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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 February 2006, 18:27 GMT
Berlusconi relishes power of TV
By Sebastian Usher
BBC World Media correspondent

Silvio Berlusconi
Mr Berlusconi has been appearing on television every day

In the run-up to Italy's 9 April elections Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been making an unprecedented number of appearances on Italian TV to get his message across and woo voters.

It is not hard for Mr Berlusconi to do so: his company, Mediaset, owns three TV stations - Canale Cinque, Italia Uno and Rette Quattro.

Two of the three publicly-run stations, Rai Uno and Rai Due, are now run by his supporters - as they are traditionally controlled by the government of the day.

Only one TV station, Rai Tre - the least watched and most cerebral of the three state channels - takes a different stance, critical of the Italian leader.

Even this limited defiance has angered Mr Berlusconi. He attacked one of Rai Tre's political discussion programmes, Ballaro, as being "scandalous" left-wing propaganda.

Populist message

Italian electoral law specifies that candidates should be given equal airtime. But the feeling is that Mr Berlusconi has so far received far more than his rival, Romano Prodi.

One widely-quoted statistic is that the prime minister received three hours and 16 minutes of airtime in one 15-day period last month, compared to just eight minutes for Mr Prodi.

Romano Prodi
Romano Prodi is much less visible on Italian TV than his rival

Mr Berlusconi has been on TV or the radio every day, even popping up unannounced on chat shows.

At one point, he spent half-an-hour discussing football on a talk show on one of his own TV stations.

He always has a clear, populist message and usually a joke or two.

Among his soundbites have been a declaration that he will abstain from sex until after election day, and a series of statements in which he has compared himself to Churchill, Napoleon and Jesus Christ.

Even the political interviews that Mr Berlusconi has faced have, in some cases, been gentle to say the least. On one, he got out snapshots of his family, as well as pictures of himself taken with three successive US presidents.

Restrained mockery

The opposition has accused him of mounting a "military-style" media blitz, blatantly subverting the election rules about balanced airtime.

He has been accused, as in the past, of misusing his dual role as prime minister - with control over state TV - and as a media mogul with ownership of three of the most watched TV stations.

Mr Berlusconi has transformed Italian life into the world's longest-running reality TV show
US writer Alexander Stille
Financial Times article

Mr Berlusconi has always denied this, saying he has divested himself of direct control of Mediaset and the media outlets it owns.

One cartoon strip recently made fun of his omnipresence, showing a man watching a porn film only for it to be suddenly interrupted by Mr Berlusconi springing up in the middle of the action, immaculate in his customary blazer.

He apologises for the interruption, but says that it is thanks to his belief in freedom of speech that such programmes are available - unlike the killjoys on the left, who would stop them.

The man is so startled he has a heart attack, with his wife saying she had always warned him watching porn was bad for him.

There is little even of this gentle kind of satire available on Italian TV these days.

Some of the best-known comics who used to make fun of Mr Berlusconi - such as Beppe Grillo and Lutazzi - have vanished from Italian screens after the prime minister publicly condemned them.

Lutazzi now concentrates on the theatre, with one of his shows subtitled: "Bin Laden can be on TV but I can't".

Mr Berlusconi's own TV stations do still host one or two comedians who make fun of him, but they stay within certain limits.

Commentators say they are tolerated in order to show that the prime minister is able to laugh at himself and take criticism.

'Ignored' press

Some of Italy's best-known journalists have also resigned in recent years over the takeover of the Italian media by Mr Berlusconi and his confederates.

Lilli Gruber, a star of the state channel Rai, resigned in 2004, saying Mr Berlusconi's dual role as head of state and media magnate represented an "obvious, unresolved conflict of interest that... hurts both broadcasting and the credibility of our democracy."

Electoral banner of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Mr Berlusconi has been cementing right-wing alliances

Such conflicts of interest are less blatant in the Italian press.

There, the four most respected newspapers - La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera, La Stampa and 24 Ore - are all more or less opposed to Mr Berlusconi.

In contrast to his TV empire, Mr Berlusconi's own stable of newspapers is relatively modest.

But Marco Niada, London correspondent for 24 Ore, says the prime minister clearly regards the press as far less important than TV.

"Italians are not big readers," he says. "Newspapers are read by the elite, but the public largely ignores them, getting their news instead from TV."

TV influence

US writer Alexander Stille, who has written extensively on Italy, recently noted in an article in the Financial Times: "Mr Berlusconi has transformed Italian life into the world's longest-running reality TV show: every day's lead news - flattering or unflattering, important or trivial - is about Mr Berlusconi."

Mr Stille also quotes a study of women voters in Italy that found three-quarters of those who watched four or more hours a day of TV had voted for Mr Berlusconi in 2001, while only 40% of those who watched two hours or less did so.

Commentators like Mr Stille say that in his use of television, Mr Berlusconi is not afraid of contradicting himself or even appearing absurd - the important thing is that he is constantly visible and his message is drummed home again and again.

Marco Niada says that the leftist opposition also has itself to blame for failing to match Mr Berlusconi's use of the media.

"It's divided between the centre-left and the hard left," he says, "and isn't capable of delivering a clear message. It's not media-savvy and comes across as confused".

Certainly, Mr Berlusconi's campaign drive on TV and radio appears to be paying off.

The latest polls show that he has all but closed the gap between himself and Romano Prodi.

If he wins another election, many will put it down to his influence over Italian TV and radio, as well as his ability to play the media game to the hilt.

Country profile: Italy
22 Feb 06 |  Country profiles

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