ROME, Mar 12 (Reuters) Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, facing parliamentary elections next month, stormed out of a television studio today when pressed in an interview about his relations with George W. Bush and conflicts of interest.
''This channel is a war machine set against the prime minister,'' Italy's media tycoon shouted, before gathering up his papers and marching out of the studio.
''Goodbye madam. If you won't let me answer the question, I'm getting up and I'm off.'' Berlusconi's centre-right coalition government is lagging behind the opposition centre left by 3.5 percentage points in opinion polls.
Berlusconi, who controls Italy's largest private broadcaster, has banked on his media appearances helping to close the gap.
But he had not factored in Lucia Annunziata, a former head of state broadcaster RAI and longstanding foe, employing a confrontational interview style familiar in the United States and Britain but rarely seen in Italy.
Annunziata, an opposition supporter, challenged Berlusconi on the RAI 3 programme to explain why to people outside Italy he was known only for his support of US President George W Bush in the Iraq war and for the conflict between his business and political interests.
Berlusconi, visibly irritated, refused to discuss his relationship with Bush further.
His support for the Iraq war is unpopular with most Italians and he has played it down during campaigning.
EQUAL SPACE After failing to get a word in about his government's achievements, he accused Annunziata of being biased towards the left and said the left had occupied state television.
Berlusconi staged a broadcasting blitz at the start of the year, appearing on television and radio shows almost every day for five weeks to spread his feel-good message.
Strict campaigning laws have since swung into place, forcing the media to give equal space to Italy's many political parties, squeezing Berlusconi's air time.
Cracks have started to show in his usually buoyant television style, before he faces opposition leader Romano Prodi on Tuesday in a US-style television showdown on RAI.
''You are not used to taking journalists' questions, this is my show, I'll decide what questions I ask,'' snapped Annunziata, who quit her RAI job two years ago claiming it had become just a ''mail box'' for requests from the government.
However, Berlusconi still managed to get in the last word.
''And they say I'm the one who controls RAI!'' he could be heard shouting through his still hooked-up microphone after he had left the set.
REUTERS KD RK2356