Silenzio! Demands Silvio

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There’s a fascinating political-media brouhaha going on in Italy that is a kind of turbocharged mega-Lewinsky scandal, but it is getting comparatively little coverage in the United States. One of the country’s leading newspapers is challenging Silvio Berlusconi, the 72-year-old Italian prime minister as to the nature of a relationship he began in 2008 with a 17-year-old girl named Noemi. Berlusconi has responded by suing La Repubblica, as well as newspapers in France and Spain, and making sounds about the British media as well. La Repubblica has been especially aggressive, posing ten questions for Berlusconi, and then reprinting them every day for the past four months. La Repubblica even features a running clock that reminds readers exactly how many days, hours and minutes have passed without an answer.

Berlusconi has faced a series of scandals involving women, including the allegation from one woman that he paid her for sex, and his appointment of beauty queens to important positions for which they possessed no apparent qualifications. Despite the constant controversy concerning his actions, including a steady stream of intemperate public remarks about women, he has generally continued to perform well in public opinion polls. His own wife, Veronica Lario, has demanded a divorce, and claimed that he has an improper interest in underage girls. Writes La Repubblica:

In the Anglo-Saxon world, the obvious falsehoods spread by the Prime Minister would have cost him, if not a demand for impeachment, then concrete political and institutional difficulties. In today’s tolerant Italy, that lie rates another question: Why was he compelled to lie? What makes him deny the obvious? Is it true, as Noemi claims, that Berlusconi promised her or led her to believe he would back her career in show business or, alternatively, help her gain access to the political scene (Corriere del Mezzogiorno, 28 April)? Ten days later, there are other reasonable certainties. What Veronica Lario revealed to La Repubblica (3 May) has been confirmed: the Prime Minister “frequents underage girls.” In October 2008 when Noemi received the first, unexpected telephone call from Berlusconi, she was seventeen years old, as was Roberta, the girlfriend who accompanied her to Villa Certosa. The fact renews the last question: What is the state of the President of the Council’s health?

Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men and a media baron himself, has long expressed contempt for conventional constraints on the behavior of political leaders. Putting aside the obvious prurience factor of the current contretemps, the battle between Belusconi and the press certainly merits study, in part because it is rare for a sitting world leader to file a lawsuit designed to restrain criticism. It is also astonishing to see the relentlessness with which a mainstream publication is willing to hammer the prime minister, and to so explicitly question his mental state. Would any American publication, for example, have dared to question Bush’s judgment and veracity on Iraq and WMD’s in a similar manner? Certainly, the stakes were higher.

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