To war over a bald patch

In Berlusconi's Italy, prudent journalists cover up the premier's deficiencies, reports Hilary Clark

When the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, appeared in court last month, Panorama, the news weekly that he owns, ran a cover story entitled "The great offensive". The photo was a head-and-shoulders shot of the billionaire taken from behind. His round head and squat neck were recognisable in all but one detail: he had a youthful head of thick dark hair. In reality, Signor B has a large, shiny bald patch.

The photographic make-over of the prime minister has led the Italian Journalists' Order to begin disciplinary proceedings against the magazine's editor, Carlo Rossella. "The episode could further damage the reputation of the Italian press which is often accused, even in international circles, of being subservient to political power," the organisation proclaimed.

Yet Italian journalists know that offending the premier's vanity is almost as dangerous as reporting the proceedings of his current corruption trial - he stands accused of bribing judges during the 1980s. As the trial, and Berlusconi's attempts to stop it, rumble on, papers to the centre of the political spectrum, mainly Corriere della Sera and La Stampa, are under increasing pressure to tone down their criticism of Berlusconi.

The prime minister's vanity has already claimed one press victim: Ferruccio De Bortoli, the editor of Corriere della Sera - the biggest and least partisan national daily paper in Italy - ran a cartoon every day that depicted Berlusconi as a small man (which he is) in platform shoes with a bowler hat.

Although Berlusconi does not own Corriere della Sera, he allegedly rang Umberto Agnelli, who is a director of its holding company, to complain about the editorial line the paper was taking. Agnelli, the chairman of the car company Fiat, appears to have decided it might be prudent to calm the wrath of one of the few Italians richer and more powerful than himself, and the company began to sideline De Bortoli. De Bortoli resigned on 29 May.

Staff at Corriere immediately went on strike. The journalists' union also called a strike of all the national dailies for the following week in support of press freedom.

Berlusconi owns or controls 90 per cent of Italian television, but until now the printed press in Italy was relatively independent, with only one daily, Il Giornale, directly owned by the prime minister. However, an MP from Berlusconi's Forza Italia party recently tried to introduce an amendment to a libel bill going through parliament by which journalists found guilty of the offence could face up to three years' imprisonment. Although the amendment was dropped, it raised further fears of a muzzled national media.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi has been tackling RAI, the state-owned broadcaster: he has sent in executives from his own Mediaset broadcasting company to tamper with programming and replace correspondents in strategic postings such as Brussels and Jerusalem with journalists considered closer to the government line. According to Forza Italia, roughly 80 per cent of journalists at RAI have left-wing views; it points out that the Brussels correspondent took a career break in the mid-1990s to serve as a local politician with the opposition Ulivo alliance.

The political battle is also having an effect in the newsroom: questions have been raised about why RAI's main TG1 news programme ignored the Pope's criticisms of the war in Iraq (which Italy supported) when they made headlines around the world. Worse, following Berlusconi's appearance in court in early May, it seems the premier was furious that TG3, the left-leaning third RAI channel, showed footage of a man heckling him as he left the courtroom. The following morning inspectors from RAI's personnel department turned up in the TG3 newsroom to interview journalists, and took away camera footage.

The inspectors were acting on the orders of Flavio Cattaneo, the 39-year- old director general of RAI, whose political sympathies lie with the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party, part of Berlusconi's right-wing coalition government. Only after the journalists' unions threatened a general strike did the company's management promise not to pursue any disciplinary action against the news team.

Others have not been so lucky. Michele Santoro, who used to present an evening news programme that probed a number of the legal cases against Berlusconi and his allies, had his contract abruptly terminated.

It would seem that the only safe job in the Italian media today is as a photo editor with a talent for touching up the physical defects of middle-aged men.