ROME Thousands of Italians rallied to demand reform of the country's news media on Friday, taking aim at prime minister-elect Silvio Berlusconi and the power he and vested interests wield over the country's TV and media networks.
Anti-politics comic Beppe Grillo led the colourful "V-day" protest, where he urged followers to tell Italy's political class -- and the media outlets he accused of taking orders from them -- to "Vaffanculo" ("F... off").
Grillo, a mop-haired, pot-bellied blogger, has ridden a wave of disillusionment to become Italy's most popular political critic. In a rant that lambasted politicians of all leanings, he said Berlusconi's dominance of the media would be unthinkable in other countries.
"Imagine if (Barack) Obama as president was also the owner of Fox, of ABC and other TV networks," Grillo said in the northern city of Turin, addressing a crowd that organisers estimated at least 45,000.
Critics say Berlusconi as prime minister -- through his family-controlled Mediaset empire and through state television RAI -- will at least indirectly control nearly 90 percent of Italy's television audience.
Berlusconi denies a conflict of interest and frequently describes himself as the victim of attacks by Italy's news outlets, which he says mostly lean-left.
Grillo collected signatures for a referendum to abolish public financing for the news media, to eliminate the Italy's Order of Journalists and to strike the controversial "Gasparri law" governing Italy's media.
The Gasparri media deregulation was among the most contentious of those passed during Berlusconi's last term as prime minister. Critics said it favoured the media tycoon's business empire by removing competition limits and allowing Mediaset to expand rapidly into digital terrestrial TV.
"We're fed up, that the banks, (employers confederation) Confindustria run the newspapers and the TV, tell the journalists what to do or write," he said.
It was the second "V-day" for Grillo, who first launched the protest last September when he gathered petitions that sought to clean up politics.
He reiterated calls to bar convicts from entering public office, and read the names out loud of a handful convicted criminals who were elected to parliament. After each name, the crowd thundered back "Vaffanculo!".
(Editing by Jon Boyle)