BERLUSCONI'S FOLLY

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It was inevitable. Sooner or later, Silvio Berlusconi's sprawling media empire was bound to be touched by the political corruption scandal in Italy. And just as inevitable is that he is dragging down the country's highest office.

The clear conflict of interest in being Italy's prime minister and also the country's largest media baron is one that should never have been allowed in the first place. But it's one Prime Minister Berlusconi has ignored and even exploited: The sophisticated campaign that swept his Forza Italia party into power last March was tightly orchestrated through his Fininvest TV channels, newspapers and magazines.

Now the problems are mounting daily and attention is shifting from just Fininvest to the prime minister personally-the man who, ironically, ran on a ticket of cleaning Italy's "dirty hands." Milan magistrates are seeking to question Mr. Berlusconi regarding bribes paid to tax inspectors by Fininvest. Add that to the charges that while prime minister, Mr. Berlusconi allegedly tried to set up a cartel to fix ad rates between his three TV channels and the state TV network's three channels.

Italy's media have a crucial role to play in the country's painful process of rebuilding a society riddled with bribery and corruption. The country's TV and print journalists need to keep the public informed, honestly and objectively. They can hardly fulfill this responsibility when it is the prime minister who owns the lion's share of the independent media and controls state TV as well.

Mr. Berlusconi has sought to distance himself whenever unpleasant events touch his media empire-like the arrest of his brother Paolo on corruption charges-by suggesting he will sell off the odd TV channel or place the holdings in a blind trust. Then he does nothing.

The shame of it is something like that should have been done before he took office. Mr. Berlusconi should never have reached the point where ministering to his own interests could be at the expense of the Italian public.

But it has, and now Silvio Berlusconi has to decide if he wants to be prime minister of Italy or a media mogul. He is proving by his performance that he can't be both.

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