Silvio Berlusconi: Former Italian Prime Minister and Media Magnate

From a Wall Street Journal obit by Manuela Mesco and Eric Sylvers headlined “Silvio Berlusconi, Former Italian Prime Minister and Media Magnate, Dies at 86”:

Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon and Italy’s longest-serving postwar prime minister who dominated the country’s politics for nearly two decades amid a raft of scandals, has died.

An extraordinarily divisive figure in Italy and often a target of ridicule abroad for his ribald jokes, sex scandals and overlapping political and business interests, Berlusconi conditioned Italian politics and embodied its conservative movement during and after his tenure as Italy’s leader.

Early on in his political career, Berlusconi brought a breath of fresh air to corruption-plagued politics. But he later descended into an entrenched war with both Italian magistrates and political opponents that eroded his popular support, paralyzed Italian politics and culminated in his ousting from the Italian Parliament in 2013. He capped a political comeback in 2022 with a return to Parliament as a senator—a position he held at the time of his death—this time as the junior partner in a coalition backing Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

On Monday, Meloni said that Berlusconi was one of the most influential people in the history of Italy and “above all else a fighter.”

Berlusconi, who counted Russian President Vladimir Putin as a close friend, caused a furor when he blamed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Meloni has made unwavering support for Ukraine a cornerstone of her foreign policy, but Berlusconi’s comments called into question her government’s unity on the issue.

“Silvio was a dear person, a true friend,” Putin wrote in a condolence letter to Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

Berlusconi’s political vision embraced liberal as well as populist views. The persona he cultivated of a self-made man struck a chord with millions of Italians fed up with a political class tainted by corruption, patronage and infighting. Berlusconi introduced a new form of highly personalized politics, with an outsize personality, deep pockets and a vast media platform that allowed him to dominate Italy’s conservative wing. Later in life, though, he became embroiled in a series of legal and sex scandals that eroded his popular and political standing.

Born in Milan he had a childhood he would later glorify as part of his image—Berlusconi was a natural performer from an early age, earning money by singing at private parties and cruise ships during his studies. By his late 20s, he began amassing a fortune after founding a real-estate firm in Milan.

His success in construction would soon spawn his ventures in media, enabling Berlusconi, a gifted salesman, to transform Italian television and much of consumer society. Such exploits also made him one of Europe’s wealthiest men. He shattered the near-monopoly of state television RAI, known for its turgid programming, by setting up in the 1970s a small cable-television company that exploited a vacuum in Italian media laws. He served up soap operas, racy variety shows featuring scantily clad women and U.S. television programs that became wildly popular.

The business grew into Italy’s biggest media empire, Mediaset, which controls Italy’s three leading private television channels. Mediaset’s parent company, MediaForEurope, has a controlling interest in Spain’s top broadcaster and remains one of Europe’s biggest media groups. At the peak of Berlusconi’s power, his influence stretched across swaths of the Italian economy.

Through his Fininvest holding company, his family controls Italy’s largest publishing house, Mondadori, a film producer and distributor, the Monza soccer team and dozens of other companies. Fininvest also has a large stake in a bank and insurance group. For three decades, it also owned AC Milan, one of Italy’s powerhouse soccer teams, before selling the club to a Chinese consortium in 2017.

Berlusconi entered politics in the wake of Italy’s so-called Clean Hands corruption scandals, which discredited an entire political class in the early 1990s. At the time, a third of Italian parliamentarians were under investigation for charges ranging from bribery to receiving illicit financing. In a matter of weeks, he financed and founded a party named Forza Italia, or Go Italy, promising Italians a fresh face, along with a radical new pro-market program full of pledges to create jobs and cut taxes.

With the support of his vast media empire—at its peak, Mediaset programming had a prime-time audience of around 45%—he became prime minister in 1994 at the age of 57. He brought many Mediaset executives with him to Parliament.

Berlusconi demonstrated a flair for political theater, using his prodigious skills as a salesman to become one of Italy’s most formidable campaigners in the postwar era. For instance, in 2001, he mailed his “Contratto con gli Italiani” to millions of Italians, modeling it after Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.

His effusive charm, punchy jokes and populist touch enamored Berlusconi to millions of Italians as much as his promises to unshackle the Italian economy from bureaucracy and high taxes.

Berlusconi won two more elections after the first one. In between, he formed and headed a fourth government in 2005, the result of shuffling his previous cabinet after a poor showing in regional elections. He was in power, on and off, for nearly a decade before stepping down as prime minister for the final time in 2011.

But his political career was marked by a protracted and bitter battle with Italian magistrates. Facing a raft of charges ranging from corruption to tax evasion, he branded the judges as communists intent on pursuing a political witch hunt against him.

Those accusations echoed across the Italian political scene, creating a chasm with Italy’s leftist parties, but they also resounded with Italians frustrated with their country’s tortuous judicial system.

Meanwhile, critics accused Berlusconi of entering politics to protect the privileged position of his business empire and strengthen his hold on the country’s media. While Berlusconi resigned from executive roles at the company, he maintained control over his media empire, sparking accusations of a conflict of interest between his political role and his business interests.

Indeed, for years, Mediaset was largely free of serious competition aside from Italy’s slow-footed broadcaster RAI, as Berlusconi’s governments passed a series of laws that hindered new competitors from gaining a toehold in the Italian television market.

Meanwhile, some of Mediaset’s news anchors openly advocated for Berlusconi during broadcasts, while he exercised strong control over state-owned RAI during his stints as prime minister, giving him sway over nearly all Italian television broadcasting.

Berlusconi’s critics say his preoccupation with protecting his business interests and battles with magistrates distracted him and left Italy unprepared for the fierce competition that came with the euro and the rise of emerging markets.

Questions about his economic management peaked in 2011, when tensions in the eurozone soared, raising fears that Italy’s huge debt and moribund economy could lead to its exit from the common-currency union. Berlusconi’s weak response to the growing panic fueled a crash in the country’s financial markets in late 2011 that raised the specter of a Greece-like collapse.

Berlusconi was forced to resign in ignominy, leading many to predict the end of his career. But just 18 months later, he made an extraordinary comeback at the 2013 elections and, campaigning against the austerity that had brought pain to millions of Italians, won enough support to become a kingmaker and partner in a coalition government led by Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

Soon after, though, Italy’s wiliest politician was overtaken with legal problems. For nearly two decades, Berlusconi avoided conviction either because of acquittals or the expiration of the statute of limitations.

But in August 2013, he was sentenced to a four-year jail term and a two-year ban from public office in a tax-fraud case—the only definitive conviction he ever received. That sparked a parliamentary procedure that culminated in him losing his Senate seat in November. He was ordered to perform community service at a Catholic foundation that looks after Alzheimer’s patients.

Berlusconi’s party also splintered in the wake of the conviction, with die-hard supporters facing off against members who were tired of his judicial woes conditioning the party.

Meanwhile, a series of sex scandals also tarnished the reputation of Berlusconi, who often brandished his image as a Lothario and enraged women’s groups—long offended by the premier’s off-color jokes and suggestive comments to beautiful women—by nominating starlets to ministerial posts.

In 2009, his then-wife, Veronica Lario, alleged that Berlusconi had a relationship with a 17-year-old girl—a claim he and the young woman denied. Lario soon filed for divorce.

Soon after, Berlusconi faced charges of abuse of power and having sex with another minor, Karima el Mahroug, a one-time pole dancer from Morocco who went by the nickname “Ruby the Heart-Stealer.”

The trial featured lurid court testimony of spirited parties in his huge villa outside Milan packed with beautiful young women—including one politician from his party who stripped for him—that were dubbed “bunga bunga” parties. Both Berlusconi and the young Moroccan woman denied the accusations, and the media mogul described the parties as “elegant dinners.”

Berlusconi’s media empire also came under pressure during Italy’s deep recession, as advertising plummeted and Mediaset faced a raft of new competition. According to Forbes, he and his family were worth $7 billion as of April 2023, about half the 2005 level.

In June 2013, he was sentenced to a seven-year jail term and a lifetime ban from public office on charges of abuse of power and having had sex with the Moroccan. He appealed the verdict, which was overturned in July 2014. In March 2015, Italy’s highest appeals court upheld Berlusconi’s acquittal.

In 2020, Berlusconi spent almost two weeks in the hospital with Covid-19, which led to double pneumonia. Upon leaving the hospital, he told reporters: “I said to myself, with satisfaction, ‘You got away with it again.’” Berlusconi previously recovered from prostate cancer, has had several pacemakers and had his aortic valve replaced in 2016. He has been in and out of the hospital in recent years for heart problems.

Berlusconi—who was married and divorced twice and, at the time of his death, was in a relationship with Marta Fascina, a Forza Italia member of Parliament, is survived by five children. Marina, the chairwoman of Fininvest, and Pier Silvio, who also has a key role in Berlusconi’s media empire, were from his first marriage, with Carla Dall’Oglio, while Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi are from his second marriage, with Lario.

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