Italian news star quits in protest over influence of Berlusconi

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The Independent Online

Italy's most famous news anchor has resigned from RAI, the state broadcaster, for which she has been the public face for nearly 20 years, in protest at the corporation's increasing susceptibility to manipulation by Silvio Berlusconi.

Italy's most famous news anchor has resigned from RAI, the state broadcaster, for which she has been the public face for nearly 20 years, in protest at the corporation's increasing susceptibility to manipulation by Silvio Berlusconi.

In an open letter to her bosses made public yesterday, Lilli Gruber blamed "the absence of shared rules, the anomalous concentration of power in a single person, [and] the evident and unsolved conflict of interest which derives from that" for endangering "the entire radio and television system and the credibility of democracy itself".

She announced that she will stand as a candidate for the Olive Tree centre-left coalition in June's European elections.

Gruber combined her sophisticated journalistic skills, broad knowledge and good looks to gather a legion of fans, and many of them are missing her already.

Her un-Italian name reflects her roots in the Alpine north-eastern region of Alto Adige, ceded to Italy by Austria after the First World War, where the mother tongue of the majority is still German. Her mix of glamour and brains is exotic on Italian television, where glamour is normally considered quite enough.

She was also a willing trouper, spending nearly three months in Baghdad from January 2003 and recycling the experience into a best-selling book. But she has never made a secret of her unhappiness at the steady erosion of editorial independence at RAI.

Unlike the three commercial channels owned by Mr Berlusconi's companies, RAI is expected (although not obliged in Italian law) to be politically neutral. But in the three years since the media magnate came to power, its independence has been repeatedly violated. A recent edition of the most high-profile political talk show was a barely disguised party political broadcast for and by the prime minister.

In her letter, Ms Gruber wrote: "I joined RAI 20 years ago and have worked for editors and administrators as varied in orientation as were the political circumstances of our country. Never, before now, has there been the temptation to homogenise information in accordance with the 'single thinking' of the parliamentary majority and of the government."

In past years, she continued, the corporation "sought to be pluralistic, respecting the richness of positions and ideas. Today that pluralism, which ought to be part of the 'DNA' of RAI, is seriously at risk, and often negated by events. The progressive flattening of language and style all seem to indicate the wish to bring about a design that is politically and culturally monopolistic, and that I do not agree with."

Clemente Mimun, the editor of Ms Gruber's programme, TG1, said her charges were "wrong, ungenerous and outside reality".

In swapping the media for a job in politics, Lilli Gruber joins another former RAI journalist, Michele Santoro, whose programme Sciuscia was scrapped two years ago on the orders of the prime minister for criticising his government.

The last straw for Ms Gruber was her abrupt recall to Rome two weeks ago, in the middle of another stint in Baghdad. She had offended the government by referring to the allied forces in Iraq as an "occupation force" and recent violent resistance to the Americans as "Iraqi resistance". Apparently, the terms the government would have preferred were "the coalition bringing liberty and democracy to Iraq" and "rebels".

Ms Gruber's departure has been a long time coming. In 1993, on the eve of Mr Berlusconi's first term in office, she said: "Anyone in power wants to control the flow of information. That's a risk for the liberty of the press. If you're a journalist, you don't have to be a supporter or opponent. You have to be a watchdog for the public, not a lapdog for the government."

And earlier this year she bitterly criticised the previous centre-left government for failing to introduce rules mandating RAI's neutrality. "But it doesn't suit anybody to say enough is enough," she said. "Whoever obtains power has every interest in gaining control of the media."

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