Barbara Serra is an Italian journalist working for Al Jazeera English in London.
Born in Milan in 1974, Barbara moved to Denmark with her family when she was eight years old. Ten years later, she moved to London, where she studied International Relations at the London School of Economics and Journalism at City University. She began her journalism career at the BBC, and went on to work for Sky News; in 2005, she became the first foreign news reader on English TV when she presented the evening news on Channel 5. Since 2006, she has been at Al Jazeera English, where she anchors the news in the late afternoon and also reports from the field in different locations around the world.
Barbara is a mix of Italian culture and traditions, Anglo-Saxon upbringing and professional training, and global perspective from working for an international news channel like Al Jazeera.
We met Barbara during the Ilaria Alpi journalism conference in Riccione, where she presented her book “Gli italiani non sono pigri” (“Italians are not lazy”), winner of the literary prize Premio Caccuri for essay writing. In the book, she analyzes the cultural and professional differences between the Italian system and the Anglo-Saxon world. We talked to Barbara about her book, and about opportunities and change in Italy.
Why did you want to write this book, and why did you choose this title?
I suppose because it made me think about stereotypes, and especially the stereotypes that have been resurfacing with the Eurozone crisis. I’ve had a lot of heated arguments with people who would say, ‘Look at the countries that are worst hit, it’s Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, the southern periphery of Europe, the ones whose cultures are most often associated with that lazy dolce vita, mañana mañana stereotype…’ And everyone conveniently forgot about Ireland which had a bailout, but never mind, it didn’t fit into the narrative! And so I started to think: I know it’s not about laziness, but it made me think about what the differences were. There is a reality there I don’t think any of us, Italian or not, can evade from, and that is, those societies are just less efficient. And what is it in the Italian culture that makes the system less efficient? That’s sort of what I explored in the book.
So what is it in the Italian culture that makes the system less efficient? For example, in the workplace environment, what are the main differences between the Anglo-Saxon and the Italian system?
In the Anglo-Saxon system there is more meritocracy; by and large the bosses are there because they have worked their way up, which makes everything more efficient; when you have that, then the bosses trust themselves to pick the talent below them and push that forward, which makes the whole company work better; and maybe, I would say, they are more competitive in the Anglo-Saxon system. On the other hand, Italians know how to be flexible because they so often have to be; an Italian will always have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, all the way down to Z! Italians always know how to make things work, one way or another.
[Photo: Barbara reporting from Rome, outside Palazzo Montecitorio, seat of the Italian Parliament.]
And a chapter in your book is entirely devoted to meritocracy. You claim that this term is mentioned in every debate as the remedy to all of Italy’s afflictions, but nobody seems to take the ruthless side of meritocracy into account, including competition and ambition.
First of all, one of the things that cripples Italy is nepotism, and it goes to all layers. It’s not just 'the boyfriend of' or 'the son of', it’s this really intrinsic thing they have because there is no real help from the state, so your family and close friends become your safety net; I think that’s at the root of a lot of the nepotism in Italy. But obviously that nepotism has gone too far, which means that the most capable people are not in the key jobs, and that makes the whole country less efficient. So meritocracy certainly is the antidote: meritocracy makes any society more efficient. But what I think has happened in Italy, because there is so much bitterness and anger over this nepotistic system, meritocracy has kind of become this buzzword for ‘away with the old, in with the new, it’s gonna be this great new world’; but meritocracy doesn’t mean an end to unemployment, for example, and it doesn’t mean opportunities for everyone; it just means the people that get to the top, get there because they deserve it, because they earned it or are the right people for the job, and that, I think, has been missing in the Italian national discourse.
The other thing is, unless someone explains it to me differently, I always saw meritocracy go hand in hand with competition and, again, in Italy you don’t really hear that. I think the educational system doesn’t push toward competition. Also, competition is seen with suspicion, as if they don’t believe in it: they don’t believe you compete, the best person gets the job; they think you compete, the person that knows someone gets the job. And with competition, ambition goes hand in hand, and again, I think, ambition in Italy is misconceived as careerism, as a back-stabbing thing, especially for women. But it’s not, it’s just having a goal, focusing on it and trying to do what you can to get there. What I thought was misleading, especially towards a lot of young people that then I would see in London, was this idea of meritocracy being the solution, without explaining there is a competitive edge to it.
[Photo: Barbara with Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff's 2009 Holy Land trip.]
It is estimated that at least 250,000 Italians now live in London. Many have moved there in search of better job opportunities. What happens once they get there?
There are a lot of people in Italy that think that London is some kind of paradise, and it is, it’s great, but you’ve got to have a clear idea. There is a big difference between the Italians I see here now and the ones I saw here in London 10 years ago, when it used to be people with a plan, a clear ambition, who really thought it through. Now you get a lot of people that are running away, that almost don’t have a plan, that almost don’t have a particular ambition, other than - and this is actually a great ambition - to be able to properly start a career, get a mortgage, buy a house, get married and not live with mom and dad age 35, not because they're lazy, but because life in Italy is tough. You don’t get credit, you don’t get mortgages, there’s no help from the state, especially for the youth unemployed. So that’s what I see, and it is worrying because they come to London without a particular dream and that specific drive that you need to achieve your dream in a big city.
Despite the fact that the current government led by Matteo Renzi, the youngest premier in Italy's history, is promising big changes, many Italians, especially young people, seem to have no hope for their future in Italy. Do you think the international press agrees with them or is Italy taken more seriously now that the Berlusconi era seems to have come to an end?
It’s no secret that the international press, with the possible exception of the Russian press, didn’t have a lot of faith in Berlusconi. Rightly or wrongly, many observers were happy to see him go because they aligned him with a lot of the problems in Italy, which I don’t think it’s necessarily completely the case: you can erase Berlusconi and a lot of the problems will still be there.
I think a lot of people want to have hope in Renzi, maybe they see in him someone they can work with, but it takes more than one guy. They’re still waiting for Italy to change. Italy isn’t on a par with France and Germany in the European stake, and it is still seen as unpredictable and not trustworthy. Ultimately, Italy has to go through some pretty painful system changes, and until that is done, until Italy becomes more productive and more stable, it’s a bit of a wait and see.
Across the world now, people don’t trust their politicians very much, but in Italy it’s even worse because of the scandals that seem to happen every five minutes. Renzi has to win over a super skeptical audience that doesn’t really trust in politics and doesn’t think that any change will help them in the long run. In Italy, people don’t believe sacrifices will be worth it or that they’ll eventually reap the rewards. Considering how Italy has been run for the past however long, who can blame them?
How do you see the future of Italy, do you believe Italy can change to become more efficient and meritocratic?
I think the change is happening already. Italy is at a crossroads, and I think either change happens or Italy will lose the political influence it has and the economic standing that it has. Italy is still the 8th economic power in the world, and that is one hell of a privilege, but it has to become more efficient, or it is going to lose that position.
[Photo: Barbara with a Palestinian child in the Gaza Strip]
Your last chapter in the book is about women, "the least lazy of all"; do you think it is more difficult for a woman in Italy to progress in her career and if so, why?
Yes, and every statistics points to that. Italy is a more traditional country where the role of a woman is still more traditional than in the Anglo-Saxon countries. I’m not saying that in Italy they think a woman needs to stay home, but the situation that has been created is a situation where 'the woman' has to do everything, and that’s also why we see Italy with a very low birth rate: there is a limit to how much women can do. Whenever young Italian girls come and ask me for advice, my answer is always, 'be very careful who you marry if you want both a career and a family'. I just don’t see that many guys going around pushing a pram in Italy! Whereas in London, or in Denmark, it’s very different, and it’s not just because it’s imposed on the men. Most of my male friends are very proud to be hands-on dads. But I think Italy is in a transition phase: the days when only one person could work are gone, and if you need two incomes, you can’t put everything on one person when it comes to the housework.