Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Media Magnate and Former Prime Minister, Dies at 86

Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media-mogul-turned politician who defined a three-decade-long era in postwar Italy during which TV spin, tainting allegations of corruption and sex scandals were pervasive — but who also achieved unprecedented political stability in the country — has died. He was 86. 

Berlusconi died at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, according to Italian media reports. He had been suffering from leukemia and had recently developed a lung infection.

After building a fortune by launching Italian private TV with his Mediaset empire, Berlusconi entered politics in 1993, was elected prime minister in 1994, and went on to serve as the country’s premier three times, not consecutively, becoming the longest serving democratically elected Italian leader. He was ousted from parliament in 2013 following a tax fraud conviction.

Berlusconi’s construction company Edilnord built a modernistic complex on Milan’s outskirts, named Milano 2, which he outfitted with an internal cable TV station, called Telemilano. Launched in 1978, Telemilano became the seed of Berlusconi’s creation of Italy’s first national private TV network, a feat he accomplished by buying up local stations on which he simultaneously broadcast the same programming. In doing so, Berlusconi circumvented a ban on nationwide broadcasting, creating a de facto national network that gradually broke the monopoly held by mammoth pubcaster RAI.

To feed his channels Berlusconi started importing American shows such as “Dallas,” “Baywatch” and “The Smurfs,” and subsequently bought the rights to massive numbers of U.S. movies in volume deals with the Hollywood studios. In later years these deals were probed on tax evasion charges that caused his ouster from parliament.

Telemilano grew into Mediaset, Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster. Berlusconi’s holding company Fininvest also subsequently acquired daily newspaper Il Giornale, the AC Milan football club, film company Medusa, and Mondadori, Italy’s top publisher.

In 1985 national legislation introduced by then prime minister Bettino Craxi, a longtime Berlusconi friend and ally, regularized Mediaset’s position.

Berlusconi threw his hat in the political ring in 1993, as Italy’s widespread so-called Clean Hands corruption scandal was sweeping away the political establishment under which he had flourished. He established his own political party, Forza Italia — Go Italy — named after a chant used by Italian football fans. Using his TV networks and Fininvest’s marketing machine, he campaigned as a self-made-businessman far removed from politics-as-usual who could fix the country’s problems and won. He was elected prime minister in March 1994, forming a coalition with the right-wing National Alliance and Northern League.

His first government collapsed just seven months later, when the Northern League pulled out. But by 2001 Berlusconi was back in power with the same coalition partners, at the head of what became Italy’s longest-serving postwar government until 2006, when he was defeated. He returned as premier as leader of the renamed PDL party in 2008 but was forced to resign in 2011, at the height of the Eurozone debt crisis, after he lost his parliamentary majority.

Throughout his time on Italy’s political proscenium, Berlusconi had to contend constantly with legal issues connected to his business dealings. He was accused of embezzlement, tax fraud, false accounting and attempting to bribe a judge. He always denied wrongdoing and complained that he was a victim of political political persecution by leftist magistrates. In 2009 Berlusconi estimated that over a period of 20 years he had made 2,500 court appearances in 106 trials, at a legal cost of more than $200 million.

His governments passed reforms shortening the statute of limitations for fraud, but part of a 2010 law granting him and other senior ministers temporary immunity was struck down by the Constitutional Court.

Berlusconi was acquitted numerous times, had convictions overturned or saw them expire under the statute of limitations, becoming known as the “Teflon Don.”

But in November 2013 he was voted out of parliament by the Italian Senate, following his conviction earlier that year in August for tax fraud in a case pertaining to Hollywood movie deals done by Mediaset.

The case that got Berlusconi kicked out of the Senate stemmed from multimillion-dollar movie rights deals done by Mediaset during the 1990s with Hollywood studios, including Paramount and Fox, through offshore companies at inflated prices, allegedly to evade taxes and create a slush fund.

In August 2013 his final appeal was turned down by Italy’s highest court, which reduced the prison sentence to house arrest or community service due to Berlusconi’s age.

As Berlusconi increasingly dominated Italy’s political scene, his influence became huge over pubcaster RAI, which from the mid-’90s onwards ran neck and neck in the ratings with Mediaset. His government appointed RAI’s top management, a blatant conflict of interest. Meanwhile, Mediaset’s Medusa film production and distribution arm became the country’s top film player and prompted RAI to also set up a theatrical distribution unit, creating a so-called duopoly that comprised both TV and film, over which Berlusconi held sway.

For the populist mogul-turned pol, Mediaset and any other media outlet were political weapons. In Berlusconi’s hands, journalism became just spin. Filmmakers who could find financing outside the duopoly fought back with movies such as Nanni Moretti’s prophetic “The Caiman,” in 2006, in which Berlusconi, played by Moretti himself, is seen setting the Milan courthouse on fire after being convicted. The film’s allegorical title refers to a South American alligator.

Alongside Berlusconi’s political and legal vicissitudes, there were always reports in the Italian press about his plastic surgeries and private life. These culminated in his conviction in 2013 for paying for sex with an under-age prostitute, 17-year-old Karima “Ruby” El Mahroug, who had attended one of what later became his world famous “bunga bunga” parties. However, in July 2014, an appeals court overturned Berlusconi’s conviction in this infamous case.

In May 2009 Berlusconi’s second wife, actress Veronica Lario, said she was divorcing him after he was photographed at the 18th birthday party of an aspiring Neapolitan model, Noemi Letizia.

From 2014 onwards Berlusconi was steadily pushed to the political sidelines, as young Italian center-left premier Matteo Renzi gained consensus. As Berlusconi’s political star faded, Mediaset also lost some luster, but remained a top media player in Italy and Spain. Besides being remembered as a “media-political Frankenstein,” as American journalist Alexander Stille put it in his book “The Sack of Rome,” Berlusconi will also be remembered for his bad jokes, including one in which he called Barack Obama “suntanned.” In the run-up to the 2008 general election, which he won, Berlusconi told an attractive young female voter who questioned his economic record that the best way of climbing out of poverty was to marry a millionaire, “like my son.”

Berlusconi was born in Milan into a middle-class family. His father worked in a bank, his mother was a housewife. He started his amazing career by selling vacuum cleaners and crooning in nightclubs and on cruise ships. In 1961 he got a law degree and set up construction company Edilnord.

Berlusconi is survived by five children: Marina, who is executive chairman of Fininvest and chairman of Mondadori; Pier Silvio, who is CEO of Mediaset; Barbara, who is a member of the board of Fininvest and A.C. Milan; Eleonora, also a board members of those two companies; and Luigi, who works in finance.

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