Silvio’s dilemma

Pressure mounts to settle conflict of interest

MILAN — The Forza Italia party has repeated its promise that media magnate and prime minister-in-waiting Silvio Berlusconi will tackle the conflict between his business and political interests within 100 days of taking office.

The vow came on May 17, the day after President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi urged Berlusconi to resolve the matter quickly.

The issue dogged Berlusconi during the campaign for the May 13 general election but did not prevent him from winning a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament.

Once sworn in, the 64-year-old businessman will control pubcaster RAI’s three channels, while his family holding company Fininvest owns 48% of Mediaset, which in turn runs the country’s three main private terrestrial channels.

Between them, RAI and Mediaset account for over 95% of Italy’s viewing public.

Ciampi wants Berlusconi to clarify what he intends to do with his businesses before he starts running the country.

However, the smart money is on Berlusconi retaining control in some way.

“Italy’s governments usually have a short life, lasting less than one year,” a Lehman Brothers analyst told Variety May 15. “Fearing that this time the Cabinet will not last long, decisions regarding Berlusconi’s media holdings will probably be frozen.”

The day after the election, Mediaset prexy and Berlusconi confidant Fedele Confalonieri said Mediaset might sell a stake to “a telecom operator, Italian or international, or to a big player, in Europe or the U.S.”

But, he added, “the situation is complex and we’ll need to consider many factors.”

Confalonieri last week dismissed a blind trust as unworkable in a company with active management.

While Berlusconi was sweeping back to power, archrival film producer and distributor Vittorio Cecchi Gori failed to be re-elected.

Cecchi Gori, a senator with the centrist Popular Party for five years, ran in the small Sicilian town of Acireale after his party refused to let him stand in his hometown of Florence.

Despite his promises to buy the local soccer team and open a multiplex theater, Cecchi Gori gained only 20,000 votes. After the defeat, the producer left Sicily without comment and traveled to France for the Cannes Intl. Film Festival.

Meanwhile, the Intl. Federation of Journalists said last week that Berlusconi’s election showed the need to “limit the concentration of media power in the hands of politicians.”

“Whenever media concentration takes place, it is inevitable that media will become vehicles for defense of narrow political or commercial interest,” said Aiden White, IFJ general-secretary. “The election of Silvio Berlusconi provides compelling evidence.”

The Brussels-based IFJ, the world’s largest journalist organization representing 450,000 media professionals in 100 nations, cited a survey it said showed Berlusconi’s TV channels gave him four times more exposure than his main rival.

“This bias was inevitable,” White said. “It is shocking that, in one of the world’s leading democracies, such a conflict of interest can be permitted.”

Berlusconi, who was premier for seven months in 1994, swept back into power after 10 million Italians, more than 20% of voters, voted for his party.

(The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.)