Conflicts are playing out on TV and in print

Italy’s RAI has long been plagued by political infighting.

But the mammoth pubcaster — which has 13 channels, is a leading film industry player and employs more than 9,000 staffers — has lately been experiencing a bit more than your ordinary difference of opinions.

For the past few weeks, RAI has been embroiled in escalating conflicts on several fronts that have been playing out on the front pages of the country’s newspapers.

The main two clashes are between political talkshow host Michele Santoro and RAI general director Mauro Masi, who tried to suspend Santoro’s show after the host insulted him on-air; and between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and RAI journo Milena Gabanelli, whom Berlusconi is suing for running a report on the manner in which he paid for his estate on the island of Antigua.

Santoro, a staunch leftist whose show was pulled from RAI in 2002 during a previous Berlusconi government and subsequently reinstated by court order, lashed out against Masi, a former member of Berlusconi’s conservative cabinet, in mid-October.

On his “Annozero,” he accused RAI management of trying to sabotage the show by refusing to renew staffers’ contracts. He then told Masi what he thought of him, using language that wouldn’t pass the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s obscenity ban.

Masi suspended the show for two weeks, prompting Santoro to ask his “Annozero” audience to sign a petition against the move.

The show’s suspension was subsequently annulled on procedural grounds, “Annozero” remained on air, and its already stellar ratings soared.

Gabanelli, whose “Report” news show raised questions about whether Berlusconi circumvented bank laws to buy his Caribbean real estate, is being sued by Berlusconi for slander, a charge she denies.

“In a democratic system the media are a necessary counterbalance,” noted Corriere della Sera commentator Beppe Severgnini in a front-page editorial titled “Obsession With the Enemy.”

“We should all be reminded how those in power, everywhere, don’t like to be controlled, judged, criticized. But in a democracy they must accept it,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 21, Italy’s Agcom media watchdog warned RAI that its flagship TG1 news broadcast had shown undue bias toward the Berlusconi government between July and September, according to monitoring, as did news shows on Rete 4 and Italia1, two of the three terrestrial channels on Berlusconi-owned Mediaset.

If all the political turmoil wasn’t enough, RAI is also facing its worst financial crisis in nearly a decade.

While RAI’s overall 2010 audience share through September is a healthy 44% against Mediaset’s 38%, the pubcaster’s advertising intake is way down — despite airing World Cup soccer this summer.

RAI is now bracing for a €120 million ($165 million) net loss for fiscal 2010, which has Masi aiming to cut costs.

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