Media magnate sets out on mission to save Italy: Silvio Berlusconi's ambitious plans to plunge into politics have aroused antagonism, writes Patricia Clough in Rome

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The Independent Online
IT IS almost as if Rupert Murdoch were proposing to ride to the rescue of British politics, form a party of his own and maybe even become prime minister.

Except that Silvio Berlusconi, who wants to do just that in Italy, is even more controversial. He also owns not one but three main television channels, owns part of two more in Italy and others in Spain and Germany, publishes dozens of magazines as well as books, owns the country's biggest advertising agency, insurance interests, supermarkets and the country's cup-winning team, Milan.

What Italians want, Mr Berlusconi believes, is a man just like him. And his staff say they have surveys to prove it. 'People want a strong leader, a competent technician with political ability,' said Gianni Pilo, his marketing chief. 'There is a need to entrust the destiny of the country to people or a personality who does not belong to existing political groups.'

Which is why Mr Pilo is sitting in a bare new office in a newly done-up four-storey office block in Viale Isonzo. Delivery-men are bringing in furniture and equipment, there are pristine conference rooms, television studios, phones and faxes - but as yet no pictures on the freshly-painted walls, no piles of papers, no plants and so far, along the silent grey-carpeted corridors, next to no people.

Mr Berlusconi's rise from night-club singer to media tycoon has been a success story virtually unparalleled in modern Italy and was achieved not simply thanks to his immense confidence in himself. His modern, efficient, American-style methods are now being applied to the Berlusconi rescue of the Italian right and the salvation of Italy from a government by the former Communists.

On the first floor of the building is Diakron, an organisation which looks after the Berlusconi political marketing. It is headed by the soft-spoken Mr Pilo, a Sardinian who moved over from television marketing three months ago. His task, he told the Independent, is research into the mood of the electorate, studying techniques to sell the 'political product' and information. According to his figures, Mr Berlusconi would be welcomed by voters. Nine per cent of Italians would certainly vote for him, 20 per cent probably would, and another 20 per cent would 'on certain conditions'. Another 42 per cent gave negative replies and 9 per cent did not know.

Nevertheless, Mr Berlusconi is not taking the plunge just yet. Although he has committed 6bn lire (pounds 2.4m) to his political organisation (which does not include its probable election campaign costs) he has not yet officially launched it. It has no name yet and it will probably not even be a party - 'people do not want to know about parties anymore,' said Mr Pilo - but some kind of political movement.

He has used the French term rassemblement. And although his associates made it clear that Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, would be the logical aim of the exercise, they also stress that no commitments have been made. He is leaving ample room for retreat.

'I am weaving a web,' Mr Berlusconi said recently. Part of that web is another Berlusconi organisation called Forza Italia, or 'Come On, Italy', a network of political clubs consisting of about a dozen members each, all over Italy. There are 78 of them at present and 200 more are in the pipeline. Their purpose is 'proselytising activities' and fostering debate 'in the light of liberal- democratic principles' and Mr Berlusconi's ideas on the free market, entrepreneurship, honesty and efficiency. Another part is a movement called In Search of Good Government, involving academics and intellectuals interested in improving the quality of political life.

At the same time Mr Berlusconi's men have been seeking out able people in the professions, business and other areas and encouraging them to run as candidates in the next election. They already have about 300 and may soon have around 400, Mr Pilo said.

In Viale Isonzo the would-be candidates are taught the skills which are sadly lacking in the post-revolution politicians: how to behave on television and radio, how to speak in public, how to get themselves known and liked by the voters.

Mr Berlusconi is also seeking to draw other right-of-centre political forces into his web. Already the Northern League, which has realised it has little future without allies, is clearly involved even though - backed by opinion polls - he is firmly opposed to splitting the country into a federation. Mario Segni, the electoral reformer, is more cautious.

Mr Berlusconi's impending foray into politics has aroused as much suspicion and antagonism as one by Rupert Murdoch would. What is he after? The left, particularly the press, claims he wants to regain the political backing he lost when the old regime collapsed. Although he says he would hand over control of his media empire for the duration, they say he commands too much influence.

But Mr Pilo, polls as ever to hand, insists that well over 80 per cent of the public feel he has every right to take the plunge.

(Photograph omitted)