Mediaset unscathed by Berlusconi charges

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ROME -- A day after its largest shareholder was indicted on charges of corruption, it was business as usual for Mediaset, which aired comments from controlling shareholder and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who claimed the charges against him were politically motivated.

The 70-year-old Berlusconi -- Europe's wealthiest media tycoon -- was ordered late Monday to stand trial early next year for allegedly paying British lawyer David Mills more than $600,000 in return for favorable testimony in two earlier trials against Berlusconi. Mills, the estranged husband of British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, was named as a co-defendant in the case.

Mediaset issued a statement Tuesday saying that the Milan-based investigation will have no impact on the company's day-to-day operations. Still, shares in the company closed slightly lower after unusually heavy trading Tuesday, despite an otherwise upbeat day on the Italian Stock Exchange.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi went on the offensive, calling the charges against him completely groundless and motivated by "political desperation" on the part of political rival Romano Prodi, who narrowly defeated Berlusconi in the race for the premiership earlier this year.

"Prodi cannot govern and so he must attack me to distract the Italian people," Berlusconi said.

Prodi, a former European Commission president, has seen his approval ratings plummet over the last two months, as he seeks to push through a series of controversial reforms he says will help spark economic growth over the coming years.

The story of Berlusconi's indictment has dominated the Italian media, appearing on the front page of almost every daily newspaper and consuming most of the airtime on network news programs.

Both Berlusconi and Mills risk serving three to eight years in prison if found guilty. The trial is set to begin in March.

Berlusconi is the leading stakeholder in Fininvest, a holding company that controls the Mediaset television network, film distributor Medusa, Mondadori publishers, the newspaper Il Giornale, the A.C. Milan soccer club and a host of smaller media holdings. Berlusconi is reported to have a net worth of $12 billion, making him Italy's wealthiest citizen and one of the richest people in the world.
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