ROME – A furious Silvio Berlusconi has called into a TV talk show about the prostitution investigation that has targeted him, shouting, trading insults with the host and calling the program a "brothel."
The outburst stirred strong reactions Tuesday. The Italian premier's supporters said Berlusconi had a right to defend himself, while his critics called the comments a display of aggression by an increasingly desperate man.
Berlusconi is not new to calling live TV shows to complain about coverage or vent frustration. But his comments Monday night were harsher than usual.
"I've been watching a disgusting show, conducted in a despicable, vile and repugnant way," Berlusconi said.
The talk show host, well-known left-leaning journalist Gad Lerner, invited Berlusconi to tone down his comments and at one point called him a "lout" when Berlusconi made a swipe against the female guests on the show.
"Why don't you go before the magistrates instead of insulting people?" Lerner asked the premier.
Berlusconi has refused to heed a summons by Milan prosecutors, who have placed him under investigation on suspicion he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl and used his office to cover it up.
The 74-year-old premier has denied wrongdoing, saying he never paid for sex. He has insisted — as he has in the face of previous legal woes — that he is the victim of politically driven magistrates who want to oust him from power.
"The reality that has been represented here is the opposite of the truth and I feel insulted," Berlusconi said during the show. "I know what I'm saying, you don't," he told the host. He urged a political ally in the studio to leave this "incredible TV brothel."
The show was on La7, a private station that is one of the few national channels over which Berlusconi, a media tycoon, has no control. He owns Mediaset, the country's largest private broadcaster, and as premier indirectly controls the state-run RAI.
Berlusconi has come under mounting criticism from the Catholic church, and some have called for his resignation in the face of a scandal they say is hurting Italy's image.
He insists parties at his villas are elegant and dignified soirees and not the bacchanalia described by Italian newspapers, which for days have been filled with descriptions of dancing topless girls and orgies. The newspapers have printed what they say are transcripts of prosecutor-ordered wiretaps of conversations amid participants at the parties.
The premier's lawyers have put together their defense documents and left them with Milan prosecutors.
The lawyers have not publicly commented on what the documents say, but Corriere della Sera, the newspaper that broke the news of the probe days ago, said they include testimony from several witnesses denying the allegations. According to Corriere, the witnesses give an altogether different description of Berlusconi's parties, saying that after dinner, guests move into one of two rooms: a disco, or a cinema that shows movies, excerpts of political events or speeches and football matches of AC Milan, the team owned by Berlusconi.
A parliamentary committee that has to decide whether to give prosecutors special permission to search some of Berlusconi's properties was set to start discussing the case Tuesday. A decision is not expected for a few days.