In Italy, all the talk’s about talkshows

Gag order on politics has partisans piqued in run-up to election

MILAN — With just a week to go, Italy’s regional elections can’t come soon enough for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The media mogul is at the center of a furious row over a monthlong government ban on political talkshows, a popular primetime staple, in the run-up to the March 27-28 vote.

The shows can only air if they represent the views of all the 30-odd parties running — not a practical proposition — effectively gagging debate.

Introduced in the name of fairness, the rule silenced shows including pubcaster RAI’s “Ballaro” and “Annozero” that are critical of Berlusconi and his regime.

The shows on the three commercial webs owned by Berlusconi’s Mediaset simply avoided politics and continued to air.

Journalists and opposition members of parliament have been loud in their protests, with demonstrators even taking to the streets over the last three weeks.

On March 4, RAI’s talkshow hosts slammed the ban at a meeting at Rome’s foreign press association.

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

Carlo Verna, secretary of the RAI journalists’ union, called for strike action, saying, “This threatens the very purpose for which public service broadcasting exists.”

Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia satcaster and Telecom Italia Media, the parent of terrestrial web La7, challenged the rule governing political yakkers in court and won a reprieve on March 12.

Consumer advocacy org Federconsumatori alleges the rule violates RAI’s duty as a public service. “This situation puts us on the same level of democracy and free press as Zimbabwe,” says its head Rosario Trefiletti.

But the rule still stands for RAI’s shows, long a thorn in Berlusconi’s side. In November the prime minister described “Annozero” as a “criminal use of public television” after it broadcast the first live interview with call-girl Patrizia D’Addario, in which she dismissed Berlusconi’s claims that he had been unaware she was a prostitute when they slept together.

The tensions rose further last week when center-left newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano reported that wire-tapped conversations had allegedly caught Berlusconi coercing a member of broadcast watchdog Agcom to stifle RAI’s political shows. As a result of these wiretaps, Berlusconi is under investigation by magistrates for possible abuse of office.

With Berlusconi’s PDL party falling in polls, newspaper Corriere della Sera believes the media mogul is showing signs of desperation. The prime minister, however, claims that judicial cases against him are whipped up “like clockwork” at election time and “blown up by obliging dailies.”

It remains to be seen whether the voters agree.