Magistrates have quizzed the editor of a pro-Berlusconi newspaper amid claims that the right-wing press is engaged in a smear campaign against the Italian Prime Minister’s bitterest political rival.
Milan prosecutors summoned the editor of Libero, Maurizio Belpietro, over allegations in his newspaper that the parliamentary Speaker and former Berlusconi ally Gianfranco Fini planned to revive his political fortunes with false claims of an attack on his life in April, which he would then blame on the Prime Minister.
Mr Fini and his centre-right allies earlier this month narrowly lost a confidence vote as they attempted to oust Mr Berlusconi from power. The premier clung on despite claims that his Pdl party had bought votes from some MPs. The tycoon's narrow victory sparked riots in Rome and other cities.
A day afterwards, Il Giornale, a conservative daily owned by the Berlusconi family, printed claims that Mr Fini had paid to have sex with a prostitute. Mr Fini had previously commented on the need for morality in politics following numerous claims that Mr Berlusconi had partied with prostitutes and abused his office.
Mr Fini, who was also weakened by the failed confidence vote, has denied both allegations against him. His spokesman Fabrizio Alfano said: "House Speaker Gianfranco Fini has given the go-ahead for legal action to protect his honour in relation to what the newspapers Il Giornale and Libero published."
Mr Belpietro told Ansa news agency he had reported genuine concerns: "I spoke to the magistrates about something real, the target of which was Fini, but the real aim was to make the responsibility for the incident fall on to the premier," he said, adding that he would not reveal his sources.
Both newspapers have waged aggressive campaigns against Mr Fini since the summer, when he stepped up his criticism of the scandal-struck Prime Minister. This led to him being kicked out of the People of Freedom (Pdl) party, which he founded with Mr Berlusconi. Fabio Granata, a member of Mr Fini's fledgling Future and Liberty (Fli) centre-right parliamentary grouping, said: "They want to annihilate us and Berlusconi is behind it."
Meanwhile, the fate of Mr Berlusconi's government, reduced to lame-duck status by the rebellion of Mr Fini and around 30 Fli members, looked more uncertain than ever last night, after the premier's most important ally, Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, repeated his assertion that Mr Berlusconi's single-figure parliamentary majority meant spring elections were inevitable. Two "large firecrackers" exploded outside the offices of the Northern League, close to Mr Bossi's home in the north-eastern town of Gemonio. The early morning blasts shattered windows but there were no casualties. The word "Antifa" – an antifascist slogan – was sprayed onto the offices of the anti-immigration party.
Political pundit Professor James Walston of the American University in Rome said it was "in the government's interests to maintain a certain level of tension". "This allows it to claim the country is facing an urgent situation and gives it more authority," he said.