Italy's media-government relations turn new page with Monti

ROME Tue Dec 6, 2011 5:47pm GMT

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ROME (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had a hate-hate relationship with media he could not control, often blaming the press for his image problems and even calling one reporter an "imbecile" at a press conference.

By contrast, his successor Mario Monti has launched a campaign of transparency and accessibility, realising that his relations with the media could make or break efforts to save Italy from financial ruin.

Barely three weeks into the life of his government, the message to the media seems to be that Italy has turned a page, that Monti is a gentler man who wants to engender a climate of mutual respect and gentlemanly jousts rather than insults.

"The change has been phenomenal," said Angelo Agostini, editor of the Italian media affairs journal "Problemi dell' Informazione" (Information Issues).

"It is clear Monti has no conflict with the media, he has no strategy of dividing the media into lists of friends and enemies but sees a large part of his role as explaining complicated things to Italians through the media."

After Sunday's cabinet meeting, Monti held a late evening news conference that lasted more than two hours and ended only when everyone was satisfied that all the reporters' questions had been answered.

On Monday, before he presented a 30 billion euro (25.7 billion pound) austerity package to parliament, he held another long news conference just for foreign journalists at their association's headquarters.

Berlusconi had not set foot in the building for more than 10 years, turning down invitations after meetings with journalists had ended in acrimonious shouting.

END TO INSULTS AND ACRIMONY?

Berlusconi owns Italy's biggest private broadcaster and effectively controlled much of state broadcaster RAI, and he was often interviewed by journalists friendly to the centre-right when he was in power.

He was convinced most mainstream Italian newspapers were in the hands of leftists or doing the dirty work for magistrates investigating him over a string of corruption and sex charges.

His handlers decided who would get the microphone at news conferences and often wanted to know in advance which questions reporters intended to ask. He was not renowned for his kindness when journalists put him in a tough spot in public.

Berlusconi told one foreign correspondent "I am adding you to my list of imbeciles" and his Treasury minister used offensive slang to describe the correspondent.

No such outbursts are expected from Monti, a former European Commissioner known as "the professor" because of his academic background and calm demeanour.

"Monti has built up a style of a normal citizen, one who goes to the train station to pick up his wife, who walks with her to church on Sunday. The media have noted this," said Giovanni Cocconi, deputy director of Europa newspaper.

"Monti is showing the media that the 'cold' professor has a lot of savoir faire of his own and an entertaining style of understatement."

Berlusconi aides trying to influence reporters used to swarm like bees protecting a hive after press conferences, but Monti has so far avoided using spin doctors, letting journalists draw their own conclusions from his statements.

Berlusconi showed particular hostility towards foreign media. "This is because he could not control it," said Agostini.

The British magazine The Economist put him on its cover at least six times in an unflattering light, most famously last June with the headline "The man who screwed an entire country."

Some media analysts say Berlusconi's centre-right encouraged a culture where it was a point of pride to be criticised by the foreign media because it lent weight to his populist strategy that only Italians could understand Italians.

"Monti has an international dimension that Berlusconi did not," said Agostini. "He knows the importance of the markets, of other governments and of public opinion in other countries."

Monti clearly understands that the foreign media will play a vital role in the world's perception of whether Italy can win its fight to control its debts.

"Markets exist too but your voice is not unheard by markets," he told the foreign media at Monday's marathon news conference, promising his government would set up "special structures" to communicate with the foreign media.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by Robert Woodward)

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