Media tycoon drops political bombshell

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ITALY'S biggest media mogul, Silvio Berlusconi, has dropped a double bombshell on an Italy still stunned by Sunday's election results.

First he proposed to enter politics to give the country a liberal-democratic centre and beat the left-wingers, who are clearly ahead. Then he came out in support of Gianfranco Fini, the neo-fascist candidate for mayor of Rome.

As an Italian citizen, Mr Berlusconi is perfectly free to go into politics. But since he also owns the second biggest media conglomerate in Europe, including half Italy's six television channels, the country's largest advertising broker, 60-odd magazines including the weekly Panorama and publishing houses, as well as a department store and supermarket chain, property, insurance and construction firms, plus Milan football team, his moves unleashed a furore.

Mr Berlusconi claimed in an interview in La Stampa on Tuesday that 'many' people - ordinary citizens, fellow entrepreneurs and politicians - had asked him to step in 'because they cannot see any figures so authoritative as to be a rallying point for the real majority that exists in the country.'

If he did accept, he said, he would make the 'heroic' decision to hand over management of his publishing interests to others. But he hoped that the existing political forces would get together and the 'bitter chalice' would pass from him.

But later he raised doubts about his 'liberal democratic' pitch by stating that if he were voting in Rome he would vote for Mr Fini in the run-off against Francesco Rutelli, a Green supported by a left-wing alliance including the former Communists, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). Taken aback by the outcry, he stressed that he had 'no sympathy with fascist traditions and culture'.

Some 230 of his journalists promptly staged a day-long strike, protesting 'as a citizen Silvio Berlusconi is free to go into politics, as a publisher he is not'. Enrico Mentana, head of news on his Channel Five, threatened to resign and was backed by his staff. Other journalists held anxious assemblies and demanded guarantees of their editorial freedom.

Mr Berlusconi's opponents thought they detected a design. The tycoon was close to the disgraced former prime minister, Bettino Craxi, and the old political elite, although he has subsequently befriended the Northern League. He also has huge debts. A PDS MP said: 'Now he is afraid that we will come to power and that the law (on broadcasting) will be changed and that the banks that were controlled by the Christian Democrats and Socialists will not give him any more credit.'

Alessandro Curzi, head of the Telemontecarlo Italian channel, commented: 'behind Berlusconi are all the orphans of the old system. They had Italy in their hands and they have lost it. They want it back immediately.'

But the political world, both old and new, was not exactly overjoyed at the thought of the tycoon as a political leader. It was one more reason not to vote for Mr Fini, said Paolo Cabras, a Christian Democrat MP. 'We don't tell him how to run television,' said Roberto Maroni, floor leader of the Northern League, 'he should not tell us how to run politics.'

The move is 'a great mistake' said Ottaviano del Turco, leader of what remains of the Socialist Party. 'He should concentrate on sport, it's the only thing he manages to do well,' said Achille Occhetto, the leader of the PDS. Only the right-wing Liberals and the odd Christian Democrat approved.

(Photograph omitted)