BOB GARFIELD: In Italy this weekend's massive demonstration against unpopular labor laws may be the first real challenge to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi is Italy's richest and most powerful man. His personal assets include three television networks, a major publishing company, an insurance and asset management firm, a slew of real estate holdings and the AC Milan Soccer Club. When he swept into office in a landslide victory last May he also took control of the three public TV networks. Now 95 percent of Italian television is in his hands. He's used his power over the media to charm citizens unsettled by years of fractured government, and chances are they will continue to hear only good news from the media-mogul in chief. OTM's Megan Williams reports from Rome.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi loves to reminisce about his first job as a singer on a cruise ship, but where he once blew kisses in cocktail lounges, he's now serenading a whole nation. And it seems Italians are happily dancing to his tune. Berlusconi is Italy's richest man by a long shot. He came onto the media scene in the '70s and '80s, busting through legislation which for more than 50 years had given the Italian state a monopoly over television broadcasting. Berlusconi now owns the country's largest private television network, Media Set [sp?], and last May using a few of the millions in profit and with the help of an inept opposition he cruised into the job of prime minister. But despite a seemingly easy entre into the world of politics, one issue has dogged the Italian magnate from day one. Conflict of interest. [MUSIC, APPLAUSE]
SILVIO BERLUSCONI: [SPEAKING IN ITALIAN]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: This is Berlusconi just before elections last year. As a guest on Italy's most popular talk show, he managed a stunning coup de theatre. As if he already owned the place, Berlusconi installed himself behind the studio's cherry wood desk and, with great flourish, signed a list of election promises which he called his "contract with the Italian people." "If I don't keep my promises after I'm elected," he told the millions of viewers, "fire me." But even while he was making these promises, Berlusconi was using his multimedia expertise to publish a glossy magazine focused exclusively on himself replete with snapshots of him with the stars and tales of his favorite pets. He also used Media Set to help get coalition members elected to Parliament by running wall to wall political ads. This helped in more ways than one. Since public TV in Italy isn't permitted to broadcast political ads, the opposition parties had to make a choice between lining Berlusconi's pockets and running no ads at all. They chose the latter. And then the voters made their decision. After years of ideological wrangling between Communists and Christian Democrats, most Italians were all too happy to vote for someone who personified capitalist success and efficiency.
WOMEN: [SPEAKING IN ITALIAN]
TRANSLATOR: I think that for the economy Mr. Berlusconi's probably the better choice for the economic experience and political vision he has.
MAN: [SPEAKING IN ITALIAN]
TRANSLATOR: The opposition keeps going on and on about this conflict of interest. They're just jealous that they're not as successful; that none of them could have accomplished what Berlusconi did. No one cares about the supposed conflict of interest. All this talk is just an excuse to try to get him out of office.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Berlusconi seems to have understood just how little most Italians care about the fact that he runs both the media and the country. Here's his response in an interview on public television about the issue just days before he became prime minister.
SILVIO BERLUSCONI: [SPEAKING IN ITALIAN]
TRANSLATOR: I don't think it's logical to announce just days before an election what I'll do with Media Set when whatever I say will be manipulated by the opposition. Whatever I may announce will have to do with passing conflict of interest law once I'm in government.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Nearly a year later Berlusconi and his right wing coalition, Forza Italia, seem at last to be taking steps to deliver the new legislation. Well, it hasn't passed yet. What the new law proposes to do is set up a watchdog authority that would alert the Parliament if it found that the government was influencing media coverage. The authority, however, would be virtually powerless to effect change itself, unable to sanction bad behavior or block executive decisions.
MARCO TARADASH: Yes, this bill is not useful at all; at all.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Marco Taradash, a journalist with Radio Radicale, is a former M.P. with Berlusconi's Forza Italia. He says the fact that Italians found it acceptable to elect Berlusconi with the conflict of interest means the chances of him ever being regulated are slim.
MARCO TARADASH: It, it's impossible now. You can't control his power, and in the United States where you have a free press -- we don't have a free press. You have a free and independent judiciary -- we don't have. So it's not so easy.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Berlusconi's coalition has a secure majority in Parliament. Opposition to the bill will be unlikely.
MARCO TARADASH: Neither we have the public television station that are traditionally on the center-left wing, and the private television that is not so evidently favoring the government. But there is the problem of the control. If Berlusconi ask them to favor the government, they do that I think.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Not only that, but Berlusconi recently appointed two strong supporters of his party to head up the traditionally left wing state run television. Media analysts now fear that criticism of his government from any Italian TV news shows will be silenced. Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of Il Foglio, a conservative opinion-shaping daily owned by Berlusconi's wife says that Berlusconi is the only option for a nation bogged down in a long history of polarized politics and big bureaucracy.
GIULIANO FERRARA: You have to answer the question is he fit or unfit for office. I think he is fit for office in this [LAUGHS] not normal situation which is the Italian.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: When the previous center-left government had a chance to clear up the conflict of interest, they didn't do it either. They'd hoped to make political hay out of it during the elections and sorely over-estimated how much Italians cared about it. [MUSIC] What the left also under-estimated was the power of Berlusconi to divert the people from the problems of governing by appealing to their dreams. [APPLAUSE] For On the Media, I'm Megan Williams in Rome. [MUSIC]