Silvio Berlusconi’s dominance of Italy’s television market has become a significant election issue as the premier and his allies have received the biggest share of TV news coverage.

In spite of rules prescribing equal access for all political parties, several studies this week revealed that Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition had received more campaign airtime, especially on the channels of Mediaset, the Berlusconi family-controlled media group.

Italians will vote on April 9-10 in an election that will determine whether Mr Berlusconi stays in office or yields power to Romano Prodi, the centre-left former European Commission president.

Apart from opinion polls commissioned by Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, which have put his coalition in the lead, all surveys have predicted victory for Mr Prodi – the latest, one week ago, by a margin of 3.5-5 percentage points.

Although these polls suggest Mr Berlusconi’s grip on TV news may prove insufficient to propel him to victory, even some of his nominal allies are troubled by the disparity in TV coverage. Marco Follini, a Christian Democrat and Mr Berlusconi’s former deputy prime minister, criticised him for making repeated attacks on the rules that stipulate equal access for political parties during an election campaign.

“I find it scandalous that the prime minister is having a go at the equal access law. I find it even more scandalous that this law has been violated and skirted around so many times,” he said.

According to Claudio Petruccioli, president of Rai, Italy’s state-run broadcaster, the three Rai channels gave 59.4 per cent of their news coverage to Mr Berlusconi’s coalition between February 11, when the campaign officially started, and March 23. Mr Prodi’s coalition received 35.9 per cent of news coverage.

Mr Berlusconi personally received 22.6 per cent of the coverage, compared with 12.9 per cent for Mr Prodi.

However, the figures were more evenly balanced for the week of March 18-24, when Rai3 – a state-run channel traditionally sympathetic to the left – gave more coverage to Mr Prodi’s coalition.

The most startling data were those for Rete4, a Mediaset channel, whose news programmes gave 79.6 per cent of their coverage to Mr Berlusconi’s coalition and only 20.2 per cent to the opposition between February 11 and March 26, according to the Centro d’ascolto monitoring centre.

Rete4’s evening news show is presented by Emilio Fede, a 74-year-old Sicilian who unashamedly says he “loves” Mr Berlusconi and regards him “as a brother”.

Mediaset recently reported a record net profit in 2005, and there is nervousness in financial markets about how its shares will perform if Mr Prodi wins the election.

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