Italian TV Network Looking to Host First-Ever U.S.-Style Debate Among Prime Minister Candidates

Silvio Berlusconi
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In 2009, Murdoch's Sky Italia accused the Italian prime minister's Mediaset of violating antitrust laws. At an August hearing on the hacking inquiry, Murdoch said News Corp. in Italy is "a particularly difficult situation" and that Berlusconi is a "particularly tricky competitor."

The News Corp.-owned Sky-Italia is floating Feb. 8 as a possible date for the event, but the candidates may still balk at the proposed media event.

ROME – Following a successful U.S.-style televised debate for the primary debate heading into next month’s elections that will select Italy’s next prime minister, News Corp’s Sky-Italia has offered to host the country’s first-ever face-to-face debate among the major contenders for the prime minister job.

The vote is scheduled to take place Feb. 24-25, and it will pit Pierluigi Bersani, the center-left candidate who won the primary vote that took place after the earlier debate, against current technocrat prime minister and centrist candidate Mario Monti and former prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

Monti took over as prime minister 14 months after Berlusconi stepped down amid fears Italy could fall victim to the European debt crisis. Those fears have subsided, but Monti’s leadership -- including painful austerity measures that have increased taxes and slashed government spending -- has become the central issue of the election so far. Pollsters say Bersani is the favorite.

Sky-Italia rolled out its election plans Thursday, including the deployment of a team of 300 to follow the elections and a fact-checking team in collaboration with Rome’s Tor Vergata University, all part of a coverage plan that increasingly resembles that of U.S.-style political coverage.

But the possible debate is the centerpiece of the plans: Sara Varetto, the editor of Sky-Italia’s TG24, has proposed Feb. 8 as a possible debate date. But it is far from clear if the candidates will agree to the plan.

Bersani is a veteran of the earlier debate, but he may fear he has too little to gain by risking his lead in the polls in a debate, while Monti’s professorial style may not lend itself to the format. And while Berlusconi seems to be a natural for the medium, he is also the founder and controlling shareholder of the Mediaset television empire, Sky-Italia’s main rival, and he may not want to participate in an event that could drive up ratings for the competition.