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Bishops defeat Berlusconi’s Big Brother

January 11, 2011

By Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti in Rome, published: January 11 2011

Bishops versus Big Brother. Result – a clear victory for the Catholic Church with a possible assist by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s weakened prime minister and media mogul, who has launched a New Year campaign to appease his critics.

With about 10 per cent of all Italians watching the weekly television reality show on Monday night, the top brass of Mediaset – Italy’s main commercial broadcaster owned by Mr Berlusconi – stunned viewers by yielding to pressure from the Church and “evicting” three male contestants for committing blasphemy on camera.

Instead of putting the issue to the usual phone-in audience vote, Alessia Marcuzzi, the show’s presenter, read out a statement saying that Mediaset would not accept behaviour that “offends the sensitivity of the public”.

As the three despondent offenders stalked out of the house where they had been competing for a €250,000 purse, Italy’s still Church had notched up a rare victory in a struggle against what it sees as television-induced social depravity sponsored by a prime minister and media owner of dubious morals.

Avvenire, the Italian bishops’ official newspaper, expressed satisfaction on Tuesday that “common sense and good taste” had prevailed over the “relentless” drive for television ratings. Earlier, after two incidents of Big Brother blasphemy, Marco Tarquinio, the daily’s editor, had condemned Mediaset’s tolerance of such language and suggested that Italians stop watching a “certain type of TV products” that offended God even as tens of millions of Christians were suffering for their faith.

While it was not known whether Mr Berlusconi – who also co-owns Endemol, the producers of Big Brother – had intervened personally over the affair, it appears that he is no mood for new confrontations after a near defeat in parliament last month with his coalition government’s own ratings in decline.

“It is clear that in this moment Berlusconi is trying to get closer to the more moderate parties and to the Catholic world,” commented Raffaele De Mucci, professor of political science at Luiss university in Rome. “Everyone plays their role in this game,” he added, referring to the bishops’ intervention.

On the political front, Mr Berlusconi is preparing to relaunch his People of Liberty party under a new name – possibly “Italia”. He has also responded warmly to a tentative offer of a new pact made by Pierferdinando Casini, leader of the centrist Catholic UDC party, that could lead to more stable government.

Italy’s constitutional court is to rule on Thursday on the legitimacy of a law passed by the centre-right government that in effect freezes three court cases involving corruption and tax fraud charges related to Mr Berlusconi’s business empire.

Two of the cases have already gone to the stage of a full trial. Mr Berlusconi has denied all charges against him and accuses “leftwing” elements of the judiciary of waging a political witch hunt.

Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, noted that even if the constitutional court rejected the law outright and the two trials resumed then the cases would lapse under the statute of limitations.

The prime minister’s office said Mr Berlusconi had no comment on matters related to Mediaset.

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