4 Settembre 2009

Visto da fuori 2 – The New York Times: Editor Resigns Over Berlusconi-Tied Accusations

Published: September 3, 2009

ROME — For months, the staid newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Avvenire, steered largely clear of the major topic of conversation here: the spicy personal life of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.But when readers complained that maybe a Roman Catholic newspaper had a moral duty to denounce divorce, consorting with teenage girls, naked poolside parties and being caught on tape telling a prostitute to wait for him in “Putin’s bed” while he showers, the newspaper’s editor began to weigh in.

“People have understood the unease, the mortification, the suffering that this arrogant neglect of sobriety has caused the Catholic Church,” the editor, Dino Boffo, wrote last month.

On Thursday, Mr. Boffo was out of a job.

Late last week, Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by Mr. Berlusconi’s brother, called Mr. Boffo “a homosexual known to the Italian secret services” and the culprit in a sexual harassment suit. Il Giornale’s attack expanded on Thursday, with another editorial aimed at the Catholic Church itself, mocking not just the “hypocrisy” of sexually active priests with “weak flesh,” but even the “Mitteleuropean” accent of Pope Benedict XVI, a German.

The lesson: No one can mess with Silvio Berlusconi, not even the church.

The other reality is that Mr. Berlusconi’s personal travails and his efforts to clear his name have come to dominate Italian public life to the exclusion of most everything else, including governing the country, even amid a still serious financial crisis.

“He has an ego, not a plan,” said Giuliano Ferrara, a sometime adviser to Mr. Berlusconi and the editor of Il Foglio, a conservative daily newspaper partly owned by Mr. Berlusconi’s wife. “No one thinks that Berlusconi will go to heaven, but he’s decided to join his enemies in hell.”

Mr. Berlusconi has repeatedly joked about the allegations, which have trickled out during the summer, saying at one point, “I’m no saint.” He still enjoys wide support and governs largely unopposed because the left is fragmented and ineffective.

But his popularity, as reflected in polls, is dropping, and Mr. Berlusconi appears deeply worried about further damage, especially from moderate Catholic voters. This week he announced million-dollar defamation lawsuits against several publications that have been critical of him, part of what his critics and allies alike worry is a dangerous trend toward treating any criticism as disloyal and possibly illegal.

Even his friends say he is wading into dangerous waters with the church in a way that could harm him politically. Despite declining Mass attendance, the Catholic Church remains the essential institution here, and many Italians care which candidates have its normally implicit support. The church generally supports candidates on the right, like Mr. Berlusconi, making the current confrontation that much more unusual and significant.

Judging by the tone taken by a Berlusconi-owned newspaper and a church-owned newspaper, and whispering among officials on both sides, mutual affection is not high at the moment.

“Gossip isn’t enough to crucify someone,” Vittorio Feltri, the editor of Il Giornale, wrote last Friday, defending Mr. Berlusconi from gossip about his sex life while attacking Mr. Boffo with allegations that he is gay and that he had made harassing phone calls to the girlfriend of a man with whom the paper said Mr. Boffo was romantically involved.

“Or rather it was enough, it has been enough, only in the cases of two people: Jesus Christ for some of his miracles, and more recently Silvio Berlusconi for some of his dances with women who in truth were very available,” Mr. Feltri wrote.

Mr. Boffo wrote simply that Mr. Feltri’s attack, which he likened to stepping on dog droppings, had debased journalism. “Congratulations,” he added.

This week, a judge made public that Mr. Boffo had been issued a fine in a sexual harassment case settled in 2004. In Avvenire on Thursday, Mr. Boffo denied that he had made harassing phone calls. He said a third party had made the calls using a cellphone also available to him.

He added that no legal proceedings had ever claimed homosexual leanings, and that the interior minister had called to assure him that the Italian police had never kept tabs on him.

In tendering his resignation on Thursday, Mr. Boffo said the scandal had become a distraction for the church.

“My life, the life of my family and that of my newsroom have been violated in an act of sacrilege I would have never thought imaginable,” he wrote. He predicted “a long storm ahead” and said he had been caught up in “a war between editorial groups, fossilized powers and growing presumptuous ambitions.”

“If he does this with independent journalists,” Mr. Boffo said of Mr. Berlusconi, “what will the future be for free and responsible information?”

On Wednesday, Mr. Feltri, a longtime associate of Mr. Berlusconi, said he had published news of Mr. Boffo’s judicial proceedings “to interest public opinion and to sell newspapers.” Both he and Mr. Berlusconi said they had not discussed the coverage. Mr. Feltri called the question “insulting if not injurious.”

Mr. Boffo did not respond to requests for comment.

Worsening the church-state tensions is the fact that Avvenire has been a vocal defender of immigrants, advocating that Italians express solidarity with them, not hostility toward them. This has flown in the face of the Berlusconi government’s security agenda. A new bill sponsored by the powerful Northern League criminalizes illegal immigrants, whom many Italians see as a threat.

Yet while Mr. Berlusconi and his defenders are tending to the facade, Italy’s foundations are not entirely sound.

By 2010, Italy’s national debt is expected to reach 116 percent of gross domestic product, nearly four times the target set by the European Monetary Union. Tax evasion is rampant; employment levels are low; pensions take up a full 30 percent of public spending.

Business leaders say that without structural changes, including pension reform and more flexible contracts, Italy will lose its edge to competition in Asia and other countries in the European Union.

Such news rarely makes the evening news. As with his personal life, Mr. Berlusconi seldom admits anything is wrong. Many Italians find that increasingly at odds with the facts.

Beppe Grillo, a comedian and left-wing provocateur, compares the situation to that of Wile E. Coyote, the lovable if ever-scheming cartoon character who runs off a cliff and never falls until he looks down.

“They’re suspended in the air and aren’t looking down,” he said, referring to Mr. Berlusconi and the nation’s center-right leadership. “And there’s nothing underneath.”