Berlusconi's Message on the media takes Italy by storm: Patricia Clough in Rome examines the campaigning style of a self-made man who has no time for critics

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The Independent Online
BEWARE of anything you read in the Independent or other British newspapers about the election campaign in Italy: it is all Communist propaganda.

You have it on the authority of the man who may be the next prime minister of Italy, the right-wing media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. 'The great international press does not have its own opinion, it expresses the opinions of its correspondents,' he said on television this week. 'And the left has worked over these correspondents very well . . . among them there are Communists and journalists who report to them.'

The Foreign Press Association, with around 500 members from 50 countries, has protested that his comments are 'not only alarming because of the lack of respect for the professionalism of its members and the independence of journalism, but also downright untrue'.

Foreign correspondents are in plenty of bad company, however. The state broadcasting corporation, RAI, and virtually all the bits of the Italian media that Mr Berlusconi does not own are, in his eyes, Communist-manipulated and maliciously biased against him. Questions about the propriety of the owner of half the nation's TV networks entering politics, about his companies' huge debts and unpaid suppliers, about his financial sources and his relations with the old regime are seen as vicious and unfair attacks, not as legitimate issues that an aspiring prime minister should publicly address.

Mr Berlusconi does not care to do open battle. He has refused a face- to-face debate with his left-wing rival for his Rome constituency, the economics professor and outgoing Budget Minister Luigi Spaventa, who could make some penetrating points about his debts and the feasibility of his tax-slashing economic policy.

'Spaventa should first do what I have done. He should create an empire like mine . . . then he should apply again,' was his response. He has refused to meet left-wing leaders on TV, or even potentially uncomfortable adversaries such as the correspondent of the Economist, which has sharply criticised him, and Professor Victor Uckmar, a leading taxation expert.

'Why should he? He does not have to,' says Robert Lasagna, his Anglo-Italian campaign manager. His opponents' attacks are 'violent and personal. They have dredged up as much mud as they could. There is no argument.'

At the same time, Mr Lasagna claims, the criticism has brought Mr Berlusconi popularity he might otherwise have lacked. 'The enemy has succeeded in doing what we could never have done by attacking him. People tell him how grossly unfair, how unjust, how stupid it is, how he is obviously innocent.'

Argument, however, is not the key feature of the Berlusconi campaign either. It is, as Mr Lasagna stresses, the Message, simple, seductive, repetitive: the promise of a new Italian miracle, of wealth, efficiency, good government, family values. Of lower taxes but also a lower state deficit, of problems such as spending on the health service, for instance, quickly solved by the simple use of vouchers, to be spent at will either in the public or the private health system. And the need to keep the 'Communists' out of power - a point that ignores the fact that, apart from a smallish hardline splinter group, the former Communists are now a moderate, social democratic-style party.

Italians, who voted in the past out of ideology, religion, family tradition or in exchange for personal benefits, are now being sold the Message as if it were processed cheese. Intellectuals may be repelled by the commercial-style TV spots, the jingles, the eternal Berlusconi smile, the artificiality of it all, but who cares? It works. In just a few weeks, polls show, Forza Italia has become the biggest party.

The campaign was set up and running in less than a month by Mr Lasagna, a former board member and senior executive of Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising, who says he is doing it for free.