July 2005


Murdoch’s war

By Robert Manne
Murdoch’s war
How a lovestruck teenager, an angry man and an ambitious baron made sure bad news was no news on the path to Iraq

On the road to the invasion of Iraq, and through the two and a half years of bloody chaos since Baghdad’s fall, almost every Australian news-paper owned by Rupert Murdoch has supported each twist and turn of the American, British and Australian policy line. Oddly enough, however, during 2002 the humble Hobart Mercury did not. Here is its quite characteristic, fiercely anti-war editorial of September 12:

It would be wrong for the US pre-emptively to attack Iraq. It would be wrong for Australia to ride shotgun to any unilateral assault on the hated regime of Saddam Hussein … Australia must side with those nations urging President George W. Bush not to abandon the 50-year political doctrine which has underpinned the interests of the West … [A] blazing ember in the powder keg would be a dream scenario for the future rise of Islamic fascist fundamentalism. It would be Osama bin Laden’s dream come true – and Australia, and the world’s nightmare.

Four months later on January 17, 2003, the Hobart Mercury was singing the standard Murdoch tune:

History is littered with the victims of tyrants and the tattered reputations of those who failed to take a stand against them … There may be some disquiet in the Australian community about the Howard Government’s enthusiasm for a fight. But this is always the case when a nation – and the world – is confronted by barbarism on a scale that Saddam Hussein, armed with his weapons of mass destruction is capable of. No one wants a war. But the alternative – to let a madman thumb his nose at the rule of international law is an obscenity. Nations who live by the rule of law … have an obligation to confront these dark forces.

What had happened? In late 2003 I visited Hobart. A senior Mercury journalist told me that the newspaper for whom he worked had been instructed in writing by head office to alter its position on Iraq. One senior editorial writer had refused on principle and was given different duties. The paper, however, fell into line. When the invasion took place, like every Murdoch paper, the Mercury cheered. It called the invasion a classical “good versus evil plot”.

After the invasion of Iraq an enterprising journalist at The Guardian, Roy Greenslade, reviewed the editorial stance of the 175 Murdoch-owned newspapers worldwide. All supported the invasion. The editors, with the fleeting exception of those at the Mercury, appear to have acquired the skill of second-guessing their boss and of knowing where they have some leeway for independence and where they have not. To Murdoch’s credit, he does not even pretend that the editors he employs are allowed to exercise independent judgment when it comes to questions of serious importance to him – like war. As he laconically explained to an ABC journalist at News Corporation’s final shareholders’ meeting in Adelaide in October 2004: “With our newspapers we have indeed supported Bush’s foreign policy. And we remain committed that way.”

Murdoch has the same political ambitions as some of the media barons of the past – Northcliffe, Beaverbrook, Hearst. Like them he is interested both in making profits and shaping minds. Compared to them he has vastly greater global reach. In addition, through his main television asset in the US, Fox News, Murdoch has been a genuine pioneer in the English-speaking world by demonstrating the kind of money that can be made from TV entertainment of an aggressively conservative, populist and patriotic kind.

Yet in no country was Murdoch’s stance on Iraq so influential as in Australia. For in no other country does Murdoch wield even remotely the same media power. Since 1987 Murdoch has owned the most important newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne – The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun – and the only daily papers in Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Darwin. He owns the sole general national daily, The Australian. His only serious competitor is Fairfax. For this situation, duopoly is too weak a word. Through their editorials, opinion columnists and presentation of the news, Murdoch’s newspapers softened an originally hostile and sceptical public in preparation for Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, an invasion many political commentators around the world still regard as unlawful, unprovoked and unnecessary. When the justification for that invasion – Iraq’s supposed possession of an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction – turned out to be totally false, and when Iraq began to fall apart, these same papers helped reconcile public opinion to what the government had done.

Their influence was profound. With virtually no discussion of foreign policy on commercial TV or radio, only the ABC and the Fairfax papers might have criticised the Bush–Howard foreign policy and presented an alternative vision for Australia. Yet this possibility was more theoretical than real. The ABC, at present, is in a defensive frame of mind. In the face of persistent allegations of left-wing bias its public affairs programs, with some exceptions, seem increasingly timid and to have lost their nerve. As for the Fairfax papers, that is to say The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, they no longer play the kind of balancing political role they once did. Now run by a board of corporation investors, they have almost altogether forgotten the tradition of fierce independence that still produces the best family-owned quality newspapers in the US: The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The Western tradition of the just war is dominated by two fundamental thoughts. Wars have to be the last resort. They can only be waged in a clear-cut case of self-defence. During 2002, after the terrorist outrage of September 11, George W. Bush’s administration claimed the right to fight what was effectively a preventive war. As Iraq had committed no act of aggression since 1990, to many of those schooled in the Western tradition of the just war what the Americans and their ally, the British, were proposing to do looked like an act of unprovoked aggression, the most serious of all international crimes.

A war of this kind, without the sanction of the United Nations, was always going to be difficult for John Howard’s government to sell. Its task was made much easier than it might otherwise have been by the conspicuous support offered by the Murdoch press. From a mountain of potential evidence, three significant and concerted contributions stand out – the pre-invasion commentaries of The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan and the Herald Sun’s opinion columnist Andrew Bolt, and the post-invasion editorials of The Australian.

In March 2002, when the invasion of Iraq was barely being discussed, Sheridan had already begun speculating about nuclear attacks in New York harbour. As a consequence of his speculations, he had already begun imagining a series of American-led wars. “Bush’s task, which is huge, is to make sure there is not a single state in the world, starting with Iraq, whose machinery can be used by terrorists.” Sheridan’s analyses of the terrible Iraqi threat were untouched by doubt. In August 2002 he already knew not only that Saddam Hussein possessed a vast arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, but also that it was certain he would possess nuclear weapons in “one or two years”. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair released his weapons dossier soon after, Sheridan really did not need to be convinced. For those who still did, he posed the following dilemma: “Either Tony Blair is a monstrous liar or Saddam Hussein is. Take your pick.” Prudently, this was not a question to which Sheridan returned in the following year.

Nor was Sheridan’s omniscience restricted to his knowledge of Saddam’s arsenal and his links with al-Qaeda. He could also see into the future. On one occasion he explained that when Saddam got his nuclear weapons in one or two years’ time he would either give them to al-Qaeda or “more likely … invade Kuwait for a second time, dominate the oil deposits of the Persian Gulf and stay there as a result of nuclear blackmail”. Why a tin-pot dictator should succeed in dominating a goodly part of the world’s oil reserves by the nuclear blackmail of the US, where for 40 years the Soviet superpower had failed to take any similar advantage of its nuclear arsenal, was not explained. Nor was it explained how Sheridan already knew in September 2002 that all the “alarmist predictions” would be proven wrong “after the US successfully completes its coming Iraq campaign”.

Not surprisingly, given his clairvoyant gifts, Sheridan had little but amused contempt for alternative points of view. The opinions of the Labor Party left were described as the “shrill and politically semi-literate anti-Americanism of those hitherto hidden Metternichs”. His ridicule was not limited to lesser Labor lights. Sheridan thought the post-Cold War views of two of America’s best-known political scientists, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, had been rendered “almost idiotic” by recent events. Fukuyama was the author of nothing more than “fantastic nonsense”. Adjectives like “bizarre”, “absurd” and “preposterous” littered Sheridan’s prose.

Sheridan’s disdain for those with whom he disagreed was balanced by his unqualified enthusiasm for the views of Republican politicians and members of the Bush administration to whom he had privileged access. Sheridan thought the former speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich, was “vastly personable” and “profoundly convincing”; that trade secretary Robert Zoellick was “prodigiously well informed”; and that the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, was “the most brilliant figure” of the Bush administration, even more brilliant presumably than President Bush himself, who could be compared, not unfavourably, to Winston Churchill. Yet no one made a more favourable impression on Sheridan than the deputy secretary of state, Rich Armitage, with whom he conducted a dozen or so interviews.

Sheridan wrote about Armitage with the kind of uncritical enthusiasm one might expect from a teenager in love. On a number of occasions he informed his readers that Armitage was the “straightest talker” or “straightest shooter” you could ever meet. Armitage didn’t “gild the lily”. He was “George Orwell-like in his ability to face hard facts”. You could “stake your life” on the reliability of what he told you. (Luckily for Sheridan he didn’t. Before the invasion Armitage convinced him that Saddam would pass weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda. Several months after it he still had “absolute confidence” that weapons of mass destruction would be found.) So deferential was Sheridan in Armitage’s presence that he admitted to feelings of “timorousness” in even raising with him the question of US unilateralism. Sheridan’s Armitage effusions were, for a journalist of his seniority, seriously weird.

How had they come about? In July 2002 Sheridan wrote an extraordinary article about the “dizzying week” he spent in Washington walking the corridors of the White House, the Pentagon and the Department of State. “It is the heart of Washington, this display of US strength and pride,” wrote Sheridan. “It is imperial Rome without the vomitoriums, greater than London was at the height of the empire … [This] is the known universe, the most formidable agglomeration of pure power we have ever seen.”

Sheridan was clearly blinded by American military might. In treating the viewpoints of the leading US figures to whom he had privileged access – and the occasional leaks he received from them as a result – as incontrovertible fact, Sheridan was playing the role of a publicist on America’s behalf.

The Australian is an influential newspaper but its circulation is small. By contrast Murdoch’s tabloids in Sydney and Melbourne are each read by more than a million people every day. Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun, along with Piers Akerman of The Daily Telegraph, is probably the most politically consequential newspaper journalist in contemporary Australia. Bolt writes twice weekly. He is given an entire page to express his views. On occasions his columns run to 1600 words. Reading one of them is like being trapped in a small room with an angry, indignant, simple-minded man who believes the best way of convincing you that he is right, yet again, is to ridicule and to shout. Bolt is tireless in pursuit of his enemies. He seems to be the kind of person who finds it difficult to disagree with someone without hating them as well. He represents an interesting new phenomenon. Even 20 years ago Australia did not have journalists like him in the mainstream press.

Bolt entered the Iraq debate in the winter of 2002. Immediately he seemed unconcerned about the need for even the appearance of factual or moral consistency. On August 15, 2002, for example, he argued that while it was likely, there was no “clear proof” that Iraq possessed chemical or biological weapons. Yet on September 9, 2002, he demanded that Saddam “prove he has got rid of the biological and chemical weapons we all know he has”. On December 5, 2002, according to Bolt, Saddam was responsible for the deaths of one million Muslims. By January 2003 he had become responsible for “the death of two million people”. In support of war, Bolt wrote eloquently of “the familiar stories of beatings, acid baths, ripping out of tongues, mass executions and gassings”. Fifteen months earlier, at the time of the children overboard affair, he was one of the most pitiless defenders of the Howard government’s policy of defaming and militarily repelling those selfsame Iraqis fleeing from Saddam.

Perhaps Bolt could not remember from one day to the next what he had said. Perhaps he didn’t care. On September 9, 2002, he lectured Labor on the folly of its argument for the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. “Let me spell it out slowly for Crean and Rudd: Saddam. Won’t. Let. In. Inspectors.” Within a fortnight Saddam agreed to the return of the inspectors. Bolt now patiently explained to “Simon ‘Chamberlain’ Crean” that “Saddam’s offer was a trick”. Under the guise of “sovereignty”, he was certain to ban “inspectors to his 42 palaces no matter what is hidden under their floors”. When, shortly after, Saddam agreed to the entry of inspectors to his palaces, Bolt opted for silence. He was apparently unembarrassable. On April 14, 2003, he wrote a scathing article aimed at discrediting “the myth” that “the Left always knew that the war would be won easily”. One month earlier he had warned: “Don’t be fooled by talk of a quick victory.”

If Sheridan’s great contribution to the preparations for war was to pass off the public relations of the Bush administration as undisputable fact, Bolt’s was to transform the Iraq debate into a main theatre of the Left–Right culture war. On December 5, 2002, in an attack on one of his favourite targets, Greens leader Bob Brown, Bolt wrote of “our growing church of appeasers – groovy priests, apologists for Muslim terrorists, cultural relativists, ageing Marxists, New Age romantics, cause junkies and far Left agitators”. Phillip Adams, who had left the Communist Party 50 years before, was routinely described as an “ex-Communist”. Bob Ellis was “sewer-brained”. Bolt imported into Australian journalism the gutter tone of Murdoch’s New York Post.

Yet his aggression passed beyond abuse. He consistently insinuated that opponents of the war were indifferent to the sufferings of Saddam’s victims and were playing Saddam’s game. “They are against war – but for murder,” he wrote on one occasion. “For tyranny. For terror. And when they talk of peace, Saddam laughs.” Another time, he claimed: “When Labor’s Carmen Lawrence says she’s against war, she is for a killer who dropped nerve gas on tens of thousands of Kurdish men, women and children and wiped out Iraq’s Marsh Arabs, too.” To grasp the loathsome quality of this argument, I suggest conservatives replace “Carmen Lawrence” in that sentence with the name of a somewhat more important opponent of the war – Pope John Paul II.

Within a month of the American, British and Australian invasion of Iraq, Baghdad fell. Shortly after, President Bush declared that the coalition’s “mission” had been “accomplished”. As it turned out this was anything but true. In the two years after the fall of Baghdad the security situation deteriorated, especially but not exclusively in the so-called Sunni Triangle. Since the invasion 1700 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians have been killed. Iraq is now one of the most violent countries on Earth. Pre-war miscalculations did not end here. Iraq was invaded because of the danger posed by her WMD arsenal and her links with Islamist terrorists. After the invasion it gradually became clear that Iraq possessed no WMD or links with al-Qaeda.

At first, the mood on the aggressively pro-war editorial team at The Australian was incautiously upbeat. The Australian celebrated the fall of Baghdad with two long, triumphalist editorials on April 11 and 12, 2003. It acknowledged that the creation of a Western democracy in Iraq would not be easy. Yet it was certain that just as the pessimists who had predicted military difficulties in Iraq had already been proven wrong, so would they be wrong when it came to the creation of a liberal, democratic, capitalist Iraq.

Why? The answer was simple. As the White House spokesman put it: “The thirst for freedom is unquenchable.” The toppling of Saddam’s statue represented for the people of Iraq and the Middle East what the fall of the Berlin Wall had meant to the people of Eastern Europe in 1989. It was obvious to The Australian’s editorial writers that all human beings across the globe aspired to the same things – democratic politics and capitalist economies. These were not Western but universal values. With pro-American enthusiasm now overtaking the “Arab street”, was it not possible that the idea of democracy and capitalism would transform the politics of the Middle East? Was it not likely that “the terrorists ... must be starting to have a sense that the walls were closing in”?

In their moment of greatest ideological excitement, the editorial writers at The Australian tried to use the fall of Baghdad to deliver a knockout blow to the group they most despised, the anti-war Western intellectuals, for whom they coined a new smart-aleck term: “the coalition of the whining”. “The performance of the ‘intellectual’ Left, in Australia and the West,” they argued, “has been a disgrace.” “Remember the quagmire?” The Australian mocked. “Remember the bloody campaign in which we were going to get bogged down, before being caught in ‘street by street’ fighting, only to end up trapped in a bloody intifada?” Of course, “the coalition of the whining” would not recognise that the decision to invade Iraq had been vindicated. “It is not love, but being a left-wing intellectual, that means you never have to say you’re sorry.”

Three months after the invasion no weapons of mass destruction had been found. The Australian’s argument about the justice of a war to “disarm Iraq” (March 2003) began to unravel and evolve. Iraq’s WMD arsenal, we now learned, had always been a matter of “speculation” (July 22, 2003). At the time of the invasion Iraq’s arsenal was admittedly “largely empty” (October 2003). But as it was “an incontrovertible fact” that in the past Saddam had possessed and used WMD, it was “no crime” to have “erred on the side of caution” by attacking him (December 2003). The intelligence on which this decision had been taken might be “a monstrous misjudgment” (March 20, 2004). The “immediate threat posed by Saddam” might now look to be “chimerical” (July 13, 2004). The false claims about the Iraqi WMD arsenal might represent “perhaps the worst American intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor” (January 14, 2005).

Nonetheless – and this was the great non sequitur on which The Australian rested its entire case – left-wing, Bush-hating opposition to the war remained altogether “misplaced” (December 20, 2003) because the justification for the invasion, Iraq’s unwillingness to abide by the UN’s disarmament resolutions, had always provided “an open and shut case” (March 20, 2004). To regard as an open and shut case a decision to go to war to disarm a country of weapons she did not possess because of her unwillingness to accept the disarmament resolutions of a body steadfastly opposed to a new war uncannily resembled the kind of logic encountered in Alice in Wonderland.

Greg Sheridan took even longer than his paper to accept that the grounds for war were false. Like his paper, he expressed not one word of regret for his role in pushing for war or about the tens of thousands who lay dead as a result. Meanwhile Andrew Bolt was perhaps the only journalist in the world who claimed that in post-invasion Iraq the skyrocketing crime rate was actually falling. In February 2005 Bolt predicted that “with the economy growing fast, Iraq is now likely to become the first true Arab democracy”. Of course, this would be a wonderful thing. But from where did Bolt’s confidence come?

Three months after Bolt wrote, the UN Development Program in Iraq reported that one quarter of children between six months and five years were malnourished; that 80% of rural households had unsafe water; that 85% had unreliable electricity supplies. If Herald Sun readers relied on Bolt for their knowledge of the world they might imagine that the poverty-stricken, tense and blood-soaked Iraq of today was actually only a short distance from becoming a kind of prosperous, peaceful, federal, secular, democratic Switzerland positioned in the Middle East.

Readers understand the newspaper they read every morning better than researchers relying on electronic printouts of old issues ever can. Of the Murdoch papers, the only one I read daily is The Australian. Although not monolithic on the question of Iraq – the cartoonists, many opinion pieces and Phillip Adams have been anti-war – the aggressive position it has taken in support of the Bush–Blair–Howard policy, both before and after the invasion, has been obvious. It has been shown through the unusually combative editorials, through the balance of its opinion page – even though the editor of that page, Tom Switzer, opposes the war on conservative-realist grounds – and, even more importantly, through the way the paper has consistently presented the news: through the headlines; through the positioning of articles; through the triumphalist or ludicrously optimistic judgments made at different moments in the conflict; through the reporters relied upon (at least until the arrival of a more realistic correspondent, Nicolas Rothwell, in the Middle East); through the issues that were fully covered and the issues that were largely or wholly ignored.

Murdoch’s insistence that all his newspapers support Bush’s foreign policy line has had profound party-political significance too. Between 2002 and 2004 harsh and frequently shrill criticism of the Labor Party was mounted throughout the Murdoch press. Hundreds of editorials and articles – many very intemperate – attacked both the former leader Simon Crean’s unwillingness to support an invasion of Iraq without UN sanction, and his successor Mark Latham’s promise to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas 2004. Even though public opinion was initially favourable towards Labor’s refusal to support an invasion of Iraq without UN sanction; even though the Howard government’s WMD justification turned out to be wholly fraudulent; even though post-invasion Iraq descended into an undeniably bloody chaos, the issue of Iraq, on balance and against all reason, remained a political asset for the Howard government and a liability for the Crean–Latham Labor opposition, largely because of the consistently pro-Bush and pro-Howard drumbeat of the Murdoch press.

Before last November’s federal election Iraq was barely discussed. No serious commentator claimed that the issue had damaged the Coalition. By contrast in Britain, in April and May 2005, Iraq remained a significant question throughout the UK election campaign. No serious commentator doubted that it had weakened Tony Blair. One plausible explanation for the difference is this. In Britain, Murdoch is a powerful force in the media; in Australia, he dominates the metropolitan press.

The Murdoch papers do not only influence their readers directly. They also help set the agenda each morning for one of the most potent forces in Australian politics – personality-driven commercial talkback radio. The Murdoch press, in short, now helps determine the way in which millions of Australians interpret their world. And not only that. In contemporary Australia, a political party disagreeing with News Corporation on certain issues of fundamental ideological or material importance to it – like the invasion of Iraq, or the US–Australia Free Trade Agreement, or the cross-media ownership laws – runs a very real, and perhaps unacceptable, political risk.

In both the UK and the US, Murdoch’s political and cultural influence is widely regarded by democrats as a matter of serious concern. Yet in neither of these countries have his newspapers or TV channels even remotely reached the near-monopoly position Australians have nonchalantly granted him with our mainstream press. Nor is it at all obvious that the limit of his ambition and influence in Australia has been reached. Now that the Howard government has control of the Senate it seems likely that Australia’s media laws will be re-written and the cross-media restrictions effectively removed. If so it is likely that, with the blessing of the government, Murdoch will add one of Australia’s three commercial TV networks to the newspaper chain he already owns. It is far from impossible that he will use that network in the same way he has used Fox News in the US – to push the political culture even further to the right.

The anti-democratic implication of all this is clear. Murdoch already has a stranglehold on the Australian press. As Iraq shows, on questions of interest to him he is willing to use his power. It is likely that in the near future he will increase his influence substantially once the cross-media regulations are removed. By this time he will be almost irresistible. And, in our present mood, we will hardly care.

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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