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
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor