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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 22:56 GMT 23:56 UK
Anchor deals Berlusconi nasty blow
By Irene Peroni
BBC News Online

Lilli Gruber
Freedom of information ranks high in Ms Gruber's programme
"He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword", Jesus observed in the Bible - and it appears to have been confirmed in modern Italy.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the man who controls over 90% of Italian television, has received one of the most humiliating defeats of his political career at the hands of a disgruntled TV anchorwoman.

Lilli Gruber, Italy's most famous newsreader who ran for the Olive Tree opposition coalition, won more than 236,000 votes in the capital, Rome - roughly twice as many as the premier.

Ms Gruber, also known as "Lilli the Red" after her flame-red mane, heads a new breed of fierce opponents of the premier who have defected - or have been banished from - that very broadcasting world which is largely controlled by the media-magnate-turned-premier.

A hugely popular and well-respected journalist who reported from Baghdad during the war, she has infused fresh blood into the Olive Tree opposition coalition.

Media censorship

The coalition, steered from afar by European Commission President Romano Prodi, has won 31% of the votes compared to the prime minister's Forza Italia, which reached a meagre 21% - less than the 25% minimum predicted by Mr Berlusconi - although the governing coalition's vote held up well overall.

Torn Forza Italia campaign poster
Berlusconi campaign did not go down well with the voters
The Olive Tree has long suffered from a lack of telegenic personalities able to challenge the prime minister's trademark 24-carat smile.

But this trend has been reversed by the glamorous anchor who, in popular surveys, has often topped the list of Italy's sexiest women.

Viewers were taken aback in May, when Ms Gruber announced she was quitting her job as presenter of Italy's main evening newscast after 20 years to run with the Olive Tree.

In doing so, she accused the news programme she hosted of having been twisted to reflect Mr Berlusconi's views.

She also voiced her unease after Freedom House, a New-York based think-tank, downgraded Italian media from "free" to "partly free", putting the country on a par with Turkey.

Blunders

So where did the premier go wrong, and how will he cope with being beaten by a TV personality?

His media ownership has clearly turned into a double-edged sword.

Mr Berlusconi has always argued that Italian journalists, especially within the press, are biased against him.

But the heavy-handed approach he repeatedly used in order to silence his critics ended up undermining his popularity.

Controversial episodes which did not go down well with a significant share of public opinion included:

  • The sacking of two TV hosts, Enzo Biagi and Michele Santoro (the latter ran as a candidate with the Olive Tree along with Ms Gruber, and ranks fourth in the list of most voted-for candidates), and the axing of their popular talk-shows

  • The passing of a highly controversial new media law which allowed the premier to retain ownership of his three TV channels, one of which he would otherwise have been forced to sell

  • The resignation of Lucia Annunziata, chairwoman of the national broadcaster Rai, who denounced the fact that her board was increasingly being manipulated by the government with regard to appointments and editorial decisions

  • Berlusconi's refusal to let any opposition leader take part in TV talk shows he might appear on, because they were too "disrespectful" towards him.

    Moderate journalist Vittorio Zucconi said Forza Italia, the party founded by the premier, had paid the price for an "overdose" of Mr Berlusconi, who in recent weeks had appeared on TV "at breakfast, lunch and dinner time".

    The left-leaning daily La Repubblica spoke of "saturation" and a "boomerang effect" resulting from what it branded "the military occupation of TV screens".

    It also blamed the premier's poll setback on the 57m SMS mobile phone messages which he sent to Italian citizens reminding them to go to the polls in the hope that his party would benefit from a high turnout.

    New strategy

    In contrast to most of the rest of Europe, Italy did indeed record high voting figures - 73% of the electorate cast their ballots.

    Romano Prodi
    Prodi's Olive Tree coalition can look forward to 2006
    Nevertheless, Mr Berlusconi and his party have suffered a clear defeat, for which he said he took "full responsibility".

    Forza Italia has lost six MEPs, and has gone down 4.2 percentage points compared with the 1999 European elections.

    Over the past few months, an increasing number of journalists and show business people have been denouncing what they see as widespread forms of censorship within the national broadcaster, Rai.

    But by his actions, Mr Berlusconi has unintentionally breathed new life into a stagnating opposition coalition.

    Now that his popularity appears to be on the wane, he will have to thoroughly rethink his media strategy ahead of the 2006 general election.




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