Berlusconi's media monopoly comes back to haunt him: Television overkill is turning many Italians off their briefly popular Prime Minister, writes Fiona Leney in Rome

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'TOO much television is bad for you'. The headline in yesterday's Corriere della Sera was calculated to rub salt into the wounds of Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. It referred to his attempts to shore up his government's stock by using wall-to-wall personal coverage on tame television stations. But it also could describe other symptoms ailing Mr Berlusconi's administration, three months after he swept to power on the back of a brilliantly- conceived televisual campaign.

There is a sense of widespread astonishment at the speed of the deterioration in Mr Berlusconi's fortunes, that an astute media tycoon, who had appeared so much in control during the elections, could have dug himself into such a deep political hole.

An ill-judged confrontation with the 'clean hands' anti-corruption judges over attempts to curb their powers was widely seen as Mr Berlusconi's attempt to protect his business interests. The vast media and publishing interests which acted as a spring-board for his election campaign are now a big political liability, as the 'clean hands' team issues arrest warrant after arrest warrant for Mr Berlusconi's managers. Commentators say that behind the misjudgement lies the hubris of a man used to getting what he wants in business.

Riding high in the polls with a 63 per cent approval rating after the European elections, the Prime Minister seems to have calculated that he could curb the judges' power, and survive the protests.

He had accused the judges of political partiality throughout his election campaign - they had raided his campaign headquarters in search of evidence of corruption - and there was little love lost between the two parties.

When things went wrong and there was a public outcry over the resignation of the 'clean hands' team, the Prime Minister made a second mistake - intransigence.

Resorting to the weapon which had served him well in the past - television - he made a direct appeal to the public. But his appearance on Rete4, one of his own stations, backfired badly. A further irritant was the amount of obsequious coverage on his other channels. 'When a politician goes on television he 'spends' some of his credibility capital,' Gianni Riotta of Corriere della Sera said. 'He must do it parsimoniously if he doesn't wish to end up bankrupt.'

Mr Riotta used Mr Berlusconi's own terms of reference to explain his difficulties. During his campaign, Mr Berlusconi used market research to discover what voters wanted and sold it to them. Now, 'Berlusconi is facing a tough marketing problem - customer satisfaction. Italians 'bought' Forza Italia (Mr Berlusconi's party). But if the product doesn't work, if it does not live up to its advertising, the public will look around for the other products on the market.'

Foreign analysts say that the root of the problem is the unprecedented amount of power which has accumulated in the hands of a businessman who refuses to divest himself of his businesses. 'Berlusconi still thinks like a media magnate. He is trying to run the country like Fininvest; by diktat,' a London business analyst said.

The Prime Minister's refusal to convert his Fininvest business empire into an American-style blind trust on election is coming back to haunt him. As corruption charges mount against his trusted lieutenants, his refusal to distance himself from the suspects has given opponents a big stick. Mr Berlusconi's dilemma is that, to a large extent, Fininvest is Forza Italia.

The party he created last year is staffed and run by Fininvest executives. His closest cabinet colleagues, such as Cesare Previti, one of Fininvest's top lawyers and now the Defence Minister, are ex-employees. The separation between state and business hardly exists.

The Northern League has made capital from the crisis, in order to present itself as a guardian of morality. Its popularity, which had flagged in the shade of Forza Italia's fortunes, has revived. Early elections, which, according to opinion polls last month could have given Forza Italia enough deputies to get rid of the troublesome League, are no longer an option.

At the birth-pangs of the government back in early April, Mr Berlusconi angrily broke off talks with the Northern League after its leader, Umberto Bossi, insisted on obtaining certain ministries for his men. Mr Bossi commented at the time: 'Mr Berlusconi has lost his cool. He obviously doesn't have the right temperament to be Prime Minister.' Three months on, Italians are wondering if Mr Bossi was right.