Berlusconi Cheers TV Sale as Election Opponents Protest

Silvio Berlusconi’s media influence was criticized by his political rivals as the billionaire ex-premier seeks re-election amid a bid by a former associate to buy one of Italy’s largest private television networks.

Italy needs stronger conflict of interest laws, Prime Minister Mario Monti said in a televised interview yesterday, a day after Telecom Italia SpA said it was in exclusive talks to sell its La7 network to a company led by Urbano Cairo, a former Berlusconi assistant. Pier Luigi Bersani, Berlusconi’s chief political opponent, said Italy must guarantee dominant positions aren’t built in the media market.

Berlusconi told La7’s news director in an interview late yesterday he was pleased the network might be sold and thought he might get a political benefit.

“A wide majority of news anchors are critical of us and me,” he said.

Berlusconi’s role as owner of the nation’s biggest private media empire and leading politician has stoked controversy since the 76-year-old tycoon entered politics two decades ago. He revolutionized television in Italy in building his Mediaset SpA and has used his networks to connect with voters.

Telecom Italia, led by Chief Executive Officer Franco Bernabe, is retreating from television to focus on its main telephone business and reduce borrowing. Cairo’s Cairo Communication has grown from an advertising firm in the 1990s to expand into magazine publishing.

Saturating Airwaves

Berlusconi narrowed the gap in opinion polls with Bersani by saturating the airwaves with interviews over the last month and a half. He faced friendly journalists on Milan-based Mediaset stations, while sparring with reporters including La7’s Michele Santoro in other televised appearances.

“The law on media plurality and conflict of interest must be strengthened as must the powers of the regulators who oversee these important areas,” Monti said in the interview yesterday on La7.

Berlusconi had public support of 27.8 percent in a survey published by SWG Institute on Feb. 8, a day before Italy’s two-week poll blackout began. That was up 2.5 percentage points from Jan. 9. Bersani, a former communist and labor union favorite, fell 1.1 points to 33.8 percent over the same period, while Monti slipped 0.4 point to 13.4 percent.

Berlusconi praised Cairo in the interview with La7’s Enrico Mentana.

“Cairo is a very smart boy, though he’s not a boy anymore, he’s a man,” Berlusconi said. “We ended our association on excellent terms.”

Fininvest SpA, Berlusconi’s holding company, fired Cairo in 1995 even though he had obtained “excellent results,” Cairo said in an interview with newspaper Corriere della Sera published today. La7’s news shows should continue working “in total autonomy” provided they perform well, he told Corriere.

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