THE strain of a deepening sex scandal appeared to show yesterday when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi telephoned a TV talk show about the prostitution investigation that has targeted him, shouting insults at the host and calling the programme a "brothel".
The outburst stirred a furore in Italy. His supporters said Mr Berlusconi had a right to defend himself, while his critics rounded on the beleaguered leader describing his comments as a display of aggression by an increasingly desperate man.
An emotional Mr Berlusconi said: "I've been watching a disgusting show, conducted in a despicable, vile and repugnant way."
The talk-show host, well-known left-leaning journalist Gad Lerner, asked Mr Berlusconi to tone down his comments and at one point called him a "lout" when Mr Berlusconi attacked the female guests on the show.
"Why don't you go before the magistrates instead of insulting people?" Mr Lerner asked Mr Berlusconi.
Mr Berlusconi has refused to respond to 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 has denied wrongdoing, insisting that he never paid for sex. He has persistently claimed 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," Mr Berlusconi said on 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 Mr Berlusconi, a media tycoon, has no control. He owns Mediaset, the country's largest private broadcaster, and as prime minister indirectly controls the state-run RAI.
Mr 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.