Fears grow over who controls airwaves

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ROME - With an election winner who owns three nation-wide television channels and who as prime minister could have immense influence over the rest, concern is fast growing here about the future of Italian broadcasting, writes Patricia Clough.

Will Silvio Berlusconi keep his highly lucrative television channels if, as seems quite likely, he becomes prime minister? And will he attempt to influence the state- owned RAI, which has only recently recovered from decades of control by the old political parties?

'The test of Berlusconi's good intentions to put the common interest before his own is the attitude he will take towards the RAI and his own networks,' said Renzo Arbore, a popular comic and television personality.

Mr Berlusconi and his right- wing alliance undoubtedly won the elections thanks, to a great extent, to his television channels. Not only did they churn out campaign commercials, his news and current affairs programmes - with some exceptions - were clearly biased in his favour.

At the same time he repeatedly accused the RAI of being 'Communist-manipulated' and conducting a campaign against him. Over the past year, in fact, the RAI has come to resemble a northern European public broadcasting service, although its third channel noticeably leans to the left.

A frisson ran through the RAI on Tuesday when Fabrizio Del Noce, a former top RAI reporter of conservative views who was elected MP in Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia, went on a highly publicised tour of the RAI studios. It shivered again yesterday when Mr Del Noce said the crucial question at the moment was not how many public and private channels Italy should have 'but what role they should play'.

Mr Berlusconi has said he is prepared to sell off his businesses and made it clear this included his television networks. But he added: 'The price has to be right, a price that reflects the value of something built with blood, sweat and tears.'

His ownership of half Italy's television networks, plus a huge publishing empire and the country's biggest publicity brokering firm is perfectly legal, having been blessed by the old political regime. The left had threatened to change the broadcasting cartel laws - and suspected that this was one of the reasons why he decided to fight the elections. But the level of public protest at his immense personal advantage in the campaign has seemed, to foreigners here, remarkably low.