Berlusconi Meets Reporter He Ousted as Comeback Demands Exposure

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, trailing in opinion polls and standing trial on charges of paying an underage woman for sex, is turning to a journalist he once fired to help rebuild his image.

Berlusconi, 76, will give a televised interview tonight to Michele Santoro, who in 2002 was ousted from state broadcaster RAI by the then head of government. Santoro, now appearing on television station La 7, is a former European politician who has aired shows critical of Berlusconi.

“Having Berlusconi with Santoro will mean half of the country will watch,” said Giovanni Orsina, a professor at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, who is writing a book about Berlusconi’s political appeal. “And they might converge and show the voters once again that it is left versus right, and there is no room for the center.”

Berlusconi is seeking to recapture his constituency of entrepreneurs and conservative Italians after a year in which he mostly withdrew from public. His absence gave relative newcomers like Prime Minister Mario Monti and entertainer Beppe Grillo space to gain footholds. With the comeback, Berlusconi is squeezing the upstarts to retake his place as one half of Italy’s traditional left-right political split.

Santoro’s show was cancelled a decade ago after Berlusconi accused him and two other presenters of making criminal use of state television. He did not broadcast again for four years and was elected with a center-left party to the European Parliament. In the 1990s, Santoro worked for Berlusconi at the billionaire’s Milan-based Mediaset SpA.

Third Interview

The interview will be at least the third on television for the three-time premier this week and the crescendo of a publicity blitz begun one month ago. The most successful Italian politician of the last two decades, Berlusconi has portrayed himself as an unwilling candidate needed to save Italy from left-leaning politicians he calls communists.

“We are condemned to win, and that’s why I’m here,” Berlusconi told Lilli Gruber Jan. 8 on La 7’s Otto e Mezzo program.

Berlusconi’s popularity has held up even as his criminal trials proceed. The ex-premier was convicted of tax fraud in October and sentenced to four years in prison. The prostitution trial includes an abuse-of-power charge tied to a phone call Berlusconi is accused of having made as premier to police on behalf of a jailed night-club dancer. He has denied the charges and remains free as he appeals the tax conviction.

Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party has gained in opinion polls since the billionaire’s media onslaught began. He has had friendly interviewers, like Paolo del Debbio, a reporter at one of his Mediaset channels, who didn’t ask a follow-up question when Berlusconi said he was disgusted by corrupt politicians. More contentious was his appearance with Gruber.

Berlusconi’s divorce judges are “feminists and communists,” the ex-premier said in response to Gruber’s question about his 200,000-euro-a-day ($260,000) alimony order. Berlusconi accused Gruber of attacking him and said he relished a fight.

“Know where I’m going on Thursday?” Berlusconi said. “I’m actually going to Santoro.”

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