Cairo snaps up La7, raising fears for pluralism

Centre left concerned there may be editorial shift

Cairo snaps up La7, raising fears for pluralism

Rome, March 4 - Italy's fourth commercial TV channel La7, known for hard-hitting independent reporting, has been sold to media businessman and Torino FC boss Urbano Cairo, a former protege' of media magnate and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, raising concerns over pluralism in TV, the medium where an estimated 90% of Italians get their news, amid a post-election stalemate in national politics. The news was first tweeted by La7 presenter and political analyst Gad Lerner, one of the La7 journalists who have expressed concern over the takeover, before confirmation of the sale came in from Ti Media, the media arm of Italy's biggest telecoms group Telecom Italia. After fears voiced by centre-left politicians in the run-up to the recent elections, Cairo pledged that La7's editorial line would not change after his Cairo Communications took over Italy's seventh TV channel. "I am not going to give away the best players, those that increase viewing numbers and give us visibility on the market," he said in the run-up to February 24-25 elections, when the sale became a talking point. On Monday, after the takeover news, all he would say was "I've got hold of a real hot potato". Cairo has previously stated he has no intention of following in the footsteps of Berlusconi, who in the past has allegedly used his political and economic clout to purge his three private Mediaset channels and state broadcaster RAI of journalists critical of his government and policies. Several subsequently migrated to La7. During the election campaign Berlusconi said he "hoped" La 7's "leftist" line would change after Cairo took over. On Monday a Senator in Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, Antonio Gentile, claimed La7 was "full of leftwing journalists". Cairo, 55, was given his start in business by Berlusconi and subsequently set up his own media and advertising group, before emulating his acknowledged model, the magnate-turned-politician who owns AC Milan, by buying Serie A outfit Torino. La7, which has been a drain on Telecom Italia, is considered one of the last independent broadcasters with a national reach. Its acquisition by Cairo, who began his career working at Berlusconi's advertising group Publitalia, has generated fears - principally aired by the narrow front-runner amid Italy's post-election stalemate, Pier Luigi Bersani of the Democratic Party (PD) - that it may become another Berlusconi mouthpiece. Berlusconi responded to Bersani's claims that plurality could be at risk by saying: ''I have not had a relationship with Urbano Cairo for several years. He was my assistant and then he became an entrepreneur and it's been a while since I last heard from him''. Bersani gave vent to his concern February 19, warning of the risk of a lack of pluralism in the Italian media and saying that that if he were premier, he would examine the deal's ramifications thoroughly. The PD leader, tipped to receive a government-formation mandate around March 20 from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, said he would make sure the deal would not create any ''conflicts of interest'' or ''dominating positions''. Berlusconi, who staged a remarkable comeback to lead a centre-right coalition to within a wisp of victory in last week's vote, replied that Bersani's words were like a ''mafia warning''. ''He (Bersani) said wait to sell because if we are the government we will intervene to do I don't know what to Mediaset, so that La7 will be worth more,'' Berlusconi added. Bersani countered that in his remarks he did not mention Berlusconi. ''It's curious because every time someone talks about rules Berlusconi gets offended,'' Bersani said. Ever since entering politics, Berlusconi has been accused of abusing his control of television channels to promote his own goals. The accusations have been particularly strong in the instances when Berlusconi was the head of government, which critics claimed gave him control over Italy's state-owned RAI networks, the main nationally broadcast alternatives to Berlusconi's own channels. In 2002 he famously blackballed two of RAI's top journalists, Enzo Biagi and Michele Santoro, for allegedly making "criminal use" of the airwaves just before the 2001 elections, which Berlusconi won. Berlusconi was also a close friend, and godfather to the second son, of late Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, who banned Beppe Grillo from the TV in the mid-1980s after the Genoese comedian joked about Socialists being unable to steal in China "where they're all Socialists". Grillo has since founded an anti-establishment Web-based following, the 5-Star Movement, which shocked the political world by riding an anti-austerity and anti-euro wave to become top party in the House and potential kingmaker in the deadlocked Senate. Telecom Italia said it intended to sell La7 as part of a debt-trimming operation last May. Cairo shelled out one million euros for La7, Ti Media said. The Torino boss said he would recapitalise the loss-making channel to give it a "net financial position no less than 88 million euros". Net assets would be boosted to 138 million euros, he said. Telecom Italia said it was waiving 100 million euros of financial credits. Ti Media, the media unit of Telecom Italia, dropped 3.4% on the Milan bourse on news of the sale. Mediaset shares were suspended for posting an excessive loss, pulled out when trading at a theoretical 5.9% down. When they were readmitted they posted a 7% loss before closing at 6% down.

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