Italian journalist Michele Santoro, left, squared off against former… (Claudio Peri / European…)
ROME -- In a highly anticipated and occasionally furious TV interview watched by nearly 9 million of his compatriots, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi acknowledged misleading voters about the cause of his country's financial crisis, but doggedly attacked the current government's austerity cuts and fought back when mocked.
Berlusconi's showdown Thursday night with talk-show host Michele Santoro, whom he booted from state TV in 2002, was a ratings record for the private La7 channel and electrified Italy's election campaign ahead of balloting next month. The faceoff also shone a light on the media magnate’s 20-year influence on Italian politics as he was needled over long-standing accusations of tax evasion and mafia collusion.
Berlusconi, 76, deployed all his talents as a showman, which have won over Italians for years, by playing to the audience, grinning broadly and dredging up old claims of fighting “communist tyranny” in Italy.
But he was forced to admit that he was wrong to blame Italy’s economic crisis -- and his own political downfall in November 2011 -- partly on the German central bank's decision to unload Italian bonds. Berlusconi's admission came after one of Santoro's colleagues read out a note from the Bundesbank stating that it had not in fact sold off Italian bonds.
Santoro also ridiculed Berlusconi's recent criticism of the austerity cuts introduced by Mario Monti, the technocrat appointed to replace him as prime minister. Berlusconi has accused Monti of ruining the economy, but Santoro pointed out that Berlusconi had initially given his successor his firm backing.
Polls suggest that Berlusconi will not win the election in February. But he is acutely aware of the value of TV appearances, and his poll ratings have soared from 15% to 26% since he began daily interviews on TV and radio shows before Christmas.
He scored some points of his own against Santoro, appearing delighted when he provoked the host’s fury by reading out a list of libel rulings against Marco Travaglio, a journalist who teams up with Santoro and has frequently criticized Berlusconi. After a shouting match typical of talk shows featuring Berlusconi’s supporters, the billionaire politician walked to a seat previously used by Travaglio and wiped it clean with a handkerchief before sitting on it.
Berlusconi’s fractious relationship with Santoro dates back to 2002, when he slammed the journalist for making “criminal use” of TV and ensured that Santoro was kept off state television for four years.
While in power for much of the last decade, Berlusconi used his control of state channels and his ownership of private TV channels to promote his administration. In 2009, he claimed it was “unacceptable” for state TV to criticize the government.
Since launching his latest election campaign, Berlusconi has faced down a variety of TV hosts, threatening to walk off shows if challenged. During Thursday’s program, Santoro proved feistier, while Travaglio read out a long list of Berlusconi’s political allies who have fallen afoul of the law.
“Among 100 priests it is impossible to find 100 saints,” Berlusconi shot back.
When quizzed about Marcello Dell’Utri, Berlusconi’s close ally who has been accused of colluding with the Sicilian Mafia, an allegation he denies, Berlusconi said: “Dell’Utri is a very good person, very [Roman] Catholic and has one defect: He was born in Palermo.”
Berlusconi then sought to even the score by reading out the legal sanctions Travaglio had incurred for libel, to which Travaglio replied: “If I was a habitual delinquent you would have appointed me head of the Senate.”
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