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Scandal doesn't mean the boot in Italy

An official's `moment of stupid curiosity' not only won't cost him his job but also helps spur new limits on paparazzi.

March 23, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales could learn a thing or two from the Italians when it comes to surviving political scandal.

How often is it that a government's top spokesman, a close ally of the prime minister, can be shown talking to a "presumed" transvestite prostitute -- and still hold on to his job?

Silvio Sircana, the spokesman, said he had no intention of resigning after newspapers this week published paparazzi photographs showing him in his car, apparently leaning over to address a person in hot pants and stilettos posed rather provocatively on the sidewalk.

The incident was a "moment of stupid curiosity," Sircana said.

"A man should not be crucified for the silliness of a single night," he told the newspaper La Repubblica. (He added that he did not pick up the prostitute.)

The photos of Sircana are part of a wider Italian imbroglio involving paparazzi, blackmail and celebrities from the worlds of sports, television and politics. Authorities this month broke up what they said was an extortion ring of photographers who specialized in the trafficking of compromising pictures.

The head of a photo agency was among a dozen people arrested.

As part of its crackdown, the government imposed new privacy regulations. Journalists can face up to two years in jail if they publish material deemed to be in violation of a subject's privacy and "not in the public's interest." Especially off-limits is intrusive information pertaining to what the new rules call the "sexual sphere" of a person's life.

Italy's journalists union quickly attacked the guidelines as vague and bordering on censorship.

The irony was lost on no one that paparazzi were being curtailed in the very country that gave them their name. It was Federico Fellini's classic 1960 movie "La Dolce Vita" that chronicled the exploits of a nuisance photographer, Paparazzo, as he stalked celebrities in a carefree Rome.

In issuing the new rules, the center-left government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi came under additional criticism because it appeared slow to act as the broader scandal developed, then clamped down only when rumors about the photos of Sircana began to surface.

Right-wing opponents accused Prodi of protecting his own -- "privacy for the powerful," as one put it. A few politicians on the left also were uneasy with the sequence of events.

"As long as it was about soccer players and showgirls, no one minded. Now that it is about politicians, the ledger changes," Cesare Salvi, head of the Senate justice committee, told reporters.

Still, once the pictures of Sircana were published, many politicians rallied to his defense, starting with Prodi, who only last month promoted his longtime confidant to the post of chief government spokesman.

Even Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister and bitter foe of Prodi, seemed sympathetic, although it was one of his newspapers that first reported the existence of the pictures. It has also been reported that Berlusconi's daughter Barbara paid about $30,000 to prevent publication of a photograph of her with a friend outside a nightclub.

Scandals in Italy have a way of sliding off their protagonists like butter on a hot grill. Berlusconi may be the champion, as numerous legal indictments and corruption charges have yet to hurt his political standing.

And Sircana, who is married with two children, is likely to fare similarly. A poll published Thursday showed 68% of respondents saying he should stay in his post.

Part of the explanation lies in a kind of conspiratorial glee, shared by many Italians, attached to getting away with the breaking of rules.

And Italy, like much of Europe, tends to be far more tolerant of sexual peccadilloes than does America. Citing as an example President Clinton, whose dalliances with Monica Lewinsky nearly brought down a government but were met with mild bemusement in Europe, sociologist Fabio de Nardis said Italians make a clear-cut distinction between their leaders' official and private lives.

"A political man or woman will have many sexual experiences, and it may be a problem with the wife or husband, but not for the people," he said. "Italians separate radically the individual ethics -- morality -- and public behavior."

Perhaps the most vociferous criticism of Sircana's photographed adventure came from Alessandra Mussolini, a right-wing politician and granddaughter of the late fascist dictator.

Appearing on a television talk show, she became increasingly exasperated as the other, mostly male guests portrayed Sircana as a victim of unscrupulous operators.

"Only in this country do these things happen!" she said. "Now he's a hero," she added sarcastically. "In this country there is no respect. If someone does something wrong, the next day we have to pardon him.... Everybody is now supposed to give [Sircana] our solidarity. Not me!"

wilkinson@latimes.com

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