…France recalls ambassador to Italy as diplomatic row deepens***
The world’s richest man, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has accused the owner of a US gossip magazine of trying to blackmail him over lewd pictures.
He said the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc (AMI), wanted him to stop investigating how they had obtained his private messages.
Mr Bezos and his wife Mackenzie said they were divorcing last month.
Hours later the magazine published details, including private messages, of an extramarital affair.
AMI has not yet responded to the BBC’s request for comment.
What does Bezos say?
In a stunning blog post on Thursday, Mr Bezos posted an email he said had been sent to his intermediaries by AMI’s representatives threatening to publish “intimate photos” of him and his lover, former TV host Lauren Sanchez.
The billionaire, who also owns the Washington Post newspaper, said AMI had wanted him to make a “false public statement” that the National Enquirer’s coverage of him and his mistress was not politically motivated.
According to emails included by Mr Bezos in his blog, an AMI lawyer proposed on Wednesday that the photos would not be published in return for a public statement “affirming that [Bezos and his team] have no knowledge or basis” to suspect such a motive.
“Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail,” wrote Mr Bezos, “I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.”
Early in the blog post, Mr Bezos mentions AMI’s links to President Donald Trump.
Why does he mention Trump?
Mr Bezos said his ownership of the Washington Post was a “complexifier” for him because he had made enemies of “certain powerful people”, including President Trump, who is a friend of AMI’s boss, David Pecker.
AMI recently admitted it had co-ordinated with the Trump presidential campaign to pay a Playboy model $150,000 (£115,000) in hush money to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Mr Trump.
Mr Bezos notes in his blog post how the publisher had confessed to the so-called “catch and kill” deal to bury Karen McDougal’s politically embarrassing story.
AMI’s agreement to co-operate with federal authorities means it will not face criminal charges over the payments, Manhattan prosecutors announced in December.
Mr Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen – who facilitated the hush money at the direction, he says, of Mr Trump – has already admitted violating campaign finance laws.
What about Bezos’ reputation?
The Amazon boss did not try to hide the potential for embarrassment, writing “of course I don’t want personal photos published” and noting what he called “AMI’s long-earned reputation for weaponising journalistic privileges”.
“But,” he continued, “I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favours, political attacks, and corruption. I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”
His blog contained itemised details of 10 pictures in an email from the magazine’s editor, Dylan Howard, who said they had been “obtained during our newsgathering”.
New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow alleged that he “and at least one other prominent journalist” had been subject to similar threats from AMI.
In the meantime, a diplomatic row between France and Italy has deepened, with France complaining of “unfounded attacks and outlandish claims” by Italian leaders.
France recalled its ambassador to Italy for talks on Thursday, saying the situation was “unprecedented” since the end of World War Two.
It comes after Italian Deputy PM Luigi Di Maio met French “yellow-vest” protesters near Paris on Tuesday.
France warned him not to interfere in the country’s politics.
Relations between the two countries – both founding members of the EU – have been tense since Italy’s populist Five Star Movement and right-wing League party formed a coalition government in June 2018.
The two governments have clashed over a range of issues, including immigration.
What happened with Mr Di Maio?
The latest spat began after Mr Di Maio, the leader of Five Star Movement, met leaders of the anti-government “gilets jaunes” protests on Tuesday.
He posted a picture of himself on Twitter with yellow-vest leader Christophe Chalençon and members of a yellow-vest list who are standing in elections to the European Parliament in May.
What has France said?
“For several months France has been the subject of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outlandish claims,” the foreign ministry said on Thursday.
“The most recent interferences constitute an additional and unacceptable provocation. They violate the respect that is owed to democratic choices made by a nation which is a friend and an ally. To disagree is one thing, to exploit a relationship for electoral aims is another.”
Italy’s fellow Deputy PM Matteo Salvini later said he would be happy to hold talks with President Emmanuel Macron.
But to “reset” relations he said France had to address “fundamental” issues. He called on Paris to hand over left-wing militants wanted by Italy and to stop returning migrants. He also complained of lengthy French border checks causing traffic jams at the frontier.
Mr Di Maio defended his decision to meet the protesters and described the French people as “friends and allies”.
“President Macron has on several occasions attacked the Italian government for political reasons in view of the European elections. This has not affected the feeling of friendship that ties our two countries and never will,” he said.
Italian PM Giuseppe Conte, speaking on a visit to Beirut, said he hoped the situation could be “cleared up immediately”.
“Italy and France’s relationship is rooted in history and cannot be called into question by events,” he said.