Italy's equivalent of the BBC Ten O'Clock News has been fined for pro-Berlusconi bias ahead of key local elections. The evening Tg1 news programme on the state Rai Uno channel must pay the €100,000 fine after the broadcast authority Agcom deemed that ministers were given too much airtime during a key week of campaigning at the start of May.
The watchdog said the punishment was for Tg1's "inadequate observation of the rules" and the tendency "to give precedence" to members of the government, and in particular the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
Opposition politicians said the development was clear evidence that the media-mogul premier, who already owns three of Italy's main TV channels as part of his Mediaset empire, was also having a malign influence on the public broadcaster. As Prime Minister, Mr Berlusconi has considerable sway over key appointments at the state broadcaster, and Tg1's director, Augusto Minzolini, has been portrayed by the centre-left as a government stooge.
"The fine on Tg1 shows that in our system of TV news there's an imbalance that stems from a conflict of interests," said Roberto Zaccaria, the Democratic Party media spokesman. "The fine levied by Agcom ought to be paid out of the pocket of Director Minzolini, who's imposed his own rules and made a mockery of the TV authority."
Mr Minzolini has consistently denied that his Tg1 show has shown pro-government bias. But in May last year, news reader Maria Luisa Busi dramatically quit her job at Tg1 after claiming its coverage was biased in favour of Mr Berlusconi. Mr Zaccaria claimed that as recently as Tuesday, Tg1 and the rival Tg5 evening news show on Mr Berlusconi's own Canale 5 channel had both "brutally violated Agcom rules" by broadcasting a video message from the Premier. Mr Zaccaria said such messages were clearly banned during election campaigns.
The Prime Minister has been in fighting mood this week. Yesterday, his focus was on Milan, the scene of his ongoing courtroom battles, as he stepped up efforts to have his PDL (People of Liberty) candidate re-elected as mayor. Mr Berlusconi blasted the local centre-left as "pro-drugs, pro-immigrants and pro-mosques".
The Premier regards it as vital that his supporters hold on to Milan – if incumbent PDL mayor Letizia Moratti was to lose to the centre-left then the national government's populist Northern League junior coalition partner might pull the plug on Mr Berlusconi's administration in disgust at having the centre-left running "its city". The Northern League agreed before the campaign to withdraw its mayoral candidate on the understanding Mrs Moratti would be a shoo-in for the centre-right.
But Mrs Moratti seems prepared to fight even dirtier. In a TV debate with her centre-left opponent Giuliano Pisapia, she said in the closing seconds that mild-mannered lawyer Mr Pisapia was a convicted car thief, who ten years ago had stolen a vehicle, which he used to abduct and assault a young man.
A shocked Mr Pisapia hardly had time to reply that his conviction was recognised as a judicial error.