Scandal stings parliament

TV show alleges shocking drug abuse

Brenda Dionisi
November 2, 2006

Another scandal has broken out among Italian parliamentarians at Montecitorio. This time, however, it had nothing to with Mafia connections or massive budget deficits, but with the alleged widespread drug use among Italian lawmakers. In a clever yet classic sting operation staged by the producers of Le Iene, a popular prime time TV show combining satire with investigative journalism, a secret drug test taken by Italian parliamentarians revealed that almost one out of three Italian MPs appeared to have taken illegal drugs in the previous 36 hours. More precisely, the secret drug test showed that 16 out of 50 politicians had allegedly tested positive for cannabis and cocaine use.


The cult TV show Le Iene, well-known for its spoofs and pranks that embarrass public figures, sent a reporter and camera crew, purporting to represent Fox TV, to the Italian Parliament at Montecitorio asking MPs for their views on the 2007 budget draft. Yet unknown to the politicians posing for the camera, the makeup artist dabbing the sweat from their brows during their ‘interview’ was in reality collecting their perspiration in order to test it for the presence of illegal substances. The tests were conducted with a device called ‘Drugswipe.’ Sold on the Internet and used by German and Swiss police in random traffic checks, it can test for drug use within the last 36 hours in as little as five minutes.


Amid parliamentary uproar over the shocking results of the secret drug test conducted by Le Iene, Italy’s Privacy Authority ordered the show to pull the exposé on Italian MPs and drug use, which was set to launch the 2006 autumn series on Oct. 10. The Privacy Authority blocked the transmission of the segment, contending that the data was collected in a covert and illegal manner, thereby invading the MPs’ privacy. Regardless of the censorship order, the story leaked a few days before the proposed broadcast and quickly hit the front-page headlines.


A large number of MPs at Montecitorio had strongly reacted to the drug test results, as well as to the methods used to entrap the deputies being interviewed. While some politicians questioned the credibility of Italian parliamentarians, the majority of MPs furiously contested the validity of the Drugswipe test. Former president of the lower house Pierferdinando Casini stated, ‘The value of this experiment is precisely zero.’ In response to concerns about the test’s reliability, the chief producer of Le Iene, Davide Parenti, had argued that the Drugswipe ‘is 100 percent accurate,’ a claim supported by a prominent Italian toxicologist, Piergiorgio Zuccaro, who added that the Drugswipe is a ‘serious and scientifically valid test, although results still need to be confirmed in a laboratory.’ Nonetheless, Italo Bocchino of the rightwing National Alliance party demanded that the samples taken from MPs be destroyed and wants the show’s producers ‘severely punished for being in illegal possession of the DNA of 50 parliamentarians.’


Regarding several MP’s accusations of violation of privacy, Parenti zealously denied any infringement of Italy’s privacy law: ‘The spirit of the program is not to persecute any one person but to be the mirror of Italy.’ He further claimed that the results were ‘in line with the national statistics,’ which show that drug use is common in Italy. In fact, according to the newspaper La Repubblica, surveys show that 4 million Italians use cannabis and 700,000 use cocaine. 


Although the producers complied with the Privacy Authority’s order to cut the segment, the two hosts of Le Iene defended the results and methods used behind their sting, arguing on air that the censored exposé would have nonetheless ensured anonymity. The show was planning to blur the politicians’ faces and camouflage their voices, claiming that the samples gathered were not labelled with the politicians’ names. Instead, the first episode of the autumn series broadcast a similar segment in which the Drugswipe test was unknowingly used on the patrons of a nightclub. Results showed that 20 out of the 40 club-goers interviewed had tested positive for cocaine. However, in this case the Italian Privacy Authority did not censor the segment.


But wouldn’t an identical sting on the Italian public also be a violation of an individual’s privacy? Is this a double standard applicable only to Italian MPs who consider themselves above the law, yet the citizenry not? Is this so-called ‘privacy privilege’ among MPs valid only for those who passed the ‘zero tolerance’ drug law last February, abolishing the distinction between hard and soft drugs and making possession as well as dealing a criminal offence? While the producers of Le Iene are now under investigation by the Italian Privacy Authority for violating the politician’s privacy during the sting, who is ensuring that Italy’s lawmakers are not getting high in parliament? As I proceed to follow this story until its end, I am sadly reminded of the last remaining animal commandment in George Orwell’s political satire Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ 

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