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Berlusconi lashes out at Murdoch

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: June 4 2009 12:32 | Last updated: June 4 2009 12:32

Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister and billionaire media mogul, lashed out on Thursday at Rupert Murdoch, accusing his business rival of using the Times of London to launch a series of personal attacks.

In an interview on Canale 5, one of the Mediaset channels he owns, the Italian prime minister was clearly stung by an editorial and articles in the Times on his relationship with an 18-year-old would-be model.

Mr Berlusconi’s government is fighting back against a flood of disparaging articles published in several major European publications which it sees as seriously damaging to Italy ahead of the G8 summit of major industrialised nations it will host next month.

The 72-year-old prime minister put a commercial spin on the saga, claiming that Mr Murdoch’s News Corp was responding to his government’s decision last December to double the amount of VAT paid by the group’s Sky Italia network.

”I don’t mean to be nasty but unfortunately with the episode on VAT for Sky there was a breakdown in relations with the Sky group and with Murdoch’s group, which has published a series of very critical articles attacking me,” Mr Berlusconi said.

On Wednesday evening, Mr Berlusconi also pointed a finger at Mr Murdoch when interviewed on Porta a Porta, a sympathetic news show on Rai, the state broadcaster.

Headlined The Clown’s Mask Slips, the Times on Monday called Mr Berlusconi a “chauvinist buffoon who cavorted with young women and abused his position by offering them political positions while treating the Italian public with utter contempt”.

The London daily followed up with a commentary by Mary Beard, a Cambridge professor of classics, comparing Mr Berlusconi behaviour with the “sexual frolics” and cover-ups of the emperor Tiberius.

Mr Berlusconi has denied having a sexual relationship with teenager Noemi Letizia, following accusations by his wife, Veronia Lario, that he “frequents minors”. Ms Lario is seeking a divorce.

Prosecutors this week have opened a formal inquiry into whether the prime minister illegally used government aircraft to ferry guests to his personal villa in Sardinia. Mr Berlusconi, who has used the courts to block publication of hundreds of photographs reportedly showing guests arriving by aircraft and partying at his villa, has denied any wrongdoing.

The two media moguls once enjoyed happier times, basing what insiders called a reasonably close relationship on a cosy division of the Italian market between Sky Italia’s dominance of satellite television and Mediaset’s comfortable hold on the terrestrial sector.

But those divisions have become blurred as Mediaset tries to reposition itself. Mr Berlusconi’s influence as prime minister over Rai, the state broadcaster, might also lead to a further deterioration in ties with Sky Italia if Rai carries out a threat to remove its programmes from Sky’s satellite platform over a payment dispute.

Despite the prime minister’s rhetoric – which appeared more political than commercial in intent – Mr Berlusconi was later scheduled to give an interview at Sky Italia’s Milan studio.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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