Telecom Italia's Plans to Sell of La7 Spark Calls for TV Sector Reforms

Pier Luigi Bersani - P 2013
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Pier Luigi Bersani - P 2013

On Monday, former Berlusconi crony Urbano Cairo was given exclusive rights to negotiate for control of La7, Italy's smallest national TV network.

ROME – The favorite to become Italy’s next prime minister said Wednesday that one of the first orders of business if he wins the election will be to reform the rules governing the television sector to prevent too much influence from accumulating in the hands of any single individual or group.

The remarks from Pier Luigi Bersani, the front runner in the race to become prime minister after Italy’s Feb. 24-25 national vote, were sparked by Tuesday’s news that 55-year-old businessman Urbano Cairo had been given the exclusive chance to bid on La7, the national television network owned by Telecom Italia Media. Cairo is a former lieutenant of billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who owns three national networks on his own and who is Bersani’s strongest rival in the upcoming vote.

“We would have to study the ramifications [of this deal] thoroughly, and make sure there are no conflicts of interest or the strengthening of any dominant positions,” Bersani said, not mentioning rival Berlusconi by name but clearly pointing to his control of three national networks through his holdings in Mediaset, the Milan-based television and cinema giant.

Bersani also said he would revisit the country’s controversial 2004 Gasparri Law -- named for Berlusconi’s former Minister of Communications Maurizio Gasparri -- which governs media ownership in Italy and is credited with strengthening Berlusconi’s influence.

Berlusconi fired back, saying Bersani’s statements sounded like a “Mafia threat.”

Expert observers said it was not a surprise that the fate of La7 would take a political turn.

“Anything to do with media ownership is going to be seen in a political light so close to the elections,” said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome’s John Cabot University.

Cairo and Berlusconi both deny they would collaborate if Cairo manages to gain control of La7, the smallest of Italy’s seven national networks.

Cairo will have two weeks to agree to terms to take over the broadcaster. The clock starting ticking Monday, meaning the new government will be in power by the time they conclude.

The latest polls, released nearly two weeks ago, showed Bersani leading the field, with Berlusconi close on his heels. Incumbent Mario Monti and comedian-turned-activist Beppe Grillo trailed the two leaders.