Murdoch press

Chris Mitchell

Chris Mitchell, The Australian and Iraq

The political nation learned this morning, to its considerable surprise, that Chris Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of The Australian, was always a secret opponent of the invasion of Iraq – an invasion that has been responsible for 500,000 deaths, the displacement of several million, the triggering of a brutal decade-long Shia-Sunni civil war, and, now, the likely and unimaginably bloody disintegration of the Iraqi state. 

Here is the relevant passage from this morning’s characteristic piece of self-praise, written by one of Mitchell’s favourite go-to journalists:

Controversially, Mitchell reveals there have been occasions when his personal view on a subject differed from the stance his newspaper took. ‘I didn’t agree with the paper’s position on the Iraq war’, he said.

‘It was my view that the Americans should have gone into Afghanistan and should have got Bin Laden as quickly as they could… [I]t seemed to me that the whole dynamic between the Shias and the Sunnis wasn’t well understood by the neocon leadership in Washington.’ Mitchell does not agree with Robert Manne that the war represented a huge moral crisis, and of course believes it was a good idea to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but said: ‘My view was that it was the wrong war, that we should have sorted out Afghanistan first.’ Mitchell was returning as editor-in-chief and felt it would have been ‘very odd’ for him to come in and backflip on the paper’s already established opinion.

Mitchell became editor-in-chief of The Australian in July 2002, nine months before the American, British and Australian invasion of Iraq. From the moment of his arrival, there were tens of thousands of words beating the drum of war, defaming its opponents, and retrospectively justifying the invasion even as the cause was shown as bogus and as Iraq fell apart. 

Here is a brief sample of its most important arguments:

Mitchell’s Australian argued consistently and dogmatically that Iraq possessed a vast arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and was soon to become a nuclear power. Secretly, Mitchell is implicitly now claiming, he was always doubtful.

Mitchell’s Australian argued that if Iraq was allowed to retain its “awful arsenal” of weapons of mass destruction, “sooner or later” it was inevitable that it would attack Israel or the Kurds or hand its weapons to Al Qaeda. Privately, apparently, as an opponent of the war, Mitchell must have regarded these predictions as far-fetched.

Mitchell’s Australian argued that while the United States had successfully contained Soviet aggression during the Cold War, it was clear that by contrast the containment of Iraq had failed. Supposedly, however, as a secret opponent of the war, Mitchell was unconvinced.

Mitchell’s Australian argued that in our age Saddam Hussein posed the kind of threat to the peace of the world that Hitler had posed in the late 1930s. According to Mitchell’s Australian, as with Hitler so with Saddam Hussein, appeasement was a policy of weakness and of folly, certain once more to fail. In private, it appears, if what he told us this morning were true, Mitchell must have been aware of the absurdity of his paper’s persistent Hitler-Hussein analogy.

As the invasion of Iraq approached, Mitchell’s Australian warned that the United Nations was in danger of replicating “the sorry irrelevance” of the League of Nations in the 1930s which had “found every excuse to appease tyranny.” As a secret opponent of the invasion, privately Mitchell must have hoped that the United Nations would reverse the march to war.

Mitchell’s Australian thought that Simon Crean, the leader of the opposition and opponent of the invasion, would be forever held in contempt as the man “associated with the appeasement of tyranny”. Mitchell, we are now being asked to believe, secretly agreed with Crean. On the eve of the invasion, Mitchell’s Australian expressed delight that Labor’s “populist antiwar card” had failed. Privately, we are asked to believe, that as an opponent of the war, Mitchell must have hoped it would succeed. 

Mitchell’s Australian described the war on Iraq as “the only option”. The editor, as it turns out, wants us to believe that at the time these words were written he secretly thought that the war was “wrong”.  

There can have been few serious newspapers in the world that cheered for war as loudly as The Australian. When troops reached Baghdad, for example, huge banner headlines screamed: REGIME IN RUINS. END OF A TYRANT. TYRANTS BEWARE. In private, we are now being asked to believe, Mitchell must have been embarrassed by his newspaper’s triumphalism. For, as he now tries to convince us, he always thought the invasion of Iraq a mistake.  

When Baghdad fell The Australian sunk the boots into its favourite enemy – the Left intelligentsia. Their performance in opposing the war, it argued, had been nothing less than a complete disgrace. “Never underestimate the power of ideology and myth – in this case anti-Americanism – to trump reality. [I]t is not love but being a left-wing intellectual that means you never have to say you’re sorry.” 

How strange is it now to discover that all along Mitchell was an internal exile in Murdoch-land and a private admirer of those left-wing intellectuals who had warned of the coming catastrophe in Iraq. And how strange, as he is now trying to tell us, that he always knew in his heart that the misreading of the Sunni-Shia divide by the Washington neocons – for whom his paper was this country’s most consistent, most enthusiastic, most vulgar cheerleader – would turn Iraq not into the shining liberal market democracy his paper had time and again breathlessly predicted but into the charnel house it has become.

In sum:  After he assumed the editorship of The Australian in July 2002, Mitchell’s paper cheered for war, defamed its opponents, and indulged in serial fantasies about both the war’s causes and its consequences. Yet Mitchell told us this morning that he held his tongue on what he really thought about Iraq for twelve years. This most opinionated of editors, this most faithful servant of Rupert Murdoch, whose every newspaper worldwide beat the sinister drum of war, asks us to believe that he has remained silent on Iraq until now because letting the world know his true opinion, at the time he assumed the editorship or at any time over the next twelve years, would have appeared to the world as “very odd”. 

When I visited The Australian before writing Bad News I learned from his second in command, Clive Mathieson, that Chris Mitchell personally inspires the paper’s editorials on a daily basis. In this morning’s article Mitchell is, thus, arguing in effect that over a period of twelve years he has privately disagreed with the hundreds of belligerently pro-war editorials his own words have inspired. Even the most brazen examples of political dishonesty or self-deception no longer greatly surprise me. But I have to admit that the shamelessness of the claim in this morning’s Australian – that this country’s most influential publicist for the invasion of Iraq was in secret, from the outset, an opponent of a war that has brought death or unimaginable suffering to very many millions – took my breath away.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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