Berlusconi turned Italy into a TV show. Now he's paying

Italy's premier Silvio Berlusconi is angry, underneath his smiling mask. Under pressure from the many scandals surrounding him, he brushes off all accusations and Italians seem to side with him – looking at the latest administrative electoral results, where Berlusconi's centre-right Partito delle Libertà fared well. Nonetheless the infernal process that he commenced is starting to turn against him.

According to the opposition leader Dario Franceschini, commenting on how Italians voted in the European and local elections, "the decline of the right wing has started". So far that seems more a dream than a reality, but it is true that Italy is divided in two: half on the right and half on the left.

In a well-crafted interview with the complacent gossip magazine Chi, he scoffs at the sexual and corruption scandals, denying any wrongdoing declaring he has nothing to apologise for, and displaying sorrow for the end of his marriage. Editors-in-chief of newspapers "should be ashamed", he says, for focusing on his private life instead of "real issues".

Scandal upon scandal, yesterday Augusto Minzolini, the new editor-in-chief of Tg1, the most important television news programme in Italy, who is known to be very close to Berlusconi, spoke out in a defensive editorial to explain to the public why he decided to withhold news about the scandals regarding Italy's premier. "They are not newsworthy", just "trash" not fit "for this public service", he said. There was an uproar among Italian journalists, but – so far – not so much among the public, sick and tired of hearing about scandals that are turning Italy into a soap opera set, while the rest of the world is tackling economic crisis.

In Anglo-Saxon democracies, where public figures are accountable even in their private lives and are expected to show high moral standards, smaller scandals would have forced the premier to resign. There is a parallel between Berlusconi and Bill Clinton, who also did not resign in spite of the scandal with Monica Lewinsky. Latins have always been more reluctant to investigate the private lives of their public figures.

And especially in Italy, the country which hosts the Catholic church, there has always been a quiet understanding that public interest and private lives are kept separate: people might go to mass, confess and pray, but are not expected to be sinless. As a matter of fact, people dislike saints on earth: perfection is for those in heaven. So, until Berlusconi arrived on the national stage, the private lives of public figures were never investigated by the media.

However, Berlusconi inaugurated what editorial writer Barbara Spinelli calls "the politics of intimacy" – in order to avoid focusing on the many real problems of Italians, the premier fed them humour and gossip and all sorts of funny trash. A media mogul, he transformed Italy into a big television show, and conquered dissent via the TV screens of every Italian living room. It's the cult of personality once attributed to Stalinism, and his power puts the private at the top of everything. It's difficult to invoke public culture with a leader who has torn down all barriers between public and private.

This doesn't mean, however, that all Italians agree on Berlusconi's behaviour and like the way he has made himself the centre of attention in Italian politics. A large section of the population – almost half of it, according to the polls – is fed up with what is happening and would like to get rid of Berlusconi: just as in the United States not everybody was with George W Bush, and eventually the vote turned against him. But it took a long time to get there.

So the anti-Berlusconi Italians are indignant: in other democracies attention is fixed on the economic crisis and how governments can help the less fortunate. In Italy it's all about the premier's libertine style of life. They would like to concentrate on other topics like the public good and the citizen's space. But this space, in Italy, seems vanished: the private has swallowed the public, the present and the future seem to be the present and the future of Silvio Berlusconi.

The plug has been pulled and the media – at least the part that is not owned by Berlusconi's media empire – is not willing to stop reporting on the juicy sex and corruption stories: in times of crisis, gossip helps sales more than ever. No wonder the premier declared war against the media, quickly passing laws against the publication of wire-taps.

But the show must go on, and Berlusconi is caught in his own trap: media mogul and No 1 politician, he is like Jekyll and Hyde. How long can this last? Considering he is 72, and underwent surgery for a tumour, people who side with him see him as a living miracle and those who don't seem resigned to bear with him until his death. Even Gianfranco Fini, his rightwing ally, is tired and worried about the citizens' disaffection with politics. What's worse for Berlusconi, the church is giving signs of being fed up with the display of immorality that is drawing attention to Italy from all over the world, the Vatican's host country. He may lose the alliance of the church, without which his hold on power is at risk. No wonder Berlusconi is angry, underneath his smiling mask.

Anna Masera, an Italian journalist.