Berlusconi hits back at Murdoch

Pay TV dispute linked to newspaper attack

ROME — Mired in a sex scandal, Italo Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is blaming negative coverage about him in British newspaper the Times on his rivalry with Times’ owner Rupert Murdoch.

In an interview on Thursday on Mediaset’s Canale 5, which Berlusconi controls, he said that relations with Murdoch and his News Corp. empire had soured since his government raised the value-added tax for subscribers to Murdoch’s paybox Sky Italia from 10% to 20% several months ago.

The Times has been among the most active media outlets in pursuing the story of 72-year-old Berlusconi’s alleged dalliance with Noemi Letizia. He attended the Neapolitan model’s 18th birthday last month, prompting his wife Veronica Lario to start divorce proceedings and sparking the growing scandal. Berlusconi denies having an affair with Letizia.

On Monday, the Times published a scathing editorial calling Berlusconi a “chauvinist buffoon” and claiming he “cavorts with women more than 50 years younger than himself, abusing his position to offer them jobs as models, personal assistants or even, absurdly, candidates for the European parliament.”

Berlusconi was on friendly terms with Murdoch in the past. News Corp.’s Sky Italia gained access to Italy’s satellite pay TV market in 2003 during Berlusconi’s previous tenure as prime minister.

But since then, Mediaset and Sky Italia have been on a collision course. Last year, Mediaset ventured into pay TV, with its rapidly growing Mediaset Premium service on digital terrestrial, which now aims to corner 15% of the Italo pay TV market.

Besides allegations of a relationship with Letizia, Berlusconi is also under investigation for alleged misuse of his official state plane to fly friends and entertainers to parties at his Sardinian villa. Berlusconi told Canale 5, “The case will be thrown out for sure.”

Whether or not the scandal is hurting the prime minister’s reputation will be tested when Italo voters go to the polls for European parliamentary elections on Saturday and Sunday.

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