October 5, 2010 4:55 pm

Berlusconi minister accused of conflict of interest

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Silvio Berlusconi’s choice of a new industries minister has been denounced by opposition politicians as another example of a conflict of interests in Italy after his predecessor resigned over a property scandal..

Paolo Romani was sworn in as minister on Monday evening, five months to the day after Claudio Scajola resigned – following a hiatus which business leaders in Italy saw as further sign of paralysis in the divided centre-right government.

Opposition politicians criticised the appointment, saying Mr Romani, in his previous role as deputy minister of communications and former television executive, had defended the interests of Mr Berlusconi’s Mediaset media empire in a dispute with the European Commission over access to digital terrestrial television by Rupert Murdoch’s rival Sky Italia.

One of Mr Romani’s first moves on Tuesday was to meet Tom Mockridge, the combative chief executive of Sky Italia. Details of their meeting were not immediately available.

“Romani was in fact a perfect cog in the Mediaset machine,” Repubblica, a pro-opposition daily, said in a front-page editorial on Tuesday.

Pier Ferdinando Casini, leader of the centrist opposition UDC party commented sarcastically that Mr Berlusconi, prime minister, might as well have appointed Fedele Confalonieri, head of Mediaset, to the ministry.

Giorgio Napolitano, head of state, was reported to have voiced similar concerns when Mr Berlusoni first raised the possibility of promoting Mr Romani in May. But these worries were settled when Mr Romani assured the anti-trust authority that he no longer had any financial interest in private television.

Mr Romani has firmly rejected suggestions that he had gone to bat for Mr Berlusconi in Brussels in trying to exclude Sky Italia’s application to move beyond satellite broadcasting and bid for a digital terrestrial television frequency.

“Sadly, once again the Italian reality has been grossly misrepresented, blending prejudice with propaganda from the domestic press which sides with the opposition, ever too eager to reawaken the conflict of interests saga,” Mr Romani said in a letter to the Financial Times in April.

“The current Italian government has proved more EU law-abiding than its predecessors,” Mr Romani said. He said that he had raised concerns in Brussels about what he called Sky Italia’s “leverage of market power of an undertaking that holds a monopoly on satellite and pay TV, besides being a very strong purchaser of content”.

Sky Italia points out that Mr Berlusconi’s Mediaset also has a substantial share of the Italian pay TV market, with over 4m subscribers.

Political commentators saw Mr Berlusconi’s decision to name his trusted ally to the post as another signal that the prime minister saw no chance of reconciliation with a dissident faction in his party, thus raising the chances of Italy heading towards early elections.

Insiders said one reason why Mr Berlusconi, who had appointed himself as interim industries minister in May, took so long to fill the vacancy was that he had considered offering the position to the faction close to Gianfranco Fini, speaker of parliament and his long-time ally turned adversary.

Mr Fini, a former neo-fascist who has tacked to the centre, on Tuesday held a meeting of all parliamentarians in his new Future and Liberty of Italy faction in a first step towards forming a new party ready to contest general elections that many observers predict will take place next spring.

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