How Dare This British Rogue Lie about Our Dear Prime Minister. . . (Especially When He Comes from a Country Where They Don't Wash); A WRITER LIVING IN ITALY REVEALS HOW HE WENT FROM NATIONAL HATE FIGURE TO HERO OVERNIGHT AFTER ATTACKING SILVIO BERLUSCONI,REVIEW

Article excerpt

Byline: TOBIAS JONES

The whole thing started five years ago when I met a stunning Italian girl called Francesca and, well, you can imagine. So a few months later I quit my job in London and emigrated to Parma, a beautiful city halfway between Bologna and Milan. It is home to Parma ham and Parmesan cheese and the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi: an idyllic place to live.

Or rather, it was until last month when I became a household name in the space of a few breathless days. I suddenly found myself on the front page of all the Italian newspapers and the lead item on the TV news.

My 'crime' was that in September my book, The Dark Heart Of Italy, was published in Italian and in it I had dared to criticise a man who is loved, and was voted for, by millions of Italians.

I had suggested that not only was he a danger to democracy but he was a man who, in most countries, would be behind bars.

All hell broke loose.

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a very unusual character: he's short, balding and sports a permanent, carrot-coloured tan. His personal fortune is estimated at [pounds sterling]4billion and he has some pretty unsavoury allies.

His political partners include the Italian 'post-fascist' party and a group of extremists, the Northern League, who make the British National Party look like the WI. In the Seventies he was part of a mysterious Masonic lodge called P2.

Above all, Berlusconi, who last week came to Downing Street for talks with his friend Tony Blair, is the first person in the history of Italian democracy to win 100 per cent of all parliamentary seats in Sicily. That's 61 out of 61 in a region that's notorious for its secretive, strong-arm underworld.

I didn't start out writing a book about politics: my real passion in life is football. But as I wrote about the joys of Italian soccer, I discovered that Berlusconi owns AC Milan. You may have seen him last May, sitting proudly in the VIP seats at Old Trafford as his boys in red and black beat Juventus to win the Champions League final.

But there are skeletons as well as trophies in the cupboard.

His time as owner of AC Milan has been dogged by allegations that players have been bought - and their salaries paid - in very irregular ways. The suggestion is that Berlusconi has frequently sidestepped the taxman by using offshore accounts: accusations he steadfastly denies.

I decided to write about something different, to escape the man's influence - Italian flair.

Italy has always been famous for its style. Great fashion houses - Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, Gucci - were born there. Just walk down any street in any Italian city and you'll see the sunglasses, the suits, the swagger.

A large contributor to this visual impact of Italy is television, where the state broadcaster is called 'mamma'. So I thought, while I'm writing about Italian style I had better watch some of its TV.

It was appalling: sexist, silly, shallow. Soft porn had replaced hard news.

And I discovered that Berlusconi owns three of the national channels. Not only that, but the law allowing him to broadcast nationally was passed by Bettino Craxi, the Italian Prime Minister of the Eighties and best man at Berlusconi's second wedding. Craxi allegedly received a mysterious gift of 21 billion lire from one of Berlusconi's offshore companies, called All Iberian, as soon as the legislation was passed.

Everything I tried to write came back to Berlusconi. I wrote about Italian architecture and found he had built an entirely new city, called Milan 2, in the Seventies - which was how he began making his billions. I wrote about the economy and discovered he owns banks and insurance companies. He owns the supermarket where I do my weekly shopping and the Blockbuster where I rent my videos. He owns the largest publishing house in Italy, responsible for a quarter of all copyright in the country. …