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Berlusconi can't rein in the foreign press

It's the Silvio and Noemi show – who's interested in Fiat now?

To say that Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, would like to control the Italian media, and to a large extent actually does, is hardly news. But last week saw him trying to rein in the foreign press too, and finding it rather more difficult.

The offending story is his relationship with an aspiring model from the Neapolitan hinterland, Noemi Letizia, and his mental health. A month ago, Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, dropped a bombshell when she attacked her husband for making pretty showgirls into candidates for the European elections next week; she followed up a day later by saying that he also "consorted with underage girls" and "is not well". She said that he had gone to an 18-year-old's birthday party (Letizia's) when he hadn't even shown up for his children's 18th birthdays.

Since then, Italy and much of the rest of the world have been trying to work out what exactly was going on between Berlusconi and Letizia. Berlusconi is a media magnate who owns three of Italy's national TV channels and, as prime minister, has a dominant influence over the public broadcaster, RAI. He and his family own a couple of daily papers, one of the two main news weeklies and the country's biggest book publisher, Mondadori. He has been an active politician since 1994 and on the fringes since the 1960s. Despite this experience, his media management over the past month has been comically amateur.

After Lario's statements, he implied she was an embittered, estranged wife who had an axe to grind and should not be taken seriously. Instead of leaving it there, he went on a friendly political chat show and spent an hour explaining how sane he was and how his relationship with Letizia was innocent. The story went into orbit; it's still there.

Endless conflicting versions have emerged: When did they meet? Fifteen or 20 years ago when Noemi's father was supposedly politically active? Or in November last year without her parents? How many times have they met? Where? Instead of organising a careful damage control operation, Berlusconi, his staff and the Letizia family and friends have all given different versions pushing the rumour mill into overdrive: that she was his daughter; his lover; a decoration for Fellini-style parties at one of his Sardinian villas. Or, worst of all, she was the impossible dream of a 72-year-old with a prostate problem. This week he swore "on the heads of my children" that he had done "nothing spicy with her", a pale echo of Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman".

In a sense, it does not really matter what he did, although he will presumably face criticism from the Church. Most Italians have forgiven his other activities, from conflicts of interest to trials in which he was not sentenced because the statute of limitations ran out. That part of Italy has even forgiven him his inability to resolve the economic decline either between 2001 and 2006 or since his re-election last year.

What does matter, is Berlusconi's ability to radiate control and optimism, and here he is on much weaker ground. He cannot stand losing face and a lot of his supporters would not forgive him for making Italy look stupid or worse, louche. Rome's well-organised Champions League final, Fiat as a saviour of Europe's auto industry, a well-co-ordinated earthquake relief effort all take second place to the Prime Minister's dalliance with a 17-year-old.

Berlusconi also fancies himself as an international statesman and is presumably looking forward to hosting the G8 in Aquila in July. If the foreign media are still trying to find out what happened with Noemi, it will rain on the Silvio-Barack-Nicolas parade.

The counter-attack against the foreign press has been three-pronged. Berlusconi has claimed that the foreign press are part of a plot orchestrated by the centre-left La Repubblica and the left wing Unita. British readers will be surprised to learn that the FT, The Times and The Economist are dupes of the left. At a press conference last week, Berlusconi refused to take questions from Repubblica and Unita journalists. Il Giornale, one of his family papers, has poured scorn on foreign journalists and their papers, particularly the British, who never get nearer to the corridors of power than fancy restaurants and radical chic terraces. Finally, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the normally suave and anodyne Franco Frattini, attacked "bad" and "dishonest" foreign journalism which just deals in gossip.

None of them have found any substantial errors of fact, nor has Berlusconi answered questions asked by La Repubblica a fortnight ago. The coverage goes on, with Time running a mocking piece and the International Herald Tribune putting the story on Friday's front page. Berlusconi is finding out the hard way that he cannot manipulate the foreign press in quite the same way as the domestic variety.

The author is an associate professor of international relations at the American University of Rome