Wiretaps of Silvio Berlusconi haranguing a broadcasting official over what he saw as politically hostile programming have prompted new criticism of the Italian premier for attempting to stifle the media.
The new transcripts, published in Italy for the first time yesterday, suggest that Mr Berlusconi telephoned a commissioner on the country's independent broadcast regulator, Agcom, after he learned that a show examining corruption cases against him was due to go out on state broadcaster Rai.
"What the fuck are you doing with all this?" the irate Prime Minister shouted at the commissioner, Giancarlo Innocenzi. In another call Mr Berlusconi demands that a show looking at his alleged mafia links be muzzled.
Mr Innocenzi's responses appear largely obsequious. As a result of the wiretaps, excerpts of which were printed in the centre-left La Repubblica, Mr Berlusconi is under investigation, along with Mr Innocenzi, for possible abuse of office. Agcom, Italy's official communications regulator, is supposed to be an "independent and autonomous" authority, accountable to parliament.
Rai's director-general, Mauro Masi, also features in the transcripts, in which he appears to say Rai "is doing all it can" to placate the Prime Minister. Mr Masi tells Mr Innocenzi that it has "a strategy in operation" that would resolve the "problem of Santoro, who is a particular type of problem". Michele Santoro is the high-profile host of the Annozero show that has led Rai TV's examination of corruption charges against the premier.
The publication of the transcripts prompted a new round of criticism for the embattled Mr Berlusconi yesterday. Head of the opposition Democratic Party Pierluigi Bersani snapped: "If he wants to change the TV programme, I'd suggest the Prime Minister use the remote control not the telephone."
Rai, which Mr Berlusconi frequently accuses of bias against him and his government, runs three of Italy's six terrestrial TV channels. Mr Berlusconi's own Mediaset empire owns the other three.
Critics note that the media mogul premier has a history of interfering with the state broadcaster. In 2007 transcripts emerged of Mr Berlusconi ringing Rai's then head of drama, Agostino Sacca, and cajoling him to cast his favourite starlets in order to "raise the boss's [Mr Berlusconi's] morale".
The publication of the latest tapes came as Rai chiefs confirmed it would implement a controversial, government-initiated ban on political chatshows ahead of the elections on 28-29 March.
The respected Corriere della Sera newspaper said that Mr Berlusconi was showing signs of desperation now that the wheels appeared to be falling off his PDL party ahead of the vote.
The Prime Minister is seeing poll ratings fall at the same time as an arch rival on the centre right, Gianfranco Fini, makes threatening political manoeuvres. Daniele Capezzone, a spokesman for Mr Berlusconi's PDL party, called the wiretaps probe and the "fuss" over the talks shows "part of a worrying plot staged by people who hate Berlusconi".
The Prime Minister himself claimed that judicial cases against him were whipped up "like clockwork" at election time and "blown up by obliging dailies".
"It is a grotesque initiative. I am not at all worried about the content because the Prime Minister has a right to speak on the phone with anybody without being intercepted," he told state radio.
Media muscle: What the PM said
Mr Berlusconi to Giancarlo Innocenzi, commissioner on broadcasting regulator Agcom:
"I'm telling you, Thursday evening there was still the Spatuzza trial [on TV] and they were trying me as if I belonged to the Mafia... really, if you don't manage to do this stuff here... I don't know..."
Mr Innocenzi to Rai director general Mauro Masi after news emerges of a Rai programme on the Berlusconi-Mills bribery charges:
"Berlusconi yelled at me: 'What the fuck are you doing with all this?" Then he gave me an ear-bashing that never ended."
Mr Berlusconi suggests that Mr Innocenzi take the matter up with Agcom president Corrado Calabro:
"But be careful on the phone with the president [Calabro], there are voices that say... his telephone is being recorded."