Perhaps it was inevitable that the sleaze that oozes out of Italian television screens would begin to stick to the presenters and programme-makers. The semi-naked women, bad game shows and voyeuristic exercises in humiliation that pass for small-screen family entertainment were the subject of no fewer than three criminal inves- tigations this weekend, suggesting the existence of a seamy underbelly beneath the shiny teeth and glittery swimsuits.
Italy's most famous television presenter, Pippo Baudo, was being bombarded with allegations of unethical behaviour, including suggestions that he rigged a New Year tombola draw that was broadcast live to the nation; promoted personal friends to take part in variety show contests; and allowed himself to be bribed when picking contestants for this year's San Remo music festival.
One particularly squalid programme, Telecamere a richieste - "TV cameras on request", a sort of Candid Camera in which husbands-to-be are secretly filmed being chatted up by actresses to test their fidelity - was being condemned for inciting violence after one "guest" lost his temper once the trick was revealed, and knocked his would-be seducer to the ground.
Most damaging, though, were allegations that the pretty teenage girls adorning virtually every programme, from Sunday afternoon variety shows to evening satires on current events, are being systematically abused for sexual favours and "traded" among producers and personalities to pay off favours within both the state and the private broadcasting system.
According to magistrates working out of Biella in northwestern Italy, girls as young as 15 are forced to have sex with talent scouts and their friends as the price for getting onto the small screen. Valerio Merola, a talent scout who works for Silvio Berlusconi's Italia Uno channel, has just spent 10 days in custody on charges of pimping and sexual violence. Gigi Sabani, a well-known presenter, is under house arrest, and Gianni Boncompagni, a producer, is being formally investigated.
The evidence produced by a flurry of witnesses, including several of the girls themselves, depicts unholy power games in which would-be models are coerced into squalid assignations in hotel rooms, then dumped and forgotten as often as they are helped up the career ladder.
One witness, Mr Sabani's former chauffeur, has suggested that television executives have passed the girls around their friends in exchange for cash, and even offered them to politicians with an interest in broadcasting, as a form of bribe.
The newspapers are dubbing the scandal varietopoli, in an echo of the tangentopoli investigation into political bribery a few years ago, and are rubbing their hands in anticipation of more revelations. But the chauffeur, Giuseppe Pagano, has yet to name names in public.
Mr Merola, interviewed shortly after his release from jail yesterday morning, did not deny having sexual relations with his protegees but insisted there was nothing criminal about his behaviour. He described one liaison, with a 15-year-old from Modena who has accused him of rape, as "intense but brief".
The case has prompted an extraordinary outpouring of views that reflect not only Italy's attitude to its small-screen entertainment but also its feelings about show business, women with careers, and sex in general. While Catholic groups have denounced the moral turpitude of the entertainment business, one prominent broad- caster has argued that weird sexual practices have been the hallmark of artists down the centuries and are thus a vital part of western culture.
The mother of one model insisted the scandal was the fault of the girls themselves. "Let's be honest," she said. "Sometimes it is the girls who are the provocatrici, and the men - well, they are just men." This did not, of course, include her daughter, a showgirl called Alessia Gioffi, whom she described as a young woman of "healthy principles".
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