Can Rupert pull off the Italian job?

After Sunday's referendum, the question is not whether Murdoch will enter broadcasting in Italy, writes Andrew Gumbel, but when and how

Rupert Murdoch takes people by surprise. When it first emerged that he was interested in buying all, or part of, Silvio Berlusconi's private TV empire, the reaction in Italy was disbelief. Berlusconi would never sell if he could help it, and even if forced he would never sell to Murdoch.

Well, a lot has happened in the past month. The stage is set for reform of broadcasting regulations in Italy. Berlusconi may have won the right to hold on to his three channels in Sunday's referendums on media ownership, but he cannot continue to enjoy a virtual monopoly of the private sector.

Reforms can also be expected within the state service RAI, particularly since voters on Sunday called for the introduction of private share-holdings in the national broadcasting monolith. It seems likely that one or two channels in Italy will be up for grabs to outside investors - either by direct sale or through the creation of new frequencies.

As for Murdoch, no one doubts he is in earnest. The question is how far he can go and what he will do when he gets there.

So what's in it for him? With the exception of the UK, Europe is virgin territory for Murdoch's News Corporation and has proved a difficult hunting ground in the past because of the high level of regulation. Murdoch won't want to be reminded that his initial conception of Sky was as a Europe-wide satellite service that would rely on pan-European advertisers. He was quickly forced to retreat to Britain and take over BSB instead.

"Europe is a highly fragmented market, in which most countries don't want to liberalise their broadcasting sector," says Murdoch-watcher Christopher Hird. "But it is one of Murdoch's unconquered territories. Now that Stephen Dorrell's cross-media ownership proposals have effectively put a brake on him in the UK, he is on the look-out for the next opportunity."

Italy is ripe with opportunity and danger.

It may be advantageous that the country is in regulatory confusion - an atmosphere in which Murdoch thrives since, in Hird's words, "he is good at manipulating the rules". Moreover, it is a country with a number of broadcasting gaps - such as international news and coverage of world sporting events - which he is in a position to fill.

Most importantly, it's a country with a willing seller. Ever since Berlusconi entered politics 18 months ago, his Fininvest media empire has been a millstone. As his political fortunes have wavered, particularly since being forced to resign as prime minister, pressure has increased for him to sell.

Despite his victory, Sunday's referendums were an acute embarrassment to him, and several weeks ago he began looking for buyers. His own employees are in doubt about his intentions. "He's going to sell because he wants to stay in politics. He has no choice," says Enrico Mentana, editor of the news on Fininvest's Canale 5.

Murdoch himself understood this after lunching with Berlusconi in Rome at the end of May. He told La Stampa he wanted "to grab everything he could get", but on one condition. "We have sorted out one fundamental point. Whatever I buy will be 100 per cent without Berlusconi. I don't want him to keep a single share in anything I buy."

Murdoch wants to find another Italian partner to help to ease him into the market, while Berlusconi wants to hold on to a minority stake. Berlusconi's referendum victory will strengthen his hand and allow him to play Murdoch off against a rival German-Saudi consortium led by Leo Kirch and Sheikh Al Waleed Bin Talal.

The biggest danger for Murdoch is that he might get caught up in Italy's instinctively protectionist commercial atmosphere and come away empty- handed. But it is wrong to think that the big players in the Italian media are hostile to Murdoch. "We have an approach to news coverage that is so unprofessional as to be provincial," says Paolo Garimberti, former head of news at RAI2. "If he provides good news and sports coverage, I'll welcome it."

Murdoch will have to see what the possibilities are: if he can control a general network channel or settle for specialist broadcasting in news, sport or feature films. If his Italian gamble pays off, he will be able to make economies by importing and exporting programmes around the world, and beaming in news pictures gathered by Sky.

And what can we expect to happen to the cheesy game-shows, semi-naked women and other Fininvest hallmarks that established Berlusconi's notoriety? "It's unlike Murdoch to change much if an operation he buys is going well," Christopher Hird says. "His instinct is to take a product downmarket ... but in the case of Italian TV, there's nowhere further downmarket to go."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Sport
David Silva strokes home his and City's second goal
football
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
Extras
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value
indybest

News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas