Political gag seen as undemocratic by biz

ROME — Italy’s top talkshow hosts are up in arms after the Silvio Berlusconi government pulled the plug on political yakkers on pubcaster RAI ahead of key regional elections this month.

The unprecedented Italo gag order, which went into effect Feb. 28, is causing RAI ratings to plummet as the popular yakkers featuring dueling politicos that are a major Italo TV staple are being replaced with filler content from the pubcaster’s shelf. For example Disney’s “102 Dalmations” pic on Thursday is replacing “Annozero,” an often controversial show hosted by Michele Santoro, a left-leaning journo often accused by Berlusconi of not playing by the rules known as “par conditio,” meant to ensure fair and equal coverage of all Italo political sides.

Italy’s leading talkshow host, Bruno Vespa, lashed out against the RAI gag on Thursday with foreign journos at Rome’s foreign press association, where Santoro and other RAI talkshow hosts also came to voice their discontent to international media.

Vespa, who hosts top-rated RAI yakker “Porta a Porta” decried the clampdown as “a serious measure with no precedent in Italian history,” noting that it will deprive Italians of “political debate.”

Aside from a freedom of information problem, Vespa said the gag will cause a “huge damage for RAI” in terms of ratings and consequent ad intake. The monetary loss for RAI has been estimated at around $5.5 million.

Mediaset, the Berlusconi-owned commercial broadcaster, which is RAI’s main rival, has also been hit with the ban on political talkshows. But rather than pulling its yakkers, it has simply avoided political themes and continued to air the shows.

RAI’s board instead did not consider that option reportedly for fear that leftist talkshow hosts, like Santoro, would continue to inject political overtones in yakkers on any topic.

In the leadup to the March 27 and 28 regional elections, Berlusconi’s conservative coalition has been battered by a recent corruption scandal involving the country’s civil protection agency, and also by accusations of mafia links to an elected senator.

The country’s consumer advocacy association Federconsumatori has taken legal action against the RAI gag on the grounds that it violates the pubcaster’s duty as a public service.

“This situation puts us on the same level of democracy and free press as Zimbabwe,” lamented Federconsumatori head Rosario Trefiletti.

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