Prodi braces for fight to curb Berlusconi's media empire

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The Independent Online

The Italian government is bracing itself for the toughest fight of its short life this week as it prepares to go into battle against Silvio Berlusconi's unique combination of media control and political power.

The glaring anomaly of Italian politics over the past 15 years has been the fact that the leader of its biggest party, Forza Italia, is also its biggest media mogul. Mr Berlusconi's ownership of the three Mediaset television channels, plus daily newspapers and a leading news weekly, was widely seen as critical to his landslide election victory in 2001. Despite Italy's stumbling economic performance, he nearly held Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition to a draw in April - thanks, in part, to his media power.

Mr Prodi's coalition has promised to replace the conflict-of-interest law passed by Mr Berlusconi in 2004 with something far more stringent. It will probably require a figure such as Mr Berlusconi to place his companies in a blind trust before standing for election.

Next week, a parliamentary Constitutional Affairs Commission begins considering the legislation in detail. But already the brickbats are flying. Mr Berlusconi's friends claim (without any evidence) that the law's true purpose will be to drive him out of politics, to expropriate Mediaset and hand it over to "friends of friends" of the government.

Fedele Confalonieri, the boss of Mediaset, was incandescent in an interview with the daily newspaper La Repubblica. He compared what he believes the government is planning to do with the stringing up of the dead body of Mussolini in Milan's Piazzale Loreto by communist Partisans. "I'm in my car 300 metres from Piazzale Loreto and it seems to me a fatal coincidence," he said. "Once upon a time kings and dictators were strung up by their feet. Berlusconi's Piazzale Loreto risks being the dismantling of his television network.

"Mediaset is not an anomaly. It is a healthy company which creates well-being and jobs and represents an important reality in this country's media industry. The centre-left wants to shuffle the whole pack of cards; they want to fix the game in favour of their friends. Capitalist expropriation, that's what it's come to."

Mr Berlusconi himself used similarly violent rhetoric during the last election campaign to considerable effect, and the government is already on the defensive. Mr Prodi said: "The law on conflict of interest is not against Berlusconi but for democracy ... it's a law such as all decent modern countries have. We're talking about the fact that one cannot practise two professions which clash with each other, and one cannot be both the referee and a player."

Referring to the fact that when he was last prime minister in 1996, his government failed to plug this hole, Mr Prodi added: "We will enact the law in a serene manner and as quickly as possible. I feel chastened by the fact that we did not pass this law when I was last in government ... I don't want to have to rebuke myself for it for a second time."

But the only minister in Mr Prodi's government who addresses the theme with passion is Antonio di Pietro, minister for infrastructure, who was one of the leading investigating magistrates into the colossal bribery scandal that brought down Italy's corrupt political system 14 years ago. "It's vital that parliament tackles this question as soon as possible," he said.

"We need to send a powerful signal of discontinuity from the Berlusconi years. The battle is to fill a deep lacuna, to bring the Italian rules into line with those of other Western democracies."

Mr Prodi's government is already showing signs of fraying on the issue. Clemente Mastella, the centrist justice minister, told Il Giornale, one of Mr Berlusconi's dailies: "Prodi is making a huge mistake in raising this issue now. We're going into Lebanon, we're looking for the centre-right's collaboration on the budget, so now we deliver this slap?"

Hinting he may refuse to back the measure, he said: "We don't have the numbers to pass it."

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