Italy’s Supreme Court has ruled that Silvio Berlusconi’s family company must pay nearly €500m in damages to media rival CIR on the basis that Mr Berlusconi’s Fininvest holding company had wrongfully gained control of a publishing house by bribing a judge in 1991.
The ruling is the latest blow for Mr Berlusconi who is awaiting the outcome of Wednesday of a senate committee vote that will decide whether he should keep his senate seat following his conviction for tax fraud last month.
Hawks among Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right allies have threatened to pull out of the centre-left led coalition formed in April if their leader of the past 20 years is evicted from parliament.
The confirmation of the fine, which was first awarded to Milan-listed CIR in June 2011, comes as Fininvest and Mr Berlusconi’s Mediaset television empire face falling revenues and profits in the face of tougher competition from satellite operator Sky Italia as well as internet providers.
Political analysts have suggested Mr Berlusconi entered politics two decades ago partly in an effort to try to influence the outcome of the ongoing court battle between himself and Carlo De Benedetti, founder of CIR and his long-time media rival. Mr Berlusconi has always denied he used his political office to help his company.
In a statement, CIR said the final amount of the compensation it had been awarded in the ruling was €494m. Fininvest was forced to pay the fine more than a year ago but CIR was not able to use the funds until the ruling was confirmed by Italy’s highest court. Shares in CIR closed up 7 per cent.
In a furious response to the ruling, Marina Berlusconi, Mr Berlusconi’s eldest daughter who runs Fininvest, said: “We don’t owe a euro to anyone”.
The ruling brings to a close a ferocious battle between Mr Berlusconi and his long-time media foe and European industrialist Carlo De Benedetti that has animated Italian media and business for 20 years.
Mr De Benedetti, 78, the owner of Italy’s centre-left national newspaper La Repubblica and weekly magazine L’Espresso, have been locked in battle since Mr Berlusconi won back control from Mr De Benedetti of the Mondadori publishing house in 1991.
A court later ruled that Mr Berlusconi, then a young businessman who was in the process of building Italy’s largest private media broadcaster, had bribed a judge in order to swing the verdict in the takeover battle in his favour.
Mr De Benedetti’s media outlets have been the most consistently opposed to Mr Berlusconi throughout his political career, sparking frequent tirades by the former prime minister against so-called “left leaning media”.
Analysts say Mr De Benedetti could use the funds won in the case to spur consolidation in Italy’s media industry. Italy’s financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore is seen as a potential target, according to media analysts.