Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Tuesday, 15 April 2008 17:37 UK

Italy's love affair with Berlusconi

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

Italians have fallen for the not-so-subtle charms of Silvio Berlusconi once more.

Always ready to burst into a broad smile or to disarm an adversary with a personalised quip, he has swept up more votes than even he dreamed might be possible.

Silvio Berlusconi
A casa: on TV Mr Berlusconi appears to enjoy himself
His admirers say that he has an innate understanding of the Italian psyche and an almost Midas-like capacity to turn everything he touches to gold.

But, with a vast media empire that spans national TV stations, newspapers, advertising and film, his critics see a far darker figure lurking beneath the sunny surface, someone whose image and message is meticulously created and controlled.

One of Mr Berlusconi's most outspoken critics is journalist Marco Travaglio, author of a series of controversial books on the media tycoon.

'Shaping reality'

Mr Berlusconi's pernicious control of Italy's most-watched medium - television - Mr Travaglio says, is the key to explaining why Italians succumb time and again.

"He is incredibly good at using TV to alter, hide and change reality, to give people a completely deformed impression of himself," he explains.

"Only those who read books and newspapers know about and remember the disaster that was his five years in power," he says.

Mr Berlusconi's period in office between 2001 and 2006 was Italy's longest-serving government since World War II.

Silvio Berlusconi appears on television
He's not the only one to enjoy the limelight - I know 57 million other Italians who enjoy it too
Clemente Mimun, Mediaset

Mr Berlusconi, he says, has been very adept at shaping reality to suit his own ends: "Italy has been living in a Truman Show for almost 20 years now.

"Berlusconi is the main character, the screenwriter, the cameraman, the light technician... it's very difficult, living within his Truman Show, to be able to see its negative and grotesque aspects."

But for Clemente Mimun, head of the daily Tg5 news programme at Mr Berlusconi's Mediaset company, his friend Silvio's appeal is far more straight-forward.

"He is seen as a nice guy, he's successful.

"Berlusconi is a man who has built up businesses, made himself a bit of money and absolutely everything he has turned his hand to has been a success," he explains by telephone from Milan.

"He is unique, he's not a television phenomenon, he doesn't have plastic politics."

Having the last word

On the small screen, Mr Berlusconi works hard at looking relaxed and is adept at transforming himself from interviewee to television host.

He has a habit, particularly in election campaigns, of turning magician too - pulling tax cuts out of his hat as a final surprise.

But, as Mr Mimun says, there is nothing wrong with enjoying being in the spotlight. Indeed, it is yet another facet of the national character that he shares with many of his electorate, he suggests.

It doesn't matter what actually happens in Italy. All that matters is what he [Berlusconi] wants you to know
Marco Travaglio

"He's not the only one to enjoy the limelight - I know 57 million other Italians who enjoy it too," Mr Mimun says.

"Listen, in 1994 - when he got into politics - he already had a whole series of TV stations - he didn't need any excuses if he wanted to get on TV.

"You must look beyond the choreography - to his solid political manifesto, his real pragmatism, his successful life. The man is not just good, he is brilliant."

A career built on managing television networks has made Mr Berlusconi only too aware of the medium's hold over the Italian electorate.

In the campaign he initially refused to take part in a live, televised head-to-head with his younger rival, Walter Veltroni - whose communication skills he has repeatedly praised - citing Italy's rules on equal airtime for all parties.

In the end he took part in a "virtual duel". Both candidates were interviewed in the same studio, but separately, one after the other.

Determined to have the very last word, however, Mr Berlusconi leapt up from his white armchair and crossed into vision in the closing moments of the programme.

Much to the consternation of the presenter, he managed to address the camera and tell viewers that voting for his rivals would be a wasted vote.

Information wars

Despite these exuberant moments, Mr Mimun is convinced that the international portrayal of Mr Berlusconi as a buffoon reveals a lack of neutrality.

Silvio Berlusconi appears on Italian television
As a guest, Mr Berlusconi is often tempted to seize control

"When I hear about an English newspaper criticising Berlusconi I do wonder if an Italian newspaper article lambasting Gordon Brown would receive as much coverage on British TV," he says.

Most ordinary Italians, he adds, are a bit puzzled by the foreign media's obsession with the new prime minister's ongoing conflict of interests.

"Italians are a strange race. They tell lies when you ask them who they voted for at the exit polls; they don't admit to looking at horoscopes but then they do; they are all too ready to condemn the system of nepotism but only too happy to use it when it suits them - it's a dual morality."

But for Mr Travaglio - banished from state TV Rai during Mr Berlusconi's previous period in office - it is precisely his control of influential portions of the media that allow him to come back to life, again and again.

"It doesn't matter what actually happens in Italy," he says. "All that matters is what he wants you to know."

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