TV news reader quits in protest at Berlusconi

One of Italy's top news readers has dramatically quit her job on state-funded television after claiming its coverage was biased in favour of the media mogul and premier, Silvio Berlusconi.

Maria Luisa Busi, who presented the flagship evening TG1 news show on the Rai 1 channel, reportedly told bosses what she thought of the programme's editorial line in a frank letter pinned to a notice board.

Her abrupt departure at the weekend follows a series of clashes with TG1 editor Augusto Minzolini, who was hand-picked for the job by Mr Berlusconi. TG1's editorial committee expressed unease "about the direction Augusto Minzolini has made TG1 take". The veteran journalist and Rai president, Paolo Garimberti, added: "Maria Luisa Busi's decision is another worrying signal of a situation that requires maximum attention from the company's top management."

In addition to controlling three of Italy's seven terrestrial TV channels as part of his Mediaset empire, Mr Berlusconi, as prime minister, exercises considerable influence on senior appointments at the state-owned, rival broadcaster, Rai. And it was to address what he felt was left-wing bias that Mr Berlusconi pushed for Mr Minzolini's appointment last year.

Since then, accusations of pro-government bias against Mr Minzolini have emerged. Mr Minzolini's TG1 show was, along with its main rival on Mr Berlusconi's own Mediaset network, TG5, fined by broadcast watchdog Agcom for under-reporting the opposition Democratic Party in favour of Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom party before March regional elections.

Last summer TG1, along with other Rai news shows, was criticised for mostly ignoring the scandals surrounding Mr Berlusconi's private life. In contrast, the news that a shady businessman had paid prostitutes to attend romps at the prime minister's residences in Rome and Sardinia was covered extensively by the channels La7 and Rupert Murdoch's Sky Italia.

Mr Minzolini is under investigation along with Mr Berlusconi on suspicion of trying to pull the plug on Rai's AnnoZero talk show, which has reported on the prime minister's woes.

Mr Minzolini denied yesterday that TG1 had shown pro-government bias. "I don't agree with a line of her (Ms Busi's) letter," he told the news agency, Ansa. "My news programme has never been biased. I have always given voice to everyone and the ratings vouch for me."

Reaction to her departure underlined the politically polarised nature of Italian television. Antonio Di Pietro, the leader of the Italy of Values opposition party, praised her professionalism while Daniele Capezzone, the spokesman for Berlusconi's centre-right party, backed Mr Minzolini.

Ms Busi also complained that the programme's content had been dumbed down, with too much emphasis on "theft-proof underpants" and not enough reporting on failing schools and hospitals.