Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has made an ominous threat to the Italian press of “direct and tough” reprisals after unflattering reports of a number of diplomatic gaffes he committed at the round of summits in Britain, France and Germany.
Berlusconi berated journalists for their coverage after he skipped an official NATO meeting and kept German Chancellor Angela Merkel waiting at the end of a red carpet while he finished a conversation on his mobile phone.
Last week, Italian and foreign newspapers had a field day when the eccentric billionaire appeared to irritate Queen Elizabeth II by shouting out to US President Barack Obama during a photo call — though Buckingham Palace later denied any ill feeling.
It is the first time Berlusconi, who controls most of Italy’s television networks, has made such intimidating noises about the press. The professional body representing Italian journalists said his comments were of “unprecedented gravity.”
Berlusconi’s remarks come amid mounting concern among opposition politicians over his apparent impatience with democratic constraints. Already this year he has clashed with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano over an attempt to override the judiciary and with the speaker of the chamber of deputies — his ally, Gianfranco Fini — over his government’s use of decrees to sidestep parliamentary debate.
Speaking to reporters in Prague late on Saturday, Berlusconi said the Italian press had “no other aim than that of saying the prime minister has committed faux pas or gaffes.”
In fact, he said: “I am here to represent Italy precisely because there is no one else [to do so], and out of a sense of responsibility.”
After accusing journalists of “defaming me and misinforming readers,” he said: “I don’t want to go as far as to talk about direct and tough actions in respect of certain newspapers and press personalities. But, frankly, I’m tempted.”
Asked to explain what he meant, he appeared to suggest a government-inspired boycott.
“If I say ‘don’t watch a TV channel’ or something, do you think that no one in Italy would follow me?” he said.
There are bound to be fears that he was hinting at using his considerable political and financial power to pressure editors.
Journalists said the media tycoon-turned-conservative politician left Strasbourg after Saturday’s NATO summit in a foul humor brought on by controversy over his behavior.
When he arrived for the second day of talks, he was seen to be deep in conversation on his phone and, instead of walking up the red carpet to meet the German chancellor, carried on talking.
Visibly perplexed, Merkel eventually gave up on her Italian counterpart and led the other dignitaries on to a footbridge over the Rhine for a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Berlusconi stayed on the German side of the river, missing a group photograph and a minute’s silence to honor NATO soldiers killed in action.
According to an Italian official, he was trying to convince Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to drop his opposition to the appointment of the military alliance’s new secretary-general. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was later confirmed in the post despite Turkey’s objections, which sprang from his handling of the crisis over the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.