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Controversy surrounds Berlusconi


Today correspondent Mike ThomsonMike Thomson
Italians may love him or hate him but they cannot ignore him. Italy's controversial Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sees to that.

Mike Thomson reports from Rome on the controversy surrounding Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Senate in Rome

The Italian parliament's upper house, the Senate, in Rome

BBC News Online report of Italy's lower house granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution

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The Italian journalist

Guilliano Ferrara 
police guarding Berlosconi's house

Police guarding Berlusconi's house
Senator Lucio Malan

Senator Lucio Malan
His influence is simply everywhere. Turn on the TV and there’s a good chance he owns the channel. Read a newspaper or magazine and the chances are he’s either in it or owns it.

The multi-billionaire tycoon also has his hands on Italy’s biggest film production company, he owns an advertising agency, has vast interests in the insurance, restaurant and construction industries and even owns AC Milan, the winners of the European Champions League.

He’s also in and out of court a lot too. But, surprisingly, that is not because he owns them as well. He just keeps being accused of falling foul of the law. Not that anyone ever seems to be able to prove as much.

By the time you read this, Italy’s second house of Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, will almost certainly have followed the country’s Senate in agreeing to freeze any charges against him until he leaves office, which is unlikely to be until 2006. After all, with Italy taking over the Presidency of the European Union on the first of July it just would not do to have the country’s Prime Minister in jail.

There again, the multi-millionaire tycoon has always been pretty good at looking after himself. On one occasion he was charged with three cases of false accounting. His reaction was to pass a law decriminalising such offences. Last year a Sicilian court acquitted him of involvement in the murder of two anti-mafia judges more than a decade ago. He has since passed laws to weaken the powers of magistrates.

Then came fresh charges of bribing a judge in the mid-1980s to swing a corporate takeover deal. This led to his recent court appearances in Milan. But just when everyone thought he was about to take a terrible tumble, Italy’s parliament agreed to give Mr Berlusconi immunity from prosecution for as long as he remains Prime Minister.

This means that he probably won’t have to face those charges, or fresh ones of tax fraud and false book-keeping connected with his purchase of rights to American TV films, until after the next general elections in 2006 at the earliest. Mr Berlusconi says he is innocent and denies all charges against him.

Leaving aside his guilt or otherwise of the afore mentioned matters, is it really ethical to have a man who has so many fingers in so many lucrative pies running a country? Mr Berlusconi thinks it is. He once said: "If I, taking care of everyone’s interests, also take care of my own…you can’t talk about a conflict of interests." But even some of his friends do not agree. Take Guilliano Ferrara who is also a speech writer for the Italian Prime Minister. "His critics have a point. I mean it’s anomalous that someone who owns three private TV channels, who has big private wealth in insurance companies and finance becomes Prime Minister. It’s obviously anomalous."

Others, put it a lot more strongly. Furio Colombo, left wing editor of the L’unita newspaper believes his long-standing opposition to Mr Berlusconi has cost him his once booming broadcasting career: "I am now never seen on Italian TV either public or private. I’m never invited to any programme, to any discussion, to any talk show. The censorship is dramatic." When I asked him if he thinks Mr Berlusconi is responsible he curtly replied: "who else!"

Some fear that when Italy assumes the Presidency of the European Union in July this former crooner on cruise ships (during his twenties) will become a threat to us all. He is thought to dislike the way much European legislation cramps his business style. This will, his critics say, lead him to do as much as possible to erode the power of Brussels over the next six months.

Forza Italia’s (his party) self-declared spokesman for propaganda, Senator Lucio Malan, admits that Mr Berlusconi, like Mr Blair, will be likely to rock the boat: "What is true and I think it is true also of the UK government, is that we don’t say yes to whatever is decided by France and Germany, to name them. We have to defend Italy’s interests."

But the tycoon from Milan is not having everything his own way. In recent local elections his party and his fellow right wing coalition partners, The National Alliance and the Northern League, did rather badly. This despite claims that Mr Berlusconi had promised people in some areas free dentures if they voted for him. But many of his critics worry that this failure will only make Italy’s richest man ever more determined to use his mighty media and business empires to win the next general election.

This fills Left-winger Furio Colombo with horror and he warns somewhat dramatically: "He is intelligent enough to know that his popularity is decreasing. So if he can make it once again, just once again, that it where the danger lies. He will never permit any rerun and freedom in Italy will be lost forever."

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