Italo TV tycoon-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi is turning one of his networks into what critics termed an “electronic megaphone”– and the attempt has caused an uproar both inside and outside his Fininvest media empire.

When Berlusconi debuted as a candidate at a convention of the populist Forza Italia movement last week, his Rete 4 dedicated more than two hours of live airtime to the event.

Not only was Berlusconi’s 40-minute convention speech aired live during an 80 -minute report, but Rete 4′s news chief Emilio Fede reportedly wanted to bump the web’s primetime film to air an hourlong special entitled “Berlusconi: The Great Challenge.”

Resistance from the top

Fininvest toppers balked. A phone call from Fininvest president Fedele Confalonieri — who reportedly threatened to resign if the film was yanked — dissuaded Fede from airing the special during primetime. It aired later.

Gianni Letta, VP of Fininvest Communications, has been appointed internal guarantor of fair play at the three networks during the campaign. And the three Berlusconi-owned webs will come up with a code of ethics — probably modeled on pubcaster RAI’s — to ensure impartiality through the March 27 elections.

Though Confalonieri’s gesture suggests that Fininvest management doesn’t intend to junk scheduled programming in favor of campaign propaganda and is making an effort to guarantee impartiality, the choice of Letta as an internal referee is disturbing to some. Letta was one of the few Fininvest execs who attended the Forza Italia convention Feb. 6.

Fininvest webs Canale 5 and Italia 1 did not follow Rete 4′s lead, but dedicated roughly the same amount of time to news reports from Forza Italia’s convention as rival pubcaster RAI did.

But short ads in which Berlusconi illustrates snippets from Forza Italia’s platform have aired regularly on Canale 5 since the beginning of February, giving candidate Berlusconi a considerable advantage over his political rivals who have to pay for their electoral spots.

“It’s a massacre for democracy,” said Mauro Paissan, VP of the parliamentary committee that oversees RAI. “RAI’s news coverage of the campaign is better but only because Fininvest’s is so disgusting.”

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