For the past few days, a highly personal and often below-the-sash battle has been waged in Italy between two newspapers — Il Giornale, owned by the family of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Avvenire, the daily of the Italian Bishops Conference. The generals in the battle, which has riveted Italy and has resulted in one of the worst periods for years in relations between church and state here, are the editors-in-chief Vittorio Feltri of Il Giornale and Dino Boffo of Avvenire.
It all started on Friday, Aug. 28 when Il Giornale published a front-page, banner headline story purportedly revealing that that Boffo had accepted a plea bargain in court in 2002 after being accused of harrasing a woman. The paper said Boffo had a homosexual relationship with her husband. The headline read “The Super-Moralist Was Condemned for Molestation” (see image above). Feltri, one of Italy’s more unorthodox journalists, attacked Boffo because he had written a spate of editorials criticising Berlusconi over the prime minister’s private life. The fact that ultimately Berlusconi’s family is Feltri’s boss was not lost on Italian readers.
Another element in the background was the fact that Berlusconi has been under the spotlight for anything but government recently, including accusations of cavorting with teenagers and prostitutes. For the record, Berlusconi says there was nothing “spicy” in his relationship with an 18-year-old aspriring model and that even if a call girl spent a night in his house, he never paid for sex in his life. What’s more, Berlusconi is also going through a messy divorce. His wife Veronica says she wanted out because she couldn’t take any more of his “lies”.
Hours after the first Il Giornale story came out, the Vatican announced that a long-planned dinner between Berlusconi and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone had been cancelled. The dinner was to have taken place in L’Aquila during the annual “feast of forgiveness” in the city that was devastated by an earthquake last April. The official Vatican explanation was a nice try, but hard to swallow. It said the local bishop had decided (five hours before the start of a dinner that had been planned for weeks) that the money would be better spent if donated to reconstruction efforts. (Photo: Berlusconi on Italian television, sign says “And Veronica asks for a divorce,” 5 May 2009/Remo Casilli)
Boffo called the Il Giornale attack “journalistic assassination” and rejected the accusations “absurd”. Here’s our story about the first day of the battle.