The Berlusconi-Murdoch war continues

Who will win this billionaire smackdown?

Among those who will relish Silvio Berlusconi's present woes is Rupert Murdoch. The media mogul has reserved a special enmity for the Italian premier ever since he doubled the rate of VAT on satellite television to 20 per cent.

The subtle response of Murdoch's Sky Italia was to screen the film Killing Silvio, which depicts a man's quest to assassinate Berlusconi.

Later, the Murdoch-owned Times and New York Post relentlessly recorded Berlusconi's sexual peccadilloes and financial misdemeanours. The prime minister has since threatened to sue the newspapers in question for libel.

The feud between the pair got hotter last month when Murdoch's News Corp announced that it had filed a lawsuit against two of the firms in Berlusconi's media empire. Murdoch claimed that RTI and Publitalia -- the TV and advertising arms of Mediaset -- had refused to accept advertising from Sky Italia.

So, after Berlusconi was stripped of his immunity from prosecution, it was no surprise to see the Times's leader denounce the Italian premier with a ferocity unmatched by its competitors:

Little could have more clearly shown Mr Berlusconi's contempt for the law than his lawyer's Orwellian assertion to the court that the prime minister was no longer "first among equals" but ought to be considered "first above equals" . . . He has sought to live above the law; now he will be consumed by it. It is surely time that Mr Berlusconi stop putting his own interests ahead of his country's. He should resign.

Confronted by the struggle between Murdoch and Berlusconi, many may be tempted to echo Henry Kissinger's remark during the Iran-Iraq war: "It's a pity they can't both lose."

But for once we should be grateful for the "Dirty Digger" and his formidable media machine. His self-interested war against Berlusconi may yet hasten the decline of a man who continues to subject democracy and civility to remarkable degradation.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era