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Berlusconi files newspaper lawsuits

August 29, 2009

by Guy Dinmore in Rome

published on the FT on August 29 2009

Hounded over his relationships with prostitutes and teenagers, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister and media tycoon, yesterday sought to silence his critics with a raft of law suits against at least three newspapers in Italy, France and Spain.

But the counter-offensive he launched against the media after four months of relentless probing into his private life appeared to have backfired badly last night in his difficult relationship with Roman Catholic bishops who have attacked his sense of morality.

Outraged bishops cancelled a dinner of reconciliation between Mr Berlusconi and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, number two in the Vatican. His clerical hosts were responding to an article published by one of the newspapers in the Berlusconi media empire accusing the editor of the bishops’ own publication of being a homosexual involved in a court case for allegedly threatening the wife of his lover.

As a result Mr Berlusconi had to abandon plans to attend an annual festival in the quake-torn city of L’Aquila where sinners receive complete absolution in a pageant dating back to medieval times.

Mr Berlusconi distanced himself from the offending front-page article in Il Giornale, written by its new editor Vittorio Feltri and headlined “Supermoralist condemned for harassment”. The editor subject of the attack, Dino Boffo of Avvenire, rejected the allegations.

Public reconciliation with Cardinal Bertone and the festival of Perdonanza (Pardoning) was to have been the highlight of Mr Berlusconi’s summer attempts to rescue his personal reputation and heal wounds with the powerful Catholic church.

“The cancellation is a very, very big blow for Berlusconi,” commented Antonio Polito, editor of Riformista, a left-leaning daily critical of the centre-right government.

The main thorn in the side of the 72-year-old premier has been La Repubblica, Italy’s biggest centre-left daily which revealed that it was being sued for defamation over 10 questions it had frequently posed in print to Mr Berlusconi over his scandals. Mr Berlusconi is claiming 1m euros in damages.

Ezio Mauro, editor, said the prime minister was using the courts to silence the press. Opposition politicians condemned the move as a further sign of growing autocracy.

Mr Berlusconi’s private life hit the front pages in early May when his actress wife, Veronica Lario, accused him of “frequenting minors” and asked for a divorce. The prime minister denied anything untoward in his relationship with a teenager from Naples, but was then hit by revelations of parties with prostitutes hired by a businessman under investigation for corruption.

The prime minister is exempt from prosecution in general under an immunity law passed by parliament a year ago when he returned to office.

His lawyer and member of parliament, Niccolo Ghedini, revealed yesterday that lawsuits had been filed abroad against Nouvel Observateur, a French weekly, for an article headlined “Sex, Power and Lies”, and against Spain’s El Pais for publishing pictures of guests, some naked, at the prime minister’s private villa in Sardinia.

Lawyers were also looking at suing in London. Mr Berlusconi has lashed out at Rupert Murdoch, his media rival, over articles probing his private life. Suing for defamation in the UK would be a first for Mr Berlusconi who has preferred to use Italian courts for his frequent lawsuits. His only case so far against a foreign correspondent — David Lane of the Economist — was rejected by an Italian judge.

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