Friday, 26 June 2009

26 June 2009

Suppose you could choose: which would you prefer? Money scandals, or sex scandals?

You can have both, of course, and if you put money and sex together, you can create an exceedingly potent brew.

Which brings me to Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy and shortly to be the host of a G8 summit. He is a man determined to make the most of his moment in the global media spotlight, but who finds himself currently embroiled in lurid tales of, yes, you guessed, sex and money.

There are snatched pictures of parties in his private villa, attended by half-dressed young women and an apparently totally undressed former Czech Prime Minister. There are allegations that someone paid young women to attend his parties. And, most damaging, there is a specific allegation that he spent a night with one of those women, who is now happy to tell all.

She apparently has video recordings made in his bedroom, which she has described in some detail. Mr Berlusconi himself denies any impropriety, says he has never had to pay for sex, and alleges that the young woman at the centre of the allegations has been paid to create trouble for him.

In Britain, we’ve been obsessed with MPs’ duck houses, moat cleaners and house flipping. (Oh yes, and now, there are the curtailed family holidays, gifts of Krug champagne and celebration dinners claimed by top BBC executives.) In Italy, the talk is of a 72-year-old Prime Minister, whose wife is divorcing him, and who’s at the centre of a steamy story that makes him sound like an Italian version of Hugh “Playboy” Hefner.

I lived in Italy for a time, and I like to think of it as my second home (not literally, I don’t actually have a second home). I reported on Silvio Berlusconi’s first election victory in 1994, and again on his most recent victory last year. I admire a great deal about the country, yet I confess I am puzzled both by him and by Italian voters’ reaction to him.

He is hugely rich, controls a vast media empire, has seen off countless attempts to prosecute him for corruption, and is the most successful politician Italy has known in modern times. He is brash, unapologetic, and treats women as if he had never heard of the word “equality”. So why is he apparently still so popular?

A friend who has lived in Italy for much longer than she cares to remember wrote recently: “Most Italians wouldn't recognise an ethical principle if they tripped over it.” Another commentator, Edmondo Berselli, talks of the country’s “moral amnesia”.

But suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Mr Berlusconi did have sex with a prostitute. Would that automatically make him unfit for office? Would it make a difference if he didn’t pay? Or if she wasn’t a prostitute?

Would his moral culpability be greater or less than that of a politician who avoided taxes or fraudulently inflated his expenses claims? Or of a head of state who had consensual extra-marital sex in his place of work? Or of a Prime Minister (British) who earlier in his career had a four-year extra-marital affair with another MP who went on to become a government minister?

The Italian equivalent of the chattering classes are horrified by Mr Berlusconi, but he still seems to do well enough at election times. Many Italian voters seem to take a similar attitude to the one I found when I asked American voters what they thought of President Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky saga. “He’s a man, ain’t he?”

But Mr Berlusconi does need to keep an eye on what his political allies are saying. The Catholic church does not like this kind of thing being widely written about in public, and there are signs that some of his coalition allies are also beginning to feel queasy.

The Prime Minister has never hidden his love of money, or of attractive young women. What he is now discovering is that in politics, when you put them together, you risk an explosion.

I shall be in Mexico next week, to report from a country hit by a triple whammy of economic crisis, spiralling drug-war violence and swine flu. Listen out for my reports on Thursday and Friday.

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