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An interdiscursive construction: legitimacy and authority in Conte’s first press conferences on Covid-19

Une construction interdiscursive : la légitimité et l’autorité dans les premières conférences de presse de Conte sur la Covid-19
Caterina Scaccia
Cet article est une traduction de :
Une construction interdiscursive : la légitimité et l’autorité dans les premières conférences de presse de Conte sur la Covid-19 [fr]


L’article examine en contexte les stratégies discursives dont use le Premier ministre (PM) italien Giuseppe Conte dans ses premières allocutions sur la Covid-19 pour construire discursivement sa légitimité et son l’autorité, en éclairant l’interdépendance des deux concepts. Une étude de l’interdiscours médiatique permet de saisir le caractère constitutif du rapport dialogique qui s’instaure entre les allocutions du PM et les réactions dans la presse. Les analyses montrent que les stratégies de construction de la légitimité et de l’autorité de Conte évoluent conjointement en réaction au contre-discours médiatique.

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1Covid-19 reaches Italy at a time of political instability. In such a context, our hypothesis is that the Prime Ministers (PM) work of legitimation was twofold. He had to show that his executive is legitimate, and it is only from this legitimate power, which confers institutional authority (Angenot 2013: 8), that he could present measures against the epidemic. These measures must also be justified so that the citizens recognize the legitimacy not only of the one who adopted them but also of his health policy. Only under these conditions citizens can accept the authority of the political leader and willingly submit to unusual constraints.

2We distinguish here with Charaudeau between legitimacy and authority, the first being not only the institutional right, but also the moral right, to say and to do, and the other being the capacity to be obeyed without coercion. The two notions are intertwined, and both imply cooperation between those who are governed and the one who governs: the former are invited to recognize the legitimacy, and to accept the authority of the latter (2014: 52).

3It is important to emphasize, as Amossy (2022) and van Leeuwen (2007: 92) point out, that the construction of legitimacy and authority can only be fully grasped in the interdiscursive space in which it is situated, i.e. in “the set of discursive units (from previous discourse of the same genre, contemporary discourse of other genres, etc.) with which a particular discourse enters into an implicit or explicit contact” (Maingueneau 2002: 324; our translation).

4In the present case, we can only understand the strategies of PM Giuseppe Conte by considering what is being said and written around him, and mainly the counter-discourse issued by his political opponents as reported by the media, and the criticisms issued by the media themselves. This counter-discourse sometimes goes as far as delegitimizing the measures adopted and threatens to undermine the institutional and personal authority which should enable Conte to be obeyed. A gradual adjustment of the PM’s discourse to this interdiscourse is emerging over time. To demonstrate this, the analyses have focused on both the speeches and the interdiscourse of reference.

  • 1 We have transcribed and translated the texts from the following sources:

5The corpus consists of two press conferences (PCs) held by Conte on January 30 and February 22, 2020, which we consider to be the founding speeches on Covid-19 in Italy.1 These are the first moments in which the epidemic is dealt with in a comprehensive way and in which the discursive strategy of the address to the nation is defined. These two PCs share some features that differentiate them from the following speeches. Conte does not appear alone but accompanied by political and scientific authorities. And in less than 24 hours after each PC, the PM appears in very followed and even popular programs, which unveil his intention to directly address an audience as large as possible. By contrast, from March 9, Conte is alone while announcing the national lockdown. This is a more advanced phase of the epidemic, marked by an evolution of the crisis discourse that will not be investigated in the present study.

  • 2 Flaws in La Stampa’s online archive prevented reliable consultation, which forced us to discard it (...)

6To show the intertwined relation between Contes discourses and media discourse, we will focus on the most widely circulated national newspapers in the period from 28.1. to 9.3.2020: Il Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, Il Sole 24 Ore.2 Il Fatto Quotidiano, with a more limited circulation, was taken into account for its alleged proximity to the PM and, as we shall see, helps to clarify the analyses.

7A final methodological consideration is that if a dialogical relationship is established between the press and Conte’s discursive strategies of legitimation and authority-building, it must necessarily develop over time, in the form of reactions to the other’s word that are inscribed in the PM’s discourse without necessarily being signaled as responses to a previous discourse. In order to identify and study this constitutive relationship, our analyses follow a deliberately chronological order.

8Some details about the main speaker, Conte, and the Italian political context, are crucial. During his “tsunami tour,” Grillo, the co-founder and current leader of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) who refused the definition of political party, attacked the political caste, and preached the coming of days when mothers would become leaders. However, when this populist movement triumphed in the 2018 elections, Conte was proposed as PM, a lawyer who had previously voted for the left and who was dedicated to the legal profession and teaching. Charged by the President of the Republic to form a coalition government, he defines his mission as follows: “I propose to be the lawyer defending all Italians.”

  • 3 In August 2019, La Lega (majority party) presented a motion of non-confidence against Conte; althou (...)
  • 4 In the 2018 elections, the M5S obtained 32% of the votes against the 18% of the PD and the 17% of L (...)

9The executive will soon be facing a governmental crisis, which will bring a reorganization of coalitions leading to a new executive.3 At the head of the government named Conte Bis, “the lawyer” appears to be still locked in the role of mediator between political forces that, in addition to going through internal crises, also diverge in their political agenda. Two weeks after the formation of the new government, the center-left split, and Renzi (former secretary of the Partito Democratico and former PM) founded the Italia Viva party; he did not abandon the coalition, but there was destabilization. As for M5S, after Di Maios resignation, it suffered from the lack of a recognized guide and its non-party status lost its appeal. This status gave M5S an advantage with the disappointed electorate of 2018, which had expressed a protest vote against the right and against the left; but it became later a mere label. Once in the coalition government, M5S was forced to accept a logic of political compromises. Thus, the epidemic catches this anti-party movement in a situation of identity disorientation, leadership crisis, and dramatic drop in popularity.4

10This situation could paralyze the action of the government in a country which occupies at that moment one of the lowest positions in the European GDP ranking. The President formulates his admonition as follows: “now the government must not float” (Il Corriere della Sera 28.1.2020). However, two days after this admonition, Conte, a novice in politics, is confronted in this unfavorable political and economic climate with the need to “defend all Italians” against Covid-19.

1. The press conference as an instrument of legitimacy

11Referring to electoral mandate, Pierre Rosanvallon notes that nowadays it operates

in a universe that is politically less “predictable”, that it is no longer structured by disciplined organizations, with well-defined programs, inscribed in a field with clearly drawn cleavages. The result is a much more pronounced distinction than in the past between the legitimacy of the rulers and the legitimacy of their actions (2006: 118-119; our translation).

12This perspective explains the development of a practice of surveillance by the governed over the actions of the ruler, to attribute to him or to deny him a “‘supplement’ of legitimacy” (ibid.: 119; our translation). This surveillance is even more crucial in a situation of political instability and within a political system, as is the case in Italy, where the PM is appointed by the President of the Republic. This creates a distance between the governing and the governed and raises the question, as Charaudeau puts it, of knowing “to whom these appointees are responsible” (2014: 58; our translation). Because proximity is increasingly seen as a central factor in the democratic legitimacy of leaders (Rosanvallon 2008: 267), it is in the interest of the appointed PM to reduce this distance and to submit his political choices to public opinion so that they are recognized as expressing the common good and interest.

13In so far as the press represents public opinion (Rosanvallon 2006: 118), the organization of press conferences as a means of crisis communication fulfills a function of “legitimacy supplement.” More precisely, the designation of the press as a privileged interlocutor on government action and measures that affect the fundamental freedoms of Italians has a double purpose. First, when the appointed PM appears physically in front of the media, which represents public opinion, he initiates a movement of proximity towards the people who “are the public opinion” (ibid.: 107; our translation). Second, the measures are subject to scrutiny by journalists’ questions, which is not insignificant in circumstances where they have not been discussed in Parliament (the institutional body responsible for overseeing the government’s activity). Thus, the PC offers a space for proximity and debate where the PM can obtain a “supplement of legitimacy.”

14From March onwards, the press harshly criticized Conte’s increasing number of direct speeches to the nation without debate (​2p94cv6u). Subsequently, they also criticized his tendency to centralize power: he did not hand over the management of the secret services (dear to Renzi) and he would like to entrust the management of European funds to experts close to him (Edicola RaiNews24 online 31.01.21). We thus witness the gradual decline of Conte’s image as a democratic leader. This image deteriorates during the political crises officially triggered by Renzi in 2021, when disputes and personal interests take precedence, according to all the press, over the fate of a country amid the third wave of Covid-19 and in a socio-economic situation already severely compromised. Conte, thus morally delegitimized, is easily replaced by Draghi, who enjoys a prior ethos of deus ex machina.

15But going back to the beginning of the epidemic, we emphasize that if on the one hand the PCs on Covid-19 can give the PM an “extra” legitimacy, on the other hand they legitimize an important counter-discourse on the part of journalists that must be taken into consideration.

2. Construction of a dynamic ethos, external models, and argument from authority

16On January 30, Italy confirms the first two cases of Covid-19. This same day, the heads of the majority delegation discuss the government action, during a meeting that Conte posts on Twitter: “# Agenda2023: The country has many emergencies, and the citizens are waiting for many answers. It is necessary to proceed at a fast, determined, compact pace.” We find this same resolution in the beginning of the PC which follows the meeting. Five utterances promote a dynamic governmental activity as the following example shows: “we have started to discuss fruitfully.” Conte emphasizes that the government is working, “it is not floating,” on the contrary, it is successfully carrying out its tasks. Through the exercise of its functions, the government strengthens its legitimacy, that is “the capacity of the subject to say or to do” (Charaudeau 2014: 52; our translation). This strengthened legitimacy enhances its authority, so to obtain the citizens’ consent. During this meeting, the news fall: “there were two cases of coronavirus [], these two cases have been confirmed.” The information is accompanied by comments that have the function of reassuring the composite audience (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 21), constituted here by the journalists present in the room, by the public who will read their articles, and the viewers who will watch the PC recordings. We notice the will to minimize the surprise of the government and to show prudence: “At this stage, as you know, we were already vigilant, very cautious in monitoring the evolution of this critical situation. We were not caught off guard. Minister Speranza, [] has just adopted an order to suspend air traffic to and from China.”

17On the front of the health crisis, the credibility of the authorities is strengthened by the announcement of a rapid response: the cases (two Chinese tourists) are immediately taken care of by the sanitary authorities. Authorities showed the ability to analyze the situation and react in time, and this should gain the confidence of the audience. The strategy that consists in promoting the dynamism of the executive is replicated on 22 February when, at 23:15, Conte sitting in front of the journalists says: “I apologize for the delay [] We worked until now, we have been busy all day with a meeting here at the Civil Protection headquarters.”

18But, getting back to the PC on January 30, after projecting the image of a dynamic executive, Conte’s work of legitimation continues with the use of the argument by comparison (ibid.: 242). Italy is compared to other European countries: “So we have in Italy as well, as already in other European countries since some days [] two confirmed cases of two Chinese tourists.” If we agree that the presence of a virus on the territory is not a mark of excellence for Italy, the comparison should serve to mitigate the negative judgment. In these circumstances, to be persuasive, the comparison must rely on a doxa, which consists of implicitly shared opinions with the audience, where the comparator should be considered admirable, and even better than the compared (Italy). Conte’s persuasive strategy claims that Italy, with these two cases of Covid-19, is no more reprehensible than the European countries admired by the audience, because they too have cases of contamination. To explain the comparator implied by the utterance, we can access the “encyclopedic knowledge” (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1986: 162; our translation) shared with the journalists. Indeed, they cannot ignore the latest news about the cases recorded in France and Germany, two driving nations of Europe.

19But this part of Conte’s discourse leads also to a second comparative dimension based on the primacy of the measures. After announcing the interruption of the air traffic with China, the PM added: “To our knowledge, we are the first country, in particular in the European Union, to adopt such a precautionary measure.” Thus, given the same conditions, i.e. the appearance of Covid-19 on the national territory, Italy reacted better than the other countries. The superior quality of the Italian response lies particularly in the temporal gap: other countries have not yet taken comparable measures, even if they have had recorded cases “for a few days,” while Italy reacted the same day of the registration of the first two cases. Conte thus elevates Italy above the European countries admired by his audience, and presents it as all the more worthy of admiration.

20We notice that, to anticipate the refutation of an exaggerated Italian response, which would restore the superiority of the countries that had taken proportionate measures, Conte reinforces his discourse by an argument from authority (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 305): “we are also comforted by the fact that the General Director of the World Health Organization has just held a press conference where he announced the coronavirus’s global emergency.” In the argumentation of Conte, the two institutions, the Italian government, and the WHO, have in parallel and independently recognized the urgent nature of the sanitary situation which justifies adequate responses, including the interruption of air traffic with China. What is implicit here is the importance of the WHO’s authority, which exceeds the authority of each individual state in matters of health. This doxa underlies the persuasive act, and can ensure the triumph of Italy over the European scenario where the country holds first place for the best reaction against the virus. Conte in so doing is trying to strengthen his position: to contradict him, the opponent would first have to challenge the authority of the WHO on health issues.

21Conte builds his authority by projecting the ethos of the leader of a performing executive in both political action and crisis management. Strengthened by this authority, he can propose measures for the control of the virus; as for these measures, they are justified by the fact that they are said to be the best, compared to external models, and compliant with WHO’s directives.

2.1. A counter-discourse of delegitimization 

22Nevertheless, an overview of the press shows that Conte’s strategy is undermined: the government is presented as weak and its measures as populist, contradictory, and ineffective.

23Thus, according to the press, the suspension of air traffic with China serves only to deter criticism (Salvini in the opposition, insists on the delay in the management of the epidemic) and to make the government regain popular support (Il Corriere della Sera 14.2.20). Moreover, the press reveals that this measure not only provokes a predictable reaction of China on the international front, but is also criticized on the internal front, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Confederation of Industries (Confindustria) express their discontent. The latter, like the Chinese authorities, refute Conte’s argument based on WHO’s authority. They declare that even if WHO has declared a state of emergency, it calls to refrain from excessive measures (ibid.). We are in front of two divergent interpretations of the same data. As Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca explain, argumentation requires to “take into account not only the choices of data but also the way in which they are interpreted, the meaning attributed to them” (1969: 120-121). In our case, for the government, stopping the flights would respond to the current danger recognized by the WHO, while for China and for Confindustria this measure exceeds the indications of the WHO.

  • 5 Meaning: deals outside the economic agreements signed between EU and China.

24If on the economic side it is the national repercussions of a fall in Chinese GDP—the world’s leading nation—that are worrying, on the diplomatic front the Italian decision to isolate China is perceived as a betrayal of a friendly nation. Shortly before, Italy, the first in Europe (once more), had developed independent relations5 with China, established by the memorandum of the new silk road. Moreover, it is the year of culture and tourism between the two countries, signatories of an agreement that triple the number of flights. We can understand then the disappointment, especially addressed to Italy, contained in the statement of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of China reported by the press: “it is in need that you recognize your friends” (La Repubblica 2.2.20).

25To these unfortunate consequences we can add the fact that, unlike countries such as France and Germany that still have open airlines with China and can repatriate their citizens, Italy faces the pitfall of its own decisions. Without direct flights, Italy should initiate emergency missions to repatriate its citizens and avoid the embarrassments of leaning on third countries, these same countries that, according to Conte, Italy would have exceeded in terms of quality of response to the virus. This conclusion displays an autophagy, a case of incompatibility where a rule is opposed to “the consequences resulting from the very fact that it has been affirmed” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 203). Thus, the measures imposed to safeguard health would prevent the full achievement of the objective, complicating the work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who, as La Repubblica tells us, is “vexed” (3.2.20).

26Another incompatibility refers to the passengers who returned to Italy from China just before the air traffic suspension. Northern regions (Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Lombardy) want to prevent schoolchildren, just returned from China, from going back to class. The government tries to solve the problem, which verges on discrimination and threatens the right to instruction, by delegating to parents the decision whether to send or not their kids to school. The press also highlights that stopping the air traffic and letting circulate those who have recently returned from China constitutes a useless measure, as is the stopping of direct flights in a free movement area like Europe, where connecting flights are guaranteed (Il Corriere della Sera 9.2.20).

27In short, the press reports the contradictions and inefficiencies of the measures. This delegitimization is associated with the discrediting of a policy called “without vision” (Il Corriere della Sera 2.2.20), which derives from an “alliance without identity” (La Repubblica 7.2.20), and which determines the virtual paralysis of government action: “Conte in slow motion : 2 out of 169 decrees implemented” (Il Sole 24 Ore 23.2.20). In short, the government is said not to proceed at “a fast, determined, compact pace”, as Conte wrote in his tweet.

2.2. Conte’s refutation based on values

  • 6 The WHO stresses that “the Italian authorities are implementing measures in line with the global co (...)

28The press also shows that, in response, Conte and many ministers are trying to build an image of coherence and authority, announcing the delivery of medical aid to China and the formation of a task force to limit economic backlashes. But above all, they are solidary when they gather around the experts’ advice and Article 32 of the Constitution which protects public health. About the suspension of air traffic with China, Conte goes as far as declaring that “no one can say it was a harmful measure” (Il Fatto Quotidiano 27.2.20).6

29Also on February 22, on the announcement of the partial lockdown of the nation, Conte retorts to the critics. He declares that the goal of every measure taken “is to protect the health of the Italians, the greatest wealth, which certainly occupies the first place in the hierarchy of constitutional values.” When, at the end of this PC, a journalist raises the question of the economic impact of such measures on the national industrial center, Conte reacts: “today, we had the urgency to plan extraordinary and urgent measures, clearly to be adopted as soon as possible,” and he was reassuring about the management of economic issues, announcing a decree in the coming days for “subsidies [] and compensations.”

30On the scale of values (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 107), public health outweighs the economics. The fact that this prioritization corresponds to the implicit value system of the audience allows the legitimation of the decisions adopted by Conte (cf. Amossy 2022, van Leeuwen 2007: 92). It is through moral right that he legitimizes strong measures in the name of the supreme value of human life.

3. Collective ethos and scientific authority

31Conte’s PCs are marked mainly by the plural pronoun “we.” The PM uses “I” to address directly the portion of his composite audience that follows the video conference: “I want to reassure all the citizens that are listening to us.” The shift from “we” to “I” marks a more intimate communication with the audience, but also a personal assumption of responsibility for the content of the discourse. In this strategy of proximity, which manifests the commitment of the “I” to the “you,” the contract of trust between Conte, the benevolent advocate of the Italians, and the citizens, is renewed.

32The use of the pronoun “I” is limited to two utterances in the PC of January 30. The occurrences of February 22 are more numerous, but still rarer than the use of the plural pronoun “we.” This observation suggests that, in this emergency, the mobilization of the contract of trust between the PM and the citizens is not enough. Additional elements are needed to gain the confidence of the audience in this crisis management. To achieve this, Conte (if we adopt Benveniste’s perspective, 1966: 235) “dilates” his singularity (“I”) in the plurality of “we.” We expect, therefore, that the elements encompassed in this plurality will bring additional weight to Conte’s ethos, so that he can gain the full confidence of the audience.

33Nevertheless, if the pronoun “I” is easily attributable to the PM, the identification of the subjects included in the pronoun “we” calls for further investigation. We can begin by saying that the pronoun “we” includes the persons who sit at the side of Conte: the Minister of Health Speranza and the Director of the Spallanzani Institute for the Treatment of Infectious Diseases Professor Ippolito (in the first PC); the Chief of the Civil Protection and the President of the Higher Institute of Health Brusaferro (in the second PC). But there is also a team of experts who work behind the scenes, a “working group that meets every morning.” The image of a PM surrounded by ministers and collaborators provides institutional legitimacy. Moreover, this legitimacy is reinforced by the verbal construction of the quality of these collaborators in their specific fields, which is an indispensable strategy to build their authority (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 309). Therefore, the work of the Minister of Health is highlighted, on January 30, as follows: “we have also been constantly updated by Minister Speranza,” and Conte points out that it is the same minister who adopted the decree (said to be vigorous and unique in Europe) about the air traffic with China. As for the scientific Director of Spallanzani, Conte conveys his prestige by using a metaphor, saying that the institute “is kind of a Bible in this area.” Here, the belief in absolute truth, attached to the Bible, transits to the scientific competences of the institute and this value of absolute belief reflects on its scientific director, Ippolito, who represents the part for the whole (ibid.: 311). The Civil Protection is also praised by Conte: “[it] really makes us proud, its one of the excellences of the Italian system.”

34To strengthen the framework of expertise and reliability of his collaborators, Conte affirms: “We have adopted a line of maximum rigor in terms of prevention. Technically, we are talking about the precautionary principle.” This presupposes the existence of strategies that have already been developed and codified, with their own jargon, from which the technical term “precautionary principle” is taken. And it is indeed such instruments that they (i.e. “we”) use to manage the current risk.

35In conclusion, we can affirm that Conte draws the image of a group of experts expressing themselves through the pronoun “we.” It is therefore a collective ethos (Amossy 2010: 156), composed of leading politicians and scientists, that serves here for the construction of authority. In this script, the PM’s authority, in particular, is based on the image of the guarantor of this collective activity: “I have been a witness [of its activity],” and he is the main referent of this set of brains in action : “I have had a briefing with the minister, the director and other experts [] and we will continue to do so.” But in front of the audience, Conte is also the spokesman of the decisions taken based on this professional work of which, through a gesture of proximity, he later assures: “we will continue [...] to keep you constantly informed.”

3.1. Evolution of authority: adjustment of the ethos of the scientists and dilation of the collective ethos by a white lie

36In the transition from the first to the second discourse, we notice Conte’s adjustment to the phenomenon of the increasing mediatization of scientists. In the interdiscourse, this phenomenon determines a scenario where the idea of the absolute truth of science is undermined. Debates between scientists, which normally occur in specialized journals with little echo in the traditional media, outreach with Covid-19 this restrained framework to get, via social networks, to a larger and less informed audience. In addition to warning against the infodemia, the interdiscourse unveils the fact that science does not speak with one voice. There are different experts’ positions, and some criticize the decisions of the executive. Political opponents exploit this situation to discredit the government (Adnkronos 21.2.20, Il Fatto Quotidiano online 7.9.20).

37If in the first PC, Conte presents Professor Ippolito through the image of monolithic biblical knowledge, he seems later to consider the plurality of scientific perspectives, which can sometimes contradict one another. However, he also states that the executives decisions are based on the opinion expressed by the “most accredited scientific community.” And finally, we see the explicit subordination of politicians to these accredited scientists: “Italians must trust above all the sanitary authorities, then the administrative political authorities which are obviously the ones called upon to make decisions and to do so with reason on the basis of a prudent assessment.”

38In the second speech, we also note another strategy that consists of a kind of subsequent dilatation of the collective ethos by a white lie. In order to grasp this, we have to return to the political discourse. On the opposition front Salvini attacks all the anti-Covid measures, and he goes so far as to invoke the need for an extraordinary government. Similarly, tensions with regions, especially center-right ones, are growing. After the controversy over the optional quarantine for schoolchildren returning from China, disputes are multiplying. When Conte blamed the worsening of the epidemic on the violation of protocol in the Codogno hospital, the President of the Lombardy region protested and the PM apologized. On February 26, the President of the Marche region denounced the schizophrenia of the non-homogeneous measures imposed by the executive on the national territory (La Repubblica online). Part of the press rebounds by criticizing a Babel of institutional communication.

  • 7 Despite this affiliation between a representative of the majority and one of the opposition, only S (...)

39The majority is still unstable: “it is difficult to find a team in the majority” (Il Sole 24 Ore 18.2.20), the same day, Il Corriere della Sera titled: “Allies’ bluffs exhaust the coalition” and La Repubblica specifies: “no war and no peace.” Renzi especially leads a battle against the executive, the press defines this attitude as “aggressive opposition” (Il Sole 24 Ore 14.2.20) where “Renzi works for Salvini,” and “Renzi is possessed by Salvini”7 (Il Fatto Quotidiano 3.2.20, 12.2.20); while the composure that Conte shows, in the face of so many blows, gives him “a patience that surpasses even Gandhi” (Il Corriere della Sera 23.2.20).

40The spread of the virus impacts the tones of the disputes: “Renzi: there is coronavirus, enough arguments” (La Repubblica 22.2.20), and all the opposition manifests its support to the executive. But it is just a truce, soon enough the controversies start again, even more vehemently. To this delegitimization, the PM responds on 22 February with a set of expressions belonging to the lexical field of cohesiveness: discuss, inform, direct line, consolidated harmony.

41At the opening of the PC Conte “dilates” even more the collective ethos of January 30 and enriches it with an image of proximity: the image of a solidarity network. This network branches out and covers the territory through “women and men of Civil Protection [] Physicians, nurses, researchers, army forces and Civil Protection, who work.” Conte also shows that the operations take place in a cohesive and complementary manner: he emphasizes the “consolidated harmony” with the ministers, particularly with the Minister of Health, as we can see in the familiarity of their public verbal exchanges. This strengthens even more the image of cohesion between political partners.

42Relations with the regions more directly affected by the health crisis are described through the image of a “direct channel of debate,” leading to an intense collaboration: “We have worked until the end to agree on the measures.” Nevertheless, this image of cooperation is implicitly questioned by a journalist who points to the length of the meeting. Conte justifies the delay by mentioning the sensitive nature of the deliberation that deserves to be weighed carefully, and in so doing he rejects the idea of a difficult confrontation between the parties.

43When a journalist asks about the relations with the opposition parties, the PM responds he has felt the urgency to “consult and inform the representatives of the opposition” about the extraordinary measures that were being elaborated. Conte did not have to do it; what he wants to show is that, even if he is the head of the executive assuming full responsibility for his decisions, he still wants to bring together all political forces “because when dealing with such an urgency, no distinction can be made between majority and minority.”

44Considering these analyses, we find in the PM’s discourses on Covid-19 an attempt to erase national political antagonisms and neutralize the internal disruptive forces of the Italian system. These dissensions are, as we have seen, constantly discussed elsewhere, mainly in the press, by all the parts involved. Conte himself, during an interview with Il Fatto Quotidiano (27.2.20), expresses, among others, his disappointment with Renzi, and his reservations about a national health system run on a regional basis.

  • 8 It is a lie because there is no harmonious cooperation between the parties. But it is also white be (...)

45We interpret this attempt to erase divergences between the political actors as a strategy for “dilatingeven more the collective ethos on which Conte’s authority is based. To some extent, in the February 22 speech, this dilated ethos also includes his political detractors. Through this white lie, the PM can reinforce the authority of an executive supported by a greater number of authorities.8 He is silent on the controversies that circulate in the interdiscourse, and he projects the confrontations into the future: “the political debate will surely prompt us to answer the question of how and why you (read: we) have now adopted these measures.”

4. The persuasive goals

46The analysis of the persuasive goals of the PCs, which is the action that the orator would like to induce in the audience (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 45) reveal two more strategies used by Conte to build his authority and legitimize his decisions.

4.1. Control and rationality

47The purpose of the first PC is not to communicate restrictions, except for the air traffic suspension with China. It rather seeks to conjure up a social reaction: uncontrolled panic. The importance of the topic is confirmed by the fact that it is mentioned ten times by Conte, Speranza, and Ippolito: “I assure you that there is currently no reason to panic, to create a social alarm,” etc. In the panic, the authority has no room for maneuver; Merriam-Webster defines panic as “a sudden unreasoning terror often accompanied by mass flight” that guides actions. But two journalists in the room aptly remark that this social reaction is already underway, as demonstrated by the rush to purchase protection masks and the episodes of discrimination against Chinese people. Conte defines the cases of discrimination as “typical episodes of ignorance” derived from lack of interest in information: “this means they have not read your journals, the information that you [the journalists] have provided in these days”, and from a lack of confidence in the scientific authorities “who, obviously, have already, at this very moment, and also a short time ago, given us reassuring news.”

48Consequently, knowledge, the opposite of ignorance, would originate from information and science. Conte has shown he is using both to fight the emerging epidemic and can therefore, with his knowledge, affirm that “the situation is absolutely under control,” a position ratified moreover by Speranza: “the situation is totally under control.” In this first speech, Conte prevents panic in his audience and gathers its members under the aegis of rationality. In so doing, the PM presents himself as a reliable authority.

49But the analysis of the interdiscourse shows that the reassuring synergy between sciences, media, and politics, based on knowledge, rationality, and transparency, which constructs part of Conte’s authority, is rapidly deteriorating. On February 26, the PM appeals to the National Television Agency to “cool down” the information on the coronavirus (La Repubblica online), since he is always confident that “calm is achieved through a calm and transparent communication” (Il Corriere della Sera 26.2.2020). Part of the press supports the PM’s call and even shows self-criticism (La Repubblica 29.2.20, 1.3.20).

4.2. Argument from the positive consequence and narration

50Despite vigorous measures, we move very quickly from the statement of Professor Ippolito “In Italy, no contagion. The measures have worked” of February 13 (Il Corriere della Sera) to an increase of cases one week later. Facing such a viral propagation speed, scientists admit that, without a vaccine, the only means of control is the limitation of contacts between people; thus, a portion of the population must be isolated. But before limiting the freedom of his citizens, Conte must explain what happened. This is precisely the question that the press asks and that we find in popular talk shows, sometimes with an allusion to the loss of control, or to the illusion of control over the sanitary crisis: the executive simply claims to have control (Che tempo che fa 23.2.20).

51Conte offers an explanation which, through a pragmatic argument, both answers the question and further legitimates his work. According to the PM, the number of positive cases is proportionate to the increase in testing: “it is, therefore, the precision of these checks that brings us today to record these numbers.” This explanation does not only prevent the delegitimization of the governmental action, but it also enhances Italian measures as the best in Europe. Accordingly, we mention the declaration of a specialist in infectious diseases: “So many cases, Italy is looking for them, less so abroad” (Il Corriere della Sera 25.2.20).

52Whether the increase of cases results from a good screening work or represents the symptom of an executive who has lost control over the virus, the government must manage the rapid spread of the virus in the north of the country. Thus, after long hours of meeting with the working group, the PM announces the lockdown in those areas which are most affected. When on February 22 at 23:15 Conte addresses his audience, we notice that the goal is no longer, as for the PC of January 30, to reassure the population by closing the access between China and Italy. Now, the virus has affected Italian citizens, and the restrictions are no longer limited to two Chinese tourists isolated in a renowned hospital: part of the national population is also concerned.

53Conte justifies the lockdown through an argument from a double positive consequence that should legitimate the measures thanks to their positive impact. With this measure, the sick persons will be treated (the recovery is a positive consequence) and isolation will keep safe the rest of the citizens (another positive consequence). Confined citizens: “all communities concerned, to all mothers, fathers, children, all the elderly, and I understand that there are many” become privileged interlocutors of Conte to whom he speaks with empathy. We interpret this verbal act as a dual mode of legitimation: by proximity and towards a minority group of confined citizens.

54Furthermore, we remark a tripartite configuration of actors: the executive, the confined communities, and the rest of the citizens. The components of this tripartition are involved in a precise dynamic of proximity. There is the first movement of proximity that goes from Conte to the confined citizens: “I will follow you, so I will travel to support the local authorities in managing this emergency with Minister Speranza.” From this position the PM, the population, and the local authorities are all verbally invested in another movement: “we want to accompany you, with maximum and more accurate assistance, on the way out of this emergency.” Narration (cf. Danblon 2008), considered by van Leeuwen as a mode of legitimation (2007: 92), supports here the argument from the positive consequence meant at persuading the citizens to respect the lockdown. The persuasive strategy is based here on a short narration in three acts: lockdown, sanitary treatments, release. In this narration, the liberating authorities are coupled with the complementary image of collaborative citizens, in solidarity with others. The Italians do not passively suffer the government decisions, on the contrary, they are actively involved in their implementation. Therefore, when a journalist brings up the topic of deployment of the army to ensure the respect of the measures and the sanctions for those who breach them, the PM can designate them as secondary measures because he concludes: “but I would say that we will count greatly on citizens’ collaboration.” Thus, with his ethos of benevolent and democratic authority, Conte attributes to the confined citizens the positive image of collaborators, a role that they are invited (if not persuaded) to assume to promote the values of cooperation and solidarity that are the basis of society.

  • 9 Conte, very active on social media, has also a charismatic image, as indicated by the unprecedented (...)
  • 10

55It should be noted, however, that this short narration helps also stabilize Conte’s position in the political arena. In fact, the image of a leader who leads confined citizens on the way out of an emergency can be interpreted as the action of a hero of the people. Thus, Conte, affiliated with the populist movement M5S, could endorse the profile of the new populist “atypical leader” sketched by Taguieff (1997: 22): the anti-party and telegenic9 advocate defender of all Italians. But the short narration also evokes the painting The Fourth Estate10 (1901) of the Italian painter Pellizza da Volpedo where the proletarians are guided by two figures, one of them incarnating the leader, to conquer their rights; this consideration would bring Conte close to the social issue privileged by the left forces. Populist hero or socialist leader?

  • 11 This marks a significant fluctuation since in the past it was Renzi who advocated Conte against the (...)

56To answer the question, we should go back once more to the interdiscourse. The press reports that Conte, in the climate of delegitimization that we have explained, with the weak cooperation of the M5S on the agenda of the government and the hostility of Renzi, turned to the remaining political force of his majority, the PD. Its leader Zingaretti and the PM declared that they are sharing an “ethics of collaboration” (Il Corriere della Sera 2.2.20).11 On the political front, this allows Conte to promote himself as a non-populist democrat and to exploit the Covid-19 discourses to disengage from the pressure exerted by Renzi and Salvini. At the same time, from the perspective of the health crisis, close cooperation with Zingaretti is seen as the sign of a stable executive, therefore authorized to advance measures against the epidemic.


57Our analyses show that to promote measures limiting the fundamental rights of citizens, an executive on the verge of a political crisis should prioritize the legitimation of its power. The projection in the discourse of the image of an executive that acts according to democratic values, promotes proximity with all citizens, and communicates transparently, constitutes the massive strategy of legitimation employed by the PM of a government weak at origin. At the head of this legitimate executive stands Conte who is tributary of his prior ethos of defender of all Italians. This ethos is reinforced by an image of guarantor and spokesperson of political and scientific authorities guided by rationality. From this position he can finally invite his audience to follow the measures he proposes. As for these measures, they are legitimated because they are presented as effective, and because they allow the implementation of the values of cooperation and solidarity.

58These conclusions confirm the interdependency between the discursive construction of legitimacy and authority. But the analysis of the Italian case also allows us to verify that this construction has meaning and validity only in the interdiscourse in which it is inscribed and in which it evolves. The discourses of Conte and the press generate a chain of arguments and refutations. Once this underlying dialogical dimension is made explicit, the evolution of Conte’s discursive construction of authority and legitimacy necessarily appears as its direct product.

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1 We have transcribed and translated the texts from the following sources:

Para-verbal or suprasegmental aspects were not marked.

2 Flaws in La Stampa’s online archive prevented reliable consultation, which forced us to discard it from our sources. The quoted articles and declarations have been translated by us.

3 In August 2019, La Lega (majority party) presented a motion of non-confidence against Conte; although it was quickly withdrawn, the PM resigned. M5S, Partito Democratico (PD), Liberi e Uguali and MAIE allied and formed a majority, and the President entrusted Conte with the formation of a new government.

4 In the 2018 elections, the M5S obtained 32% of the votes against the 18% of the PD and the 17% of La Lega. At the beginning of 2020, polls (Ipsos) on the voting intentions reverse the scores between La Lega (now in the opposition) and M5S, while the PD reaches 20%.

5 Meaning: deals outside the economic agreements signed between EU and China.

6 The WHO stresses that “the Italian authorities are implementing measures in line with the global containment strategy” (Il Corriere della Sera 27.2.20). And again, during the summer of 2020, many international congratulations were addressed to Italy for its management of the crisis.

7 Despite this affiliation between a representative of the majority and one of the opposition, only Salvini invokes the crisis of the executive to have new elections. In fact, according to the polls, he would be the favorite. While Renzi, who has just founded his new party, cannot imagine the same success in such a short period. His destabilization strategy is limited to the play of forces within the coalition (Il Corriere della Sera 4.2.20).

8 It is a lie because there is no harmonious cooperation between the parties. But it is also white because it is uttered for the good of the subjects to whom it is addressed, the citizens.

9 Conte, very active on social media, has also a charismatic image, as indicated by the unprecedented media phenomenon of Le bimbe di Giuseppe Conte. Many Internet users, especially young girls, celebrate the PM as a sex symbol in the format of fandom.


11 This marks a significant fluctuation since in the past it was Renzi who advocated Conte against the resistance of the PD (Il Foglio 15.1.21).

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Caterina Scaccia, « An interdiscursive construction: legitimacy and authority in Conte’s first press conferences on Covid-19 »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2022, consulté le 21 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Caterina Scaccia

Tel Aviv University, ADARR

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