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Berlusconi minister presses for substance

June 5, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published on June 5, 2009

On a last day of election campaigning again overshadowed by salacious reports on the private life of Silvio Berlusconi, senior ministers are lamenting that Italy has been more preoccupied with gossip over the tycoon prime minister’s relationship with an 18-year-old would-be model rather than focusing on serious issues.

‘We are not talking enough about substance. We talk about gossip,
personal problems of the prime minister, but not substance,’ says Franco
Frattini, foreign minister, admitting that cabinet ministers share part
of the blame for being sucked into a maelstrom of unsubstantiated
allegations about Mr Berlusconi’s sex life.

‘No one could affirm that the prime minister had sexual relations with
Noemi Letizia,’ Mr Frattini told the FT, referring to the teenager from
Naples whose friendship with Mr Berlusconi led to his wife, Veronica
Lario, to ask for divorce last month after accusing her husband of
‘frequenting minors’.

Recalling that Ms Letizia and Mr Berlusconi had both denied having
improper relations, he added: ‘His personal conscience is absolutely
persuaded that he is in the right. When your conscience is clear you
sleep well. My prime minister sleeps well.’

That a foreign minister feels obliged to respond to what the government
sees as a left-wing inspired campaign of personal victimisation speaks
volumes to how the centre-right government has been stung by a series of
hard-hitting editorials and articles in the foreign media over Mr
Berlusconi’s third tenure in office.

Mr Frattini accused people in other countries, whom he did not want to
name, of “interfering” in Italian politics.

The 72-year-old prime minister and media tycoon on Thursday accused
Rupert Murdoch’s rival News Corp of fanning the flames for commercial
reasons. And yesterday he moved to sue El Pais, a Spanish daily, for
publishing photographs of near-naked women partying at his villa complex
in Sardinia.

El Pais published five of several hundred pictures taken by a freelance
Sardinian journalist that had been seized by an Italian court, acting at
the prime minister’s request, on grounds of privacy violation. Mr
Berlusconi called publication of the pictures ?a scandalous aggression?.

‘Do you take a shower in a jacket and tie?’ he responded on a radio
call-in show to probing about the pictures. ‘Madam, do not believe all
these stories going around,’ he said to another caller asking if he was
the father of Ms Letizia, who calls him ‘daddy’.

Mr Frattini accused the opposition Democratic party of lacking a
coherent political platform and having to resort to baser tactics. But
he admitted that the government’s response had sometimes been off
target.

‘I would have preferred to talk of substance, what we have done,’ he
said, listing the government’s achievements ‘ resolving the Naples
rubbish crisis, responding quickly to the Abruzzo earthquake,
elaborating global legal standards for the G8 summit, and reforms of the
civil service.

Despite the constant stream of gossip and innuendo ‘fuelled by
left-leaning newspapers and amplified by furious rebuttals from the
right ‘ pundits predict Mr Berlusconi?s centre-right People of Liberty
will trounce the Democrats in the European and local elections, even
though he might lose some votes among women and Catholics.

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