Murdoch nears TV deal with Berlusconi TV tycoon

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The Independent Online
Arcore, Italy - The media magnates Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi moved closer to an agreement on the sale of the Italian billionaire's television interests yesterday after hours of negotiations. While they struck no final deal over the future of the three television channels of Berlusconi's Fininvest media empire, the Australian-born Mr Murdoch said two or three solutions had surfaced.

"We are closer to having an agreement," Mr Murdoch said in a joint news conference after several hours of talks at the former Italian prime minister's luxury villa north of Milan.

Asked when that might be he said: "Let's say a matter of weeks ... no, within several days. But there's no deadline as such."

Mr Berlusconi and Mr Murdoch, whose News Corporation has media interests over several continents, have been in negotiations over the Italian's commercial television network for weeks.

Berlusconi said other buyers were interested in taking stakes in his company, including Saudi Prince al-Walid bin Talal, but Murdoch said he was not looking to join any large consortia. "I would not enter into a group with a lot of people," Mr Murdoch said. "I am only interested if we are talking about a significant commitment with a considerable investment and involving a majority stake."

However, this would not exclude Mr Berlusconi or his family retaining a stake in the Mediaset company, which controls the three television stations and Italy's largest advertising agency, Publitalia.

On the question of price, the Italian businessman, who built up his Fininvest company from nothing, said the two parties had reached an agreement over a possible valuation, but both men declined to name any figures. Italian media reports have estimated that Mr Murdoch has offered 4.5 trillion lire (pounds 1.75bn) for 100 per cent of Mediaset, while Berlusconi is reported to be demanding 6.5 trillion lire (pounds 2.5bn).

Mr Murdoch said there was still the possibility that News Corporation might buy all of the company. "But in that case we would like to find Italian partners ... not other television people but maybe banks."

Since he entered politics in January 1994, Mr Berlusconi has come under heavy criticism over his dominant position in the Italian media, with his television channels accounting for almost 50 per cent of the national audience share.

Mr Berlusconi recently won a referendum over TV ownership, but Murdoch stressed that if Berlusconi wanted to carry on in politics he should have nothing to do with television. "I would be happy to have Mr Berlusconi as an equal partner. But that's not possible here because of the political situation."