Enzo Tortora
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Enzo Tortora

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Thu 30 Oct 2008 1:00 AM

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.

 

 

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