Berlusconi crosses swords with critics on talk show

Ex-PM holds own in heated encounter with long-time foe

Berlusconi crosses swords with critics on talk show

Rome, January 11 - A combative Silvio Berlusconi held his own in a sometimes heated encounter with long-time enemy and talk-show host Michele Santoro Thursday night. The ex-premier, leading a centre-right coalition in next month's elections, defended his three-term government record, especially in its tax policies and fight against the mafia, while reiterating he was the victim of a prosecutors' conspiracy and voicing confidence he would be cleared of a tax-fraud conviction. He replied directly to his most implacable critic, Santoro's wingman Marco Travaglio, calling him a "professional libeller" and detailing a string of civil-damage rulings against the left-wing journalist. The show on Italy's La7 TV channel, the only one not controlled by the State or Berlusconi, was closely watched and there were running bets that Berlusconi would walk off. Santoro was one of three TV figures effectively blackballed by Berlusconi after he said they made "criminal" use of the airwaves in the run-up to the 2001 elections, which the media magnate won. Berlusconi also won on his debut in 1994 and in 2008, lasting three and a half years before Italy's debt crisis forced him to hand over to technocrat Mario Monti. Berlusconi repeated on Santoro's show that he would be pressing for a probe into an alleged international banking conspiracy that helped ease him from office. The ex-premier also said his many trials were due to Italy having a "different" judiciary from other countries, in which a minority of Milan-based magistrates were able to hound him. After last month's four-year conviction for inflating prices on TV rights for US films, which he said was "bound to be quashed", Berlusconi is on trial for allegedly paying an underage prostitute nicknamed Ruby for sex and using his influence to spring her from a Milan police station after an unrelated theft claim. The premier and Ruby, who admits attending parties with a stable of 30 or more young women at Berlusconi's villa near Milan, deny having sex.

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