Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has launched an all-out attack on Italian and international media which have reported his involvement in sex scandals and questioned its implications.
His lawyer said he had served writs on newspapers and magazines in at least two other European countries and was taking advice on the scope for libel actions in Britain. In Italy Berlusconi is seeking damages of €1m from the Espresso group, whose flagship daily, La Repubblica, has spearheaded the campaign to get answers about his friendship with an aspiring teenage actress and his alleged involvement with self-acknowledged prostitutes.
A writ signed by the prime minister said 10 questions to which the paper has demanded responses for the past two months were “rhetorical and blatantly defamatory.” La Repubblica said that “for the first time in the history of Italian journalism the questions [posed by] a newspaper will end up in a civil court.”
Details of Berlusconi’s media counter-blitz emerged yesterday as his already strained relationship with the Catholic church was buffeted by fresh storms. The Vatican announced at short notice that a dinner for Berlusconi and the Vatican’s top official had been scrapped.
The announcement came after the billionaire politician’s family newspaper, Il Giornale, launched an unparalleled attack on the Italian bishops’ newspaper, Avvenire, accusing it of a “moralising campaign” against Berlusconi, and throwing a spotlight on the private life of the editor.
Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo, said that in 2004 the editor of Avvenire had plea-bargained his way out of a trial for menacing behaviour towards the wife of his homosexual lover.
Avvenire’s editor, Dino Boffo, called the allegations “improbable, specious and absurd.” A statement from the Italian bishops’ conference said it had “full confidence” in him.
Following the Vatican’s move, the prime minister issued a statement dissociating himself from Il Giornale’s report in which he said: “The principle of respect for private life is sacred and should be valid always and in all cases for everyone.”
In what was widely billed as the basis for a reconciliation, Berlusconi was to have dined last night with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, in the earthquake-hit city of L’Aquila. He was due to take part earlier in an annual service for the remission of sins.
But a Vatican spokesman said the dinner had been cancelled and the prime minister had pulled out of the penitential observance to avoid his attendance being used against him. Berlusconi was to have been accompanied by an entourage including his equal opportunities minister, Mara Carfagna, a former topless model who was at the centre of a previous controversy between the prime minister and his now estranged wife.
The writ served on La Repubblica cited, in addition to the paper’s insistent questioning of the prime minister, an article published this week that reported coverage given to the affair in non-Italian newspapers and magazines. One of the articles cited was carried by the French weekly Nouvel Observateur.
Dario Franceschini, leader of Italy’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic party, described the writ as “incredible.” He added that Italians were “facing an unworthy strategy of intimidation ... unprecedented in a democracy.”
The move was also condemned by the Italian journalists’ professional organisation, the newspaper publishers’ association, and freedom of speech pressure group Articolo 21. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009