Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producers: Gareth Harvey, Ali Smith
It's one of the world's biggest economies. And it's fast going down the gurgler.
Italy is in dire straits and it's threatening to take the rest of Europe down with it.
But the man who should be steering the country through the crisis has his hands everywhere but on the wheel.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lurches from one scandal to the next; corruption, fraud, wild sex parties and now he’s accused of sex with an underage prostitute.
It's enough to rival the worst of ancient Rome with an emperor fiddling while his city burns.
LIAM BARTLETT: For centuries, Italians have gone about their daily lives alongside the ancient ruins of the Roman Empire. Today, their nation again faces ruin – total economic collapse under the weight of Europe’s financial crisis. And again their emperor is failing them.
FRANCO: We’re fed up. Fed up with it. He has been kind of amusing us enough. You know, you can be amused to death.
LIAM BARTLETT: Silvio Berlusconi is a multi-billionaire, a charismatic businessman and a notorious ladies’ man. He’s also Italy’s Prime Minister. But many Italians like sociologist Franco Ferrarroti, no longer believe Berlusconi is the solution to the country’s woes. In fact, he’s fast becoming its biggest problem.
FRANCO: I think Mr Berlusconi has gone too far. He has let himself go to an extreme and from that point of view, I think the image of Italy worldwide might have been smeared – might have be damaged – because of the private vices of a public man.
LIAM BARTLETT: Private vices recently made public in all their sordid glory. Italians learned that their Prime Minister entertains selected friends at sex parties called ‘bunga bunga’ where entertainment is provided by a bevy of young women like Nadia Macri.
NADIA (TRANSLATED FROM ITALIAN): Yes, there were lots of girls, many many girls – really, a lot. I and five or six other girls went in a room where we bathed. He came in wearing a bathrobe and nothing else – I could see he was ready for sex.
LIAM BARTLETT: But worse, Nadia will soon testify that at least one of the girls Berlusconi paid for sex was under-age – a crime which in Italy can carry a seven-year jail term. The bunga bungas took place at many of Berlusconi's residences around the country, but this is the most famous – a mansion just outside Milan. And what happened in the basement here, what might still be happening is more in keeping with Ancient Rome than modern Italy.
FRANCO: You don't acquire power overnight and you don't lose it overnight but certainly, I think now people are realising that the man has been playing too long and it's time to change.
LIAM BARTLETT: Not surprisingly, the embattled Prime Minister declined our numerous interview requests.
DEBORAH: He's doing the reforms that are needed. I don't know, what do you expect of a Prime Minister? Maybe that he became becomes an angel? Maybe this country would need an angel to govern it, I don’t know.
LIAM BARTLETT: Instead he sent MP, Deborah Bergamini to mount his defence.
DEBORAH: Italian people have never judged their politicians according to their personal standards.
LIAM BARTLETT: But surely, surely –
DEBORAH: …And I don't see at the moment Mr Berlusconi doing anything illegal.
LIAM BARTLETT: But hang on, well you’ve got one girl –
DEBORAH: The fact that she received gifts from Mr Berlusconi, not that she received money in exchange of whatever else .
LIAM BARTLETT: No cash but thousands of dollars in gifts?
LIAM BARTLETT: But even the free-thinking Italians are struggling with the fact that as their nation teeters on the edge of bankruptcy with debts of 2.6 trillion dollars, as recently as four weeks ago, their Prime Minister was hosting orgies fit for a Roman emperor.
FRANCO: Berlusconi is really a perfect incarnation of some basic Italian tradition.
LIAM BARTLETT: Are Italians unaware of the things Berlusconi gets up to or do they just simply choose to ignore it?
FRANCO: No, it's worse than that. They are aware and they are envious. Good for him that he can do it. We consider telling the truth and only the truth a lack of imagination.
LIAM BARTLETT: You expect your leaders to tell lies?
FRANCO: Yes. Telling lies is almost like fine art – reinventing reality, you see.
LIAM BARTLETT: You’re saying that if Mr Berlusconi went around telling the truth you’d be disappointed?
FRANCO: Oh, that would be terrible. Nobody would believe him!
LIAM BARTLETT: And if Berlusconi tells lies, he tells them to a captive audience. His four billion dollar empire includes control of 90 percent of Italy’s mainstream television. And sure enough, you find scantily-clad young women on every channel. These showgirls are known as ‘velina’ or tissue paper. But that hasn’t stopped Berlusconi's turning his favourites into members of the Government.
FRANCO: He pretends to promote talent. Of course, his idea of talent is extremely broad.
LIAM BARTLETT: What sort of talent are we talking about here?
FRANCO: Well, we would say, mental, physical or what not. But some of the young ladies that he has promoted – with some exceptions of course – turn out to be pretty good.
LIAM BARTLETT: There’s the Minister for Equal Opportunity, Mara Cafagna, once a men's magazine model. Before she became a regional representative in Lombardy, Nicole Minetti was Berluscoini’s dental hygienist. And member of the European Parliament, Barbara Matera, had a former career as a TV host. So he can use the system to promote his favourites?
EMMA: Yeah more or less, more or less.
LIAM BARTLETT: Vice-President of the Senate, Emma Bonino, like thousands of Italian women, is outraged that Berlusconi is turning politics into a pageant.
EMMA: Let me be very, very clear – the relation between power and sex is not new. It goes back something like 3,000 years or more since Cleopatra onwards.
LIAM BARTLETT: And always very big in Rome too.
EMMA: Exactly but I think definitely this has reached a limit that is not tolerable simply for the respect you must show for any human being.
DEBORAH: But who are these women? I don't see any women that has been promoted in the Parliament just for her beauty –
LIAM BARTLETT: Well, come on. Let’s be serious –
DEBORAH: And you will see that our young beautiful women are –
LIAM BARTLETT: How can you say it's not true? I mean, let me give you the names. Let's see…
LIAM BARTLETT: A model, now a Minister for Equal Opportunity.
DEBORAH: Yeah, but in between she –
LIAM BARTLETT: Nicole –
DEBORAH: Did politics.
LIAM BARTLETT: Nicole Minetti.
DEBORAH: She's not in Parliament.
LIAM BARTLETT: A showgirl. She's a Regional Deputy for Lombardy.
LIAM BARTLETT: Mr Berlusconi is admitting that his political recruits are bimbos, are airheads. He says in his own words, “I'm like Prince Charming, they were pumpkins and I turned them into Parliamentarians.”
DEBORAH: Maybe you could do this, you could say this for me too. What do you believe?
LIAM BARTLETT: Were you a pumpkin?
DEBORAH: What do you think?
LIAM BARTLETT: But over nearly two decades, Italians have learned to live with their leader’s weakness for women and his repeated public gaffes, which made him the clown of the world political stage.
BERLUSCONI GRAB WITH TRANSLATION: I have to bring you some greetings from a man…
LIAM BARTLETT: He once joked about US President Barack Obama having a suntan.
BERLUSCONI GRAB WITH TRANSLATION: …what is his name, just a minute. It was someone with a tan. Barack Obama.
LIAM BARTLETT: He famously kept German leader Angela Merkel waiting at a NATO summit while he wrapped up a call on his mobile phone. And he even managed to upset the Queen…
SILVIO BERLUSCONI (VIDEO FOOTAGE): Mr Obama!
LIAM BARTLETT: …with his loud greeting to President Obama at a G20 photo shoot.
QUEEN: What is the point of being so loud?
LIAM BARTLETT: If he wasn’t your Prime Minister, it would almost be funny.
FRANCO: I think now he has to step out of politics altogether. Completely.
LIAM BARTLETT: And since the bunga bunga revelations, many Italians agree. You see, although we staged this re-creation,it’s no exaggeration. Secret recordings of the parties paint a very clear picture and so does Nadia Macri, an escort, who was twice hired to have sex with her Prime Minister. So it was like a big party that he was in the middle of?
NADIA (TRANSLATED FROM ITALIAN): Yes, a party. There were escort girls like me, but there were also girls who worked for television, girls from ‘Big Brother’, there were also famous girls there.
LIAM BARTLETT: And then, when you took your clothes off for the Prime Minister, what happened?
NADIA (TRANSLATED FROM ITALIAN): I could see he was ready for sex. Then he called out, “Girls, one at a time, come into my room.” He was lying back and one at a time we went in and had sex with him.
LIAM BARTLETT: Morality aside, authorities are alarmed by such a large-scale breach of security at the Prime Minister’s official residence. Model Barbara Montereale was one of scores of young women who came and went at the bunga bunga parties without even being questioned. You were allowed to just go into the Prime Minister’s home with a camera in your bag. Nothing was searched?
BARBARA (TRANSLATED FROM ITALIAN): No, there was no security. I had my camera in my handbag. Nobody stopped me from bringing it in. Given the importance of the place – it wasn't a private house but a political 'palazzo’ – there should have been more security.
LIAM BARTLETT: You could have had whatever you wanted to in your handbag?
BARBARA (TRANSLATED FROM ITALIAN): Yes, effectively. Yes, effectively.
EMMA: It was a question also of national security. All of these young girls could really blackmail him forever.
LIAM BARTLETT: Some of the bunga bunga girls came from his TV stations, some were literally found on the street. But others were hand-picked by people like Francesco Soprani, whose job it is to decorate special events and VIP parties with beautiful women. What particular kind of woman where they looking for?
FRANCESCO (TRANSLATED FROM ITALIAN): Mainly dark-skinned women with big breasts – the classic Mediterranean women. Ruby was a classic of this type.
LIAM BARTLETT: Ruby’ is Ruby Rubacuori, or Ruby ‘Heart-stealer’ – a Moroccan lap dancer who prosecutors allege was 17 when Berlusconi paid her for sex. It’s one of a range of charges he’s now facing and this time, even being a billionaire world leader may not keep him out of jail.
FRANCO: Berlusconi is offering the world a caricature of this country, an atrociously vicious image of this country that it does not deserve.
LIAM BARTLETT: Berlusconi built his fortune and fame on the three fundamental forces that drive human nature - money, power and sex. Italy's economic disaster, coupled with the latest scandal may mean the end of his power. And though he might see out his days with plenty of the other two, his political legacy will be a broken country and the infamous term, bunga bunga.
FRANCO: Even a country that somehow believes that we are all sons and daughters of the original sin – even Italy – cannot accept that forever. The thing has to end, it's coming to an end right now.