Italy's RAI Eyeing Country's First-Ever TV Debate Ahead of Elections

Mario Monti - P 2012
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News Corp's Sky Italia already said it would like to host a U.S.-style debate, but the candidates have not yet agreed to either of the possible hosts.

ROME – With Italy’s national elections little more than five weeks away, Italian state broadcaster RAI is throwing its hat in the ring - with a bid to host a U.S.-style debate between the candidates running for the post of Italy’s prime minister.

The vote will take place Feb. 24-25.

Last week, Sky Italia, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., offered to be the host of the first-ever fact-to-face debate among the major candidates in a national vote.

Now RAI says it would like to host such an event, though new RAI president Anna Maria Tarantola and general manager Luigi Gubitosi said there is not yet a consensus on where the event should take place or how many candidates should be involved.

Sky Italia is a subscription-only satellite TV service, but it plans to make the debate available even to non-subscribers through an agreement with broadcaster Cielo TV. RAI’s broadcasts are already available to anyone in Italy with a television set.

There are three main candidates in the race -- media tycoon and three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, incumbent Mario Monti, and center-left challenger Pier Luigi Bersani, who is leading in the polls. But two more candidates, comedian, blogger, and activist Beppe Grillo, and former anti-Mafia magistrate Antonio Ingroia, have declared their candidacies as well.

RAI’s concern about the location of the debate and the invitees stems from Italy’s laws guaranteeing candidates equal exposure on the state broadcaster.

RAI said a decision would likely be made next week, after the Jan. 21 deadline for candidates to declare their intentions to stand for election. The broadcaster has not said when it would plan to air the event.

Sky Italia’s Sara Varetto, the editor of the TG24 news program, already floated Feb. 8 as a possible date for the Sky Italia debate.

Regardless of whether it hosts the debate or not, Sky Italia has announced plans to cover the elections closely, saying it will deploy a team of 300 to follow the elections and create a fact-checking team in collaboration with Rome’s Tor Vergata University to establish the accuracy of claims from any of the major candidates.

It is unlikely that two debates will take place.

Though Sky Italia is free from the “equal coverage” laws that RAI must respect, its bid to host a debate has its own problems. Berlusconi controls Italian media giant Mediaset, Sky Italia’s chief rival, and may not want to participate in a debate that would help Sky Italia’s ratings. But Berlusconi, who is a dark horse candidate, would surely relish the chance to face down his rivals in a television context where he is comfortable.

But there is speculation that the other major candidates could balk at the idea of debates. Bersani, the favorite, could conclude he has too little to gain by risking his lead in a debate, while Monti could decide that his professorial speaking style does not lend itself to the format.