Illustration by Leo Cardini
Most people remember vividly where they were when some momentous event occurred, such as the day John Kennedy was assassinated or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Like them, I remember exactly where I was when Enzo Tortora was arrested. It was June 17, 1983, and I was in Ravenna, visiting the city for the first time, when the news broke that one of Italy's most popular television presenters had been taken into custody at 4 o'clock that morning. He was accused by the prosecutor's office of Naples of pushing drugs and of associating with the Nuova Camorra Organizzata, the mafia-style organisation based in Campania.
At the time, Tortora presented a groundbreaking transmission called Portobello, which attracted an audience of up to 26 million people every Friday night, far outstripping any other programme. Created in 1978, it was the forerunner of today's reality television. Named after the famous market in London, the show allowed the public, via telephone from home, to buy or sell things, present ideas or inventions, or look for a partner or someone they had not seen for years. The challenge for those participating in the studio was to get Portobello, the green parrot and mascot of the show, to say his name. He rarely did.
Tortora was not new to show business. After taking a degree in journalism in Genoa, where he was born on November 30, 1928, he worked in theatre with Paolo Villaggio before joining Italy's state radio and television corporation, RAI, as a radio announcer. He first appeared on television in 1956 and, over the years, presented programmes as varied as Domenica Sportiva and Giochi senza frontiere until 1969, when he was fired by RAI for describing, in an interview, the corporation's managers as a group of boy scouts trying unsuccessfully to pilot a supersonic jet plane. Before returning to the RAI in 1977, he worked for several private TV stations and wrote for various newspapers.
Why was Tortora arrested? During the trial against components of the Nuova Camorra Organizzata led by the boss, Raffaele Cutolo, a number of the accused, almost all of whom were previously convicted offenders, falsely accused Tortora of being a member of their organisation. They were pentiti or, in other words, they had ‘repented' and turned prosecution witnesses in order to get lighter sentences for themselves. Little or no hard evidence existed except for an address book allegedly containing Tortora's name and phone number found at the home of one of his accusers. Handwriting experts later demonstrated that the name was Tortona and not Tortora and that the phone number was not his.
Tortora spent seven months in prison before being granted house arrest on grounds of ill health. With the support of the Radical Party that firmly believed in his innocence, in 1984, Tortora was elected to the European Parliament. Nonetheless, in September 1985, based on the false accusations, compounded by the less-than-effective investigations carried out by the prosecuting magistrates and to the satisfaction of much of the press at the time, he was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. In December 1985, the European Parliament refused to give an authorisation to proceed against him for contempt of court over an incident that occurred during his trial. Later that month, he gave up his parliamentary immunity by resigning from the Parliament and resumed house arrest. Finally, on appeal, in September 1986, Tortora was acquitted of all charges, a decision that was made definitive by the Supreme Court in June 1987.
When, after four long years, in February 1987, Tortora, a profoundly changed man, appeared once again before the television cameras on Portobello, he simply said ‘Well then, where did we leave off?' His return, however, was sadly short-lived. Not yet 60, Tortora died in Milan on May 18, 1988 of a tumour, which, some said, was precipitated by the psychological stress of the judicial calvary he had endured.
The clamour created by Tortora's premature death and the injustice he suffered led, in 1987, to a referendum on the civil liability of the judiciary in which, of the 65 percent of the population with the right to vote, 80 percent voted in favour. Regrettably, legislation known as the Vassalli Law was quickly enacted, effectively abrogating the results of the referendum by shifting liability from individual judges to the state. This caused some to suspect that the judiciary had almost become a caste, especially when judges or prosecuting magistrates who made mistakes infrequently had to account for them-or may even have been promoted despite them, as in the Tortora case.