Italian TV in new scandal over political influence

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ROME, Nov 21 (Reuters) Leaked phone taps suggesting state television RAI and its private rival Mediaset colluded to favour Silvio Berlusconi when he was prime minister have thrown the spotlight on political interference in Italy's media.

The left-wing daily La Repubblica printed transcripts today of phone conversations in 2004 and 2005 between executives at RAI and at Mediaset, which is owned by Berlusconi.

In the conversations, the executives discuss how to present his defeat at local elections in a more favourable light in news programmes and talk shows.

During his five years in power, the media tycoon turned centre-right leader was widely accused by opponents of controlling 90 per cent of Italy's broadcasters because RAI is traditionally subject to government influence.

He has always denied the charge. Mediaset said it would sue Repubblica and one of its board members called the allegations ''nonsense''.

The report sparked an outcry among Berlusconi's critics and prompted an internal investigation at RAI, which has now moved closer to Prime Minister Romano Prodi's centre-left government.

''What has emerged is extremely serious,'' said Walter Veltroni, leader of the newly created Democratic Party who has been anointed to succeed Prodi as centre-left leader.

RAI is at the heart of Italy's spoils system, and successive governments hand out top jobs there to reward loyal proteges.

Its board members, appointed by parliament and the government, are picked depending on their party affiliation.

A reform to try to make the broadcaster more independent of politics has been stuck in parliament for months.

One of the transcripts printed by Repubblica cites a former Berlusconi assistant turned RAI executive in charge of programming talking to her counterpart at Mediaset on the day when results were trickling in from an April 2005 local election in which Berlusconi's centre right was badly defeated.

In the conversation, the RAI executive advises her Mediaset rival to broadcast ''a strong prime-time programme'' that night to overshadow an RAI talk show on the election results.

In another conversation on the same day, a top RAI manager says he has talked to Berlusconi's spokesman and is pushing to delay the broadcaster's announcement of the results.

Berlusconi himself did not comment on the allegations but one of his allies accused Repubblica of trying to influence lawmakers who are due to discuss a media reform which the centre right says is aimed at punishing Mediaset.

''This a media operation only meant to speed up the approval of a bill that has the precise objective of destroying Berlusconi's companies,'' said Renato Schifani, a senator from Berlusconi's party.

REUTERS RSA BST0020

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