LIANE HANSEN, host:
The annual summit of the Group of 8 industrialized countries opens Wednesday in Italy.
But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports in this letter from Europe, the agenda risks being overshadowed by sex scandals swirling around the host, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The slogan of this G-8 is sobriety, a quality not usually associated with Italy's media mogul turned political leader. For the last two months, allegations have been made about Berlusconi's relationship with an underaged teenager who calls him daddy, that he turned favorite starlets into political candidates and entertained high-end prostitutes.
Newspapers have printed photos showing topless women at his sumptuous Sardinian villa. Prosecutors are probing alleged payments made to several women recruited to attend his parties. Some of the women may have ties to the mafia. One call girl has given reporters graphic details of her alleged encounter in bed with the prime minister the night of the U.S. presidential election, and she says she has tapes to prove it.
Coverage of the scandals has been limited to newspapers not controlled by Berlusconi, which means that 80 percent of Italians who get their news only from his own TV networks or state-run channels have little or no knowledge of the revelations.
The European media, on the other hand, have been relentless in covering the Berlusconi sex saga, and even traditionally blase Europeans are stunned by seamy tales of the premier's womanizing and hedonistic parties. British, French, Spanish and German editorialists have called him a clown, an aging Lothario, a danger for Italian democracy and compared him to decadent Roman emperors.
Berlusconi has reacted defiantly. He dismisses the allegations as concoctions of a communist-led conspiracy that has recruited the likes of the Financial Times and The Economist. After a long silence, some prominent figures of the Catholic Church, one of Berlusconi's staunchest supporters, began to issue stern comments about moral decadence and even suggested he resign.
This is not Berlusconi's first time in a negative spotlight. In his 15 years in public office, he has survived accusations of mafia times, numerous corruption charges and serial conflicts of interest. And he can count on the support of nearly 50 percent of Italian voters.
But his international image has been badly tarnished. In the first organized protest against Berlusconi's sexgate, a group of Italian women academics is appealing for solidarity outside of Italy. Their petition says Berlusconi's near total control of Italian TV severely restricts freedom of speech, and urges the G-8 first ladies to boycott the summit on the grounds the prime minister's behavior offends the dignity of all women.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.