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Berlusconi lashes out at Murdoch

June 4, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, June 4, 2009

Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister and billionaire media mogul,
lashed out on Thursday at Rupert Murdoch, accusing his business rival
of using the Times of London to launch a series of personal attacks.

In an interview on Canale 5, one of the Mediaset channels he owns, the
Italian prime minister was clearly stung by an editorial and articles
in the Times on his relationship with an 18-year-old would-be model.

Mr Berlusconi?s government is fighting back against a flood of
disparaging articles published in several major European publications
which they see as seriously damaging to Italy ahead of the G8 summit of
major industrialised nations it will host next month.

The 72-year-old prime minister put a commercial spin on the saga,
claiming that Mr Murdoch?s News Corp was responding to his government?s
decision last December to double the amount of VAT paid by the group?s
Sky Italia network.

“I don’t mean to be nasty but unfortunately with the episode on VAT for
Sky there was a breakdown in relations with the Sky group and with
Murdoch’s group, which has published a series of very critical articles
attacking me,” Mr Berlusconi said.

On Wednesday evening, Mr Berlusconi also pointed a finger at Mr Murdoch
when interviewed on Porta a Porta, a sympathetic news show on Rai, the
state broadcaster.

Headlined The Clown?s Mask Slips, the Times on Monday called Mr
Berlusconi a chauvinist buffoon who cavorted with young women and
abused his position by offering them political positions while treating
the Italian public with ?utter contempt?.

The London daily followed up with a commentary by Mary Beard, a
Cambridge professor of classics, comparing Mr Berlusconi with the
?sexual frolics? and cover-ups of the emperor Tiberius.

Mr Berlusconi has denied having a sexual relationship with teenager
Noemi Letizia, following accusations by his wife, Veronia Lario, that
he ?frequents minors?. Ms Lario is seeking a divorce.

Prosecutors this week have opened a formal inquiry into whether the
prime minister illegally used government aircraft to ferry guests to
his personal villa in Sardinia. Mr Berlusconi, who has used the courts
to block publication of hundreds of photographs reportedly showing
guests arriving by aircraft and partying at his villa, has denied any
wrongdoing.

The two media moguls once enjoyed happier times, basing what insiders
called a reasonably close relationship on a cosy division of the
Italian market between Sky Italia?s dominance of satellite television
and Mediaset?s comfortable hold on the terrestrial sector.

But those divisions have become blurred as Mediaset tries to reposition
itself. Mr Berlusconi?s influence as prime minister over Rai, the state
broadcaster, might also lead to a further deterioration in ties with
Sky Italia if Rai carries out a threat to remove its programmes from
Sky?s satellite platform over a payment dispute.

Despite the prime minister?s rhetoric ? which appeared more political
than commercial in intent ? Mr Berlusconi was later scheduled to give
an interview at Sky Italia?s Milan studio.

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