Obstacles to truth

Issue section: 
(322)

In his new book, Flat Earth News, award-winning journalist Nick Davies argues that the main threat to truth-telling journalism has moved from propagandist proprietors such as Lord Beaverbrook to the corporations and their commercial interests exemplified by business magnate Rupert Murdoch.

Rupert Murdoch is a highly successful businessman, a moderately competent journalist in his own right, and a brutal and unscrupulous bully. His interventions tend to come in three forms. First, and most important, he uses his media outlets to build alliances with politicians who, in return, will help him with his business. In his highly revealing biography, The Murdoch Archipelago, the former Sunday Times journalist Bruce Page goes back to January 1968 to provide an early and vivid example of how the man works. Murdoch then was still in the early stages of building his empire from his base in Adelaide and, in search of a political ally, he had started dealing with the deputy prime minister of Australia, "Black Jack" McEwen. In January 1968 Black Jack found himself at the centre of a crisis.

The prime minister, Harold Holt, had drowned while swimming from a beach near Melbourne. Black Jack was suddenly elevated to the post of acting prime minister. However, he knew he couldn't keep the job, because he led the Country Party, which was the minority partner in a coalition government. The bigger party, the Liberals, would choose a new leader on 9 January. The choice was between two men: John Gorton and Billy McMahon. Black Jack wanted Gorton, a weak boozer of a man. So he had to stop Billy McMahon.

Black Jack publicly declared that his Country Party would refuse to serve under Billy McMahon but mysteriously refused to explain why. Secretly, in his role as acting prime minister, he called in the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and urged him to investigate a close associate of Billy McMahon, named Max Newton. Black Jack claimed that Max Newton was a subversive, secretly working to sabotage the Australian economy on behalf of the Japanese. It was a lie, but the head of ASIO agreed to open a file and see what he could find. He found nothing. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the ASIO file was enough for Black Jack.

Four days before the leadership vote, on the evening of 5 January, as Bruce Page recounts, Black Jack called Rupert Murdoch to his suite in the Kurrajong Hotel in Canberra and handed him a dossier on Max Newton's supposed treachery on behalf of the Japanese. This was a double delight for the young media proprietor. It was not only a chance to do a favour for his political ally. It was also a chance to hurt Max Newton, who had formerly been one of Murdoch's editors and had made the bad mistake of publicly describing him as "a whippersnapper from Adelaide".

Later that evening Murdoch phoned Max Newton, and said simply, "This is the whippersnapper from Adelaide. I suggest you read my paper tomorrow." The paper was the Australian. The next day's story did everything that Black Jack McEwen had wanted, destroying the reputation of Max Newton and, with it, the chances of Billy McMahon winning the vote to become prime minister. The headline read "Why McEwen Vetoes McMahon: Foreign Agent Is The Man Between The Leaders". And it told the story of Max Newton, the supposed secret agent of Japanese subversion. It was entirely false, though it is always possible that Murdoch himself believed it. There was no reporter's byline on the story. It was the owner's own work, dictated by the politician who was his ally. Four days later, with the rest of the Australian media crawling all over Murdoch's exclusive, Billy McMahon lost the election, and, just as Black Jack wanted, John Gorton became prime minister.

A year later, in January 1969, Murdoch tried to make his first big move out of Australia, bidding to buy the News of the World in London. But he was trapped by Australian currency regulations, which prevented him exporting his money to Britain. Black Jack McEwen came to his rescue, summoning the servile John Gorton to his hotel suite to sign an authority which would allow Murdoch to get his cash out of the country. Gorton asked if he had any whisky. As McEwen later recalled, "The papers were signed. Rupert and I were out in the garden. Gorton went off with his scotch. Rupert went off to buy his newspaper."

This is how the man works. He uses his media outlets as tools to secure political favours, and he uses those political favours to advance his business. But his politics are never as big as his wallet. He collects politicians and then he dumps them, with profit as his guide. When he wanted the left wing Gough Whitlam to become prime minister of Australia, he abused the Australian to help him and then sought favours from Whitlam in return. Three years later, when he decided that the right wing Malcolm Fraser could do more for his business interests, he abused the Australian again with great crudeness to support the bloodless coup which ousted Whitlam.

It was the same in Britain. The late Woodrow Wyatt's diary, published in 1998, traces the long history of Murdoch's deal-making with the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, in which Wyatt was often the middleman. Wyatt records Mrs Thatcher, for example, in 1981, blocking the referral to the Monopolies and Merger Commission which could have stopped Murdoch buying the Times and the Sunday Times. The Murdoch papers then gave the beleagured prime minister an easy ride during the crisis over the sale of Westland helicopters, which threatened to end her career. And, as Wyatt goes on to describe, Murdoch performed a classic body swerve when he saw John Major's Conservatives running out of electoral juice: he dumped them and made a new ally out of Tony Blair. (Wyatt wept into his diary: "Rupert has behaved like a swine and a pig.")

As a second form of interference, these new corporate owners will impose a political framework on their outlets, but this is much looser than the political control of their propagandist predecessors. Taking Murdoch again as an example: he has a history of complaining when his newspapers are too sympathetic to commies, poofters and blacks, but this knee-jerk ideology falls a long way short of a coherent political programme - and it is always less important than the commerce. After 11 years of working for him, Andrew Neil concluded, "He is much more right wing than is generally thought but will curb his ideology for commercial reasons... He will always moderate his political fundamentalism if its suits his business."

When he first bought the Sun in November 1969, Murdoch understood that its readers were unionised working class men, and so he imposed a relatively left wing framework on it, supporting Labour and running left wing leader lines, for example attacking the Vietnam War, racism and capital punishment. As the Sun's market changed, he started pushing the framework to the right. In his book, Good Times Bad Times, Harry Evans describes how, as Murdoch's first editor at the Times in the early 1980s, he endured a long campaign of bad-mouthing and internal manoeuvring from his new proprietor which was aimed at bringing him under financial and editorial control, but also at imposing a right wing political agenda on the paper. Evans went; his successor, Charles Douglas-Home, toed the Tory line; and then the line changed, and the paper moved in behind the Blair government.

Interference

Occasionally this generation of corporate owners will go beyond imposing a rough framework and will directly interfere in specific political coverage, usually at times of heightened political tension - in the run-up to national elections or when some other defining political issue is on the horizon, such as the invasion of Iraq which was supported by Murdoch outlets across the planet.

One striking recent example in Britain has been Rupert Murdoch's role in diverting the Blair government away from its support for joining the European currency and for signing up to the European constitution. This has involved a mixture of relentless campaigning by Murdoch titles and direct (and secret) meetings between Murdoch and Tony Blair. And in the US, Murdoch's political framework and his favour-trading with powerful politicians have united in the slavishly pro-Republican performance of his Fox News TV channel. Courtesy of Outfoxed, a documentary directed by Robert Greenwald, we know about the daily memos circulated to staff by Fox's vice-president for news, John Moody, laying out editorial lines in support of the Bush administration. A sample memo instructed Fox staff to note the president's "political courage and tactical cunning... in our reporting throughout the day".

And yet Murdoch will turn a blind eye while his newspapers boost their circulation by embarrassing his political allies - unless the threat becomes too great. Andrew Neil says that Murdoch did nothing, for example, when the Sunday Times infuriated Margaret Thatcher by exposing her dislike for the queen and also by conning its way into her son's bank account, but, when she was directly threatened by Michael Heseltine's challenge to her leadership in 1990, Murdoch intervened to protect her (and Neil refused to comply).

Finally, the new corporate owners will also interfere aggressively if one of their outlets trespasses on their other business interests, but generally it has to be a direct threat before they do so. For example, Murdoch allowed the Sunday Times to contradict his line that the BBC licence fee should be abolished, even though he has a commercial interest in doing so. But, when the Sunday Times, in January 1994, attacked the government of Malaysia over corruption in the Pergau Dam project, he saw a direct threat to his Asian satellite TV business, Star; told Andrew Neil to stop "this Malaysian business"; and soon afterwards removed Neil from the paper.

All this intervention is deeply damaging behaviour - the truth being traded for political favour and commercial advantage. This matters. I don't want to diminish the scale or the wrongness of this kind of activity by proprietors. But it is essential to recognise that interference by owners falls a long way short of explaining the consistent pattern of media failure across so many stories, big and small.

The important point here is that, as the new owners of the mass media have shifted their priority from propaganda to commerce, that shift itself has introduced a whole new set of obstacles for truth-telling journalism. In an imaginary world we might remove Rupert Murdoch and all his influence on all his outlets. We could replace him with Rupert Bear: the Murdoch newspapers and television stations would continue to pump out falsehood, distortion and propaganda.


Nick Davies has been named Journalist of the Year, Reporter of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year for his investigations into crime, drugs, poverty and other social issues. His book Flat Earth News is published by Chatto & Windus, £17.99. You can read a review of the book here.