Maybe Italy is finally turning a corner,” said Hooper. “I’ve spent time talking to people in the ministries and there is a new spirit around with Draghi, an atmosphere that I’ve never known before.”



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