29 July, 2011 — Media Lens
When Rupert and James Murdoch appeared before the House of Commons media select committee on July 19, not one of the MP inquisitors demanded accountability for News International’s biggest moral crime – its shameful role as a facilitator of war. Robin Beste, of the Stop the War Coalition, put it succinctly:
‘Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and TV channels have supported all the US-UK wars over the past 30 years, from Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands war in 1982, through George Bush Senior and the first Gulf War in 1990-91, Bill Clinton’s war in Yugoslavia in 1999 and his undeclared war on Iraq in 1998, George W Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Tony Blair on his coat tails, and up to the present, with Barack Obama continuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and now adding Libya to his tally of seven wars.’
The consequences in Iraq include a million dead people, four million refugees, a devastated country and the West’s corporate capture of huge oil resources.
David Swanson observes correctly that ‘Murdoch has blood on his hands’ and reminds readers of Article 20 of the UN International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights: ‘Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.’
Murdoch admitted his complicity during a televised debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos when he said that his media empire had tried to shape public opinion in support of the Iraq war. That he largely failed in his aim, thanks to the scepticism of the public towards the incessant war-mongering, does not detract from the scale of his wrongdoing.
The Hall Of Shame: Samples From The Archives
Consider some of the evidence of the Murdoch empire’s attempts to manipulate the public. The Sun screamed ‘BRITS 45 MINUTES FROM DOOM’ on its front page following Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’ of September 2002. When UN weapons inspectors led by Hans Blix found no evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the Sun’s hysterical headline was ‘HE’S GOT ‘EM. LET’S GET HIM’. Once the war was underway, the Sun and News of the World were full of propaganda about the need to get behind ‘our boys’ (and girls). In the United States, Fox News was perhaps even worse: a primitive mix of ‘patriotism’ and vitriol directed against even mild dissenters.
The Times could be relied upon to put a more genteel sheen on the propaganda. Michael Gove, then a Times journalist, now Secretary of State for Education, wrote:
‘We have no alternative but to launch a pre-emptive war against Iraq to prevent Saddam completing his drive to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Massive military force must be deployed to remove Saddam’s regime.’ (Gove, ‘We need Bush and not Saddam calling the shots,’ The Times, August 28, 2002)
Gove remains in close contact with his former colleagues. George Eaton reports in the New Statesman this week:
‘The Education Secretary listed 11 meetings at which executives from the company [News Corp] were present, including seven with Rupert Murdoch. Gove met the News Corp head more times than any other minister and had dinner with him twice last month.’
Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, works for News International.
In 2004, after Fallujah had been subjected to a brutal US onslaught leaving at least 800 civilians dead, a Times editorial declared:
‘the US military had to act decisively or fail those entitled to its protection.’ (Leading article, ‘Taking Fallujah,’ The Times, November 10, 2004)
In 2006, the prestigious Lancet journal published a paper estimating the Iraq war death toll at around 650,000. The study was led by researchers from the world-renowned Johns Hopkins University and followed standard epidemiological practice for estimating mortality in war. John Tirman, who commissioned the Lancet study, notes in a recent article that ‘the Murdoch media machine did its part in attempting to discredit the household surveys’ which formed the basis of the paper:
‘The reaction to the Johns Hopkins estimate of 650,000 “excess deaths” came in for savage treatment, trashed as a “political hit” in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. This campaign against the scientists had a chilling effect.’
The ‘chilling effect’ meant the corporate media failed to give the study the prominence it deserved. But awkward silences and embarrassed shoe-gazing is standard behaviour when we, the good guys, are doing the killing.
Like most newspapers, The Times and Sunday Times have published good journalism: Michael Smith’s excellent investigative reporting on the Downing Street Memos springs to mind. So too does Jerome Starkey’s work to expose the horrific killing of Afghan schoolchildren in night-time raids led by US forces. The Times editors were, however, on hand to portray the atrocity in the required context of a ‘just war’:
‘The legitimacy of the cause in Afghanistan is called into question by civilian deaths. The conflict needs to be conducted with regard for the native population.’
Not content to justify war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Murdoch press has lined up Iran in its crosshairs. In 2006, Times columnist Gerard Baker donned his fatigues and boots to declare:
‘The unimaginable but ultimately inescapable truth is that we are going to have to get ready for war with Iran.’
In 2008, The Times once again came under the Media Lens spotlight for its unbalanced coverage on Iran. Our analysis of the output of the paper’s then chief foreign commentator, Bronwen Maddox, did not go down well. In fact, we received threats of legal and police action from Alastair Brett, then legal director of Times Newspapers Limited. This was the first time we had been subjected to such outrageous threats. Peter Wilby, former News Statesman editor, suggested it was ‘an extraordinary reaction’ from the giant newspaper group, while Noam Chomsky said pithily that the Times reaction was ‘pretty sick’.
In 2010, Times propaganda over the Iranian nuclear ‘threat’ was ramped up yet again when the paper published documents which, it confidently asserted, showed Iran’s intention to develop a trigger for a nuclear weapon. In fact, the authenticity of the documents was highly questionable, with some intelligence experts claiming they were forgeries most likely created as part of an attempt to further boost war fervour against Iran.
Meanwhile, The Times continued to shore up Western foreign policy in its attack on WikiLeaks in an editorial last October:
‘Nowhere in WikiLeaks’s self-serving self publicity is there a judgment of what the organisation is achieving for the Iraqi nation, and what it hopes to achieve… Its personnel are partisans intervening in the security affairs of Western democracies and their allies, with a culpable heedlessness of human life.’ (Leader, ‘Exercise in Sanctimony; The release of military files by WikiLeaks is partisan and irresponsible,’ The Times, October 25, 2010)
The Times managed to miss the target by a full 360 degrees. It is the corporate media, not WikiLeaks, which demonstrates a ‘culpable heedlessness of human life’ in its endorsement of the West’s fixed foreign policy: to attack, bomb, invade, torture and steal based on any pretext that can be fed to the public.
The above is but a tiny sample of the abysmal historical record of News International. Journalist Neil Clark correctly noted of Murdoch’s papers that ‘no other newspaper group has as much blood on its hands when it comes to propagandising for illegal and fraudulent military conflicts.’
His Master’s Voice: Cues From The Boss
In 2001, reporter Sam Kiley left The Times following ‘pro-Israeli censorship’ of his reporting. Why the censorship? Kiley believed the explanation lay in Murdoch‘s heavy investment in Israel and close friendship with the then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Indeed, Murdoch has travelled to Israel numerous times and met many of its leaders. Kiley said:
‘In the war of words, no newspaper has been so happy to hand the keys of the armoury over to one side than the Times.
‘The Times foreign editor and other middle managers flew into hysterical terror every time a pro-Israel lobbying group wrote in with a quibble or complaint and then usually took their side against their own correspondent.’
‘No pro-Israel lobbyist ever dreamed of having such power over a great national newspaper.’
Robert Fisk, now at the Independent, explained that he too left The Times after interference with his reporting on the Middle East:
‘The end came for me when I flew to Dubai in 1988 after the USS Vincennes [a US Navy guided missile cruiser] had shot down an Iranian passenger airliner over the Gulf. Within 24 hours, I had spoken to the British air traffic controllers at Dubai, discovered that US ships had routinely been threatening British Airways airliners, and that the crew of the Vincennes appeared to have panicked. The foreign desk told me the report was up for the page-one splash. I warned them that American ‘leaks’ that the IranAir pilot was trying to suicide-crash his aircraft on to the Vincennes were rubbish. They agreed.
‘Next day, my report appeared with all criticism of the Americans deleted, with all my sources ignored. The Times even carried an editorial suggesting the pilot was indeed a suicider. A subsequent US official report and accounts by US naval officers subsequently proved my dispatch correct. Except that Times readers were not allowed to see it.’
Fisk said that he believed Murdoch did not personally intervene. However:
‘He didn’t need to. He had turned The Times into a tame, pro-Tory, pro-Israeli paper shorn of all editorial independence.’
In March 2009, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) honoured Murdoch with their ‘National Human Relations Award’. In his speech, Murdoch declared his own version of Middle East reality, including this gem:
‘In Iran, we see a regime that backs Hezbollah and Hamas now on course to acquire a nuclear weapon.’
So Murdoch’s editors and columnists can be in no doubt of where the boss stands on the ‘threat’ of Iran. News Corp employees would also do well to heed the master’s views on Israel, made clear in the same speech: namely, that the state is an integral part of the West as ‘defined by societies committed to freedom and democracy’. Only weeks after the brutal onslaught by Israeli forces in Gaza, with around 1400 Palestinians killed including over 400 women and children, Murdoch had this to say to his audience:
‘My friends, I do not pretend to have all the answers to Gaza this evening. But I do know this: The free world makes a terrible mistake if we deceive ourselves into thinking this is not our fight.
‘In the end, the Israeli people are fighting the same enemy we are: cold-blooded killers who reject peace … who reject freedom … and who rule by the suicide vest, the car bomb, and the human shield.
‘Against such an enemy, I will not second-guess the decisions of a free Israel defending her citizens. And I would ask all those who support peace and freedom to do the same.’
Murdoch’s pro-Israeli position is reflected in his newspapers. According to Isi Liebler, an Australian Jewish community leader who now lives in Israel, Murdoch’s ‘affection’ for the state ‘arose less out of his conservative sensibility than from his native Australian sympathy for the underdog fending off elites seized by conventional wisdoms’. Liebler added:
‘He’s met Israelis, he’s been to Israel, he’s seen Israel as the plucky underdog when the rest of the world saw Israel as an occupier.’
But the pro-Israel lobby is now ‘warily watching the unfolding of the phone-hacking scandal that is threatening to engulf’ his media empire. ‘Murdoch’s sudden massive reversal of fortune’ has ‘supporters of Israel worried that a diminished Murdoch presence may mute the strongly pro-Israel voice of many of the publications he owns.’
One recent article in the Jewish Chronicle was even headed, ‘Is this curtains for pro-Israel Murdoch?’
The Farcical Faustian Pact
Andrew Neil, a former Murdoch editor, once said that although the media mogul would not intervene directly at The Times or the Sunday Times, ‘he does regard himself as someone who should have more influence on these papers than anyone else.’
During his time as Sunday Times editor, Neil ‘was never in any doubt what the News Corp boss thought about issues.’ It obviously helped that Neil and Murdoch ‘share[d] a common worldview’; indeed this is a requirement for all editors and proprietors:
‘An editor has to be on the same planet [as the paper’s owner]. You don’t have to be on the same continent or the same country for all of the time but you need to be on the same planet.’
When it came to Murdoch’s tabloid press, direct intervention by the owner did take place:
‘If you want to know what Rupert Murdoch really thinks read the editorials in the Sun and the New York Post because he is editor-in-chief of these papers.’
‘There is no major geopolitical position that the Sun will take whether its attitude to the euro or to the current European treaty or to whom the paper will support in the upcoming general election. None of that can be decided without Rupert Murdoch’s major input.’
In 1999, News of the World exposed the former Tory MP Jeffrey Archer as a liar and perjurer, which led to him being imprisoned. But Murdoch had not wanted the Archer scoop to be published and sacked the editor Phil Hall for defying him. It was a clear example of what happens to editors who step out of line.
The threat of proprietorial interference, then, is always present; whether directly (Murdoch’s tabloid press) or by knowing exactly what the owner’s views are and conforming to them (Murdoch’s ‘quality’ press). Denying or downplaying all of this, even in defiance of the clear ‘evidence’, is ‘in everyone’s interests’, said Neil, adding:
‘It suits the editors and proprietors to continue this farce.’
This is not limited to the Murdoch press. Throughout the corporate media, editors and proprietors enter a ‘Faustian pact’ to pretend that interference does not happen; editors do not want to be seen ‘as puppets of proprietors.’ But, in effect, that is what they are.
Thus, it is important to look beyond the Murdoch media empire at the wider context of the scandal engulfing News International, a corrupt police force and a supine political establishment. Seumas Milne made some good observations along these lines in the Guardian recently:
‘These revelations [of phone hacking] should ram home the reality that Britain has become a far more corrupt country than many realise. Much of that has been driven by the privatisation-fuelled revolving door culture that gives former ministers and civil servants plum jobs in the companies they were previously regulating.’
Milne notes that several ‘opportunities’ to clean up this corruption ‘have come and gone’:
‘First the official deception of the Iraq war, then the collapse of a deregulated banking system, then the exposure of systematic sleaze in parliament revealed a growing crisis in the way the country is run. Now that crisis has been shown to have spread to the media and police. Official Britain isn’t working. Sooner or later, pressure for change will become unstoppable.’
It is hard to argue with Milne’s article. But he is silent, for obvious reasons, about the Guardian’s important role as a liberal gatekeeper that helps preserve the established order. As we have repeatedly pointed out in our media alerts and books, this role is a crucial missing ingredient in any serious discussion of the nexus of power, politics and the media. As ever, we have to look to someone commenting from beyond the confines of the self-regarding Guardian for the unvarnished truth. John Pilger is one such voice:
‘the truth is, Britain’s system of elite monopoly control of the media rests not on News International alone, but on the Mail and the Guardian and the BBC, perhaps the most influential of all. All share a corporate monoculture that sets the agenda of the “news”, defines acceptable politics by maintaining the fiction of distinctive parties, normalises unpopular wars and guards the limits of “free speech”. This will be strengthened by the illusion that a “bad apple” has been “rooted out”.’
Even if Murdoch’s empire were to collapse, there would still be no free press, no responsible corporate news agenda and no brave new world of media democracy. For these to take root, the stranglehold of corporate media and corporate politics needs to be broken. That will happen only when enough people demand change.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone. For this alert we are leaving it up to you to decide which journalists, if any, to contact.
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We would like to highlight the forthcoming Rebellious Media Conference in London between October 8-9, 2011. The keynote speaker will be Noam Chomsky. Further details are available at: http://rebelliousmediaconference.org/
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Murdoch’s Other Moral Crimes
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