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Sunday 14 June 2009

Maybe we should just leave Silvio and the Italians at it

Is Silvio Berlusconi a corrupt, dirty old man or a charming rogue beloved by the Italian people, wonders Ruth Dudley Edwards

IT'S what they call a tough judgment call. Is the prime minister a disgusting and corrupt libertine who should be driven out of office, or is he a brilliant and engaging rogue whose private life is his own concern and we should all shut up about it?

This, of course, is the debate that should have preoccupied Ireland in the late Eighties when Charlie Haughey was Taoiseach, but which didn't, partly because of the libel laws and more because the internet had not taken off. If it emerged now that Brian Cowen was entertaining foreign leaders around a Clara pool with the help of topless lovelies, even our learned friends in the Four Courts could not protect him from having the news and the photographs transmitted throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. Not that I'm suggesting such a thing, your honour. Brian is not so minded, and Offaly just doesn't have the weather.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, is very fed up that even though he controls most of Italy's media, he cannot entirely suppress awkward facts. Or the accusations of his second wife, Veronica, or Patrizia D'Addario, who taped him in the palatial bed in his Roman palazzo (as opposed to his many other palazzos).

The English satirical journal, Private Eye, has long been running reports on Berlusconi in the form of the notes to an opera. Last week's begins: "Classic Opera Buffooni, which opens with the Robber Baron Silvio cavorting in the Palazzo Fornicazione with a chorus of scantily clad nymphs who sing the chorus 'Money, Money, Money -- We've come here for the Money'." But as so often happens with satirists, reality has played the trump card and the facts need no embroidery.

Let's start with Veronica, with whom Silvio (he's so friendly it seems wrong to call him by his surname) had already had three children before they married in 1990. She became terminally irritable when Silvio introduced some starlets as candidates for his party in the European elections and even more so when he very publicly attended the 18th birthday part of one Noemi Letizia. He is, she claims in her divorce application, infatuated with young women to the extent of "frequenting minors". Noemi denies that any impropriety has occurred: she calls him "Papi Daddy", she explains, and trusts him to help her career as a showgirl or a politician --interchangeable roles, it would seem, in Silvio's world. This would be more impressive if it hadn't emerged that 'Papi' is a codeword used by Silvio's lady guests to deceive telephone tappers. Silvio is sad about the demise of his marriage, he explains, but "serene". "What is certain is that ours has been a great love story. And true love stories can never be erased."

Then there's Patrizia, a professional 'escort', who is also cross with Silvio. When she attended one of his parties on the invitation and at the expense of an 'entrepreneur' called Giampaolo, she wanted the prime minister to sort out a problem her family was having with planning permission for a construction project.

He failed to do this, and she has expressed her displeasure by sharing with the press recordings she allegedly made during romps with Papi. Silvio is outraged at the suggestion that Patrizia was paid for the privilege of sharing his bed: "I've never paid for a woman. I've never understood what satisfaction there would be if there was not the pleasure of conquest."

Silvio is 72, which explains his old-fashioned terminology. Patrizia, rather surprisingly, is 42, which suggests Silvio is more broad-minded in the lust department than his estranged wife suggests. Giampaolo is upset too and says that when he paid for Patrizia and other ladies, he had meant well and did not intend to embarrass Silvio, who doesn't seem too embarrassed really, not least because his party did well in the provincial elections last week. Essentially, Italians don't give a damn. Culturally obsessed with cutting what is known as a 'bella figura', almost all the men and most of the women in that charming country see nothing odd about Silvio's behaviour. Compared to the Borgias, he's quite staid.

In one of the few Italian publications not owned by Silvio, the Catholic church is expressing its concern about "moral decadence"; a Sicilian bishop has called for his resignation.

There was nothing like as much fuss when the Economist declared him unfit to lead Italy because of financial and political corruption and his stranglehold on the press; when he lost his libel action against the magazine (in Italy) last year, it apparently did not bother the electorate.

So what is the judgment? I think Berlusconi's an unengaging, priapic bully -- indeed, a corrupt libertine -- but since, unlike Mussolini, who he seems to rather admire, he doesn't kill people, seems better at his job than his opponents and seems to suit the Italians, I guess we should leave him to it and shut up.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards