Rai in poll position

Pubcaster inks controversial Datamedia pact

MILAN — Silvio Berlusconi, the Italo media tycoon turned prime minister, found himself at the heart of renewed political controversy Friday after pubcaster RAI signed a contract with Datamedia, a political polling company close to the Italo billionaire premier and his party Forza Italia.

The three-year contract gives Datamedia exclusive rights to supply all RAI TV and radio services with polls; Datamedia unit CIRM will handle forecasts. Polls are an instrument that Berlusconi has used more than any politician has in Italy’s history, considering it a crucial tool to build consensus.

Datamedia and CIRM are controlled by Luigi Crespi, the main consultant for Berlusconi’s electoral campaign, who started working for the billionaire premier’s Forza Italia in 1997.

Datamedia data have consistently showed higher ratings for Berlusconi and his party than those found by all the other political polling companies.

In an unprecedented move in the polling industry, Crespi broke a trade taboo last spring and said he would vote for Berlusconi in June (when the media tycoon’s coalition won).

“It is an outrageous example of conflict of interest,” Piero Fassino, head of the Democrats of the Left party, said Friday.

Berlusconi owns Italy’s largest broadcaster, Mediaset, and an array of media outlets. His coalition has recently appointed government loyalists to head news and programming of two of the three RAI channels, giving the prime minister political and industrial influence over 90% of Italy’s broadcasting.

To add fuel to the political fire, on Thursday a group of center-right lawmakers submitted a motion to a parliamentary commission asking for the suspension of four popular news programs until the May 26 local elections.

The motion was rejected Thursday, but that did not help weaken the opposition’s view that media pluralism in Italy is under serious threat.