Essay

Delusion without variation

RUPERT MURDOCH, HIS father, Keith – and in prospect his sons – are best understood as freelance official propagandists. This is the central argument of my book The Murdoch Archipelago (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Like the condottieri who undermined the Italian republics, they serve whatever authority offers suitable concessions. Every media enterprise has such qualities in part. Only in Newscorp do they predominate. While this business model remains a peculiarity, we may escape the Florentines' fate. But Murdoch expansion will not undergo voluntary restraint.

My deadline for the book that documents this essence of the Murdoch clan fell before the Iraq invasion, but already it was clear that Newscorp's role in the crusade fitted a pattern traceable back to Keith Murdoch, across various wars. Now we can add to the story fresh evidence about the interaction of media, intelligence agencies and elected politicians: this shows democracy rotting in its homelands as – substantially because – our governments pretend to export it by force. In Britain's especially acute case, general election turnout may fall below 50 per cent, and we hear panicky talk about legitimacy. A crackpot war on terror (WOT) isn't alone responsible. But it intensifies a morbidity too well-established.

The cause for this rot would exist without the Murdochs – I will suggest – but they are particularly qualified to feed on and extend it. Newscorp war-propaganda is an authoritarian excess, genuinely dangerous to civilisation.

 

THIS ISN'T A tract against war – not even against Iraq wars that could have been fought, and may yet be required. Confronting tyranny is sometimes indispensable: Milosevic surely couldn't have been left minding his own ethnic business. But Gulf War II – for all its honourable advocates – is mortal buffoonery. The complaint is against fraudulent war: against shooting the pianist because the horns play flat; against letting government hypnotise itself with clandestine intelligence. Centrally, it's against media supercharging official hallucinations while excusing themselves from the investigations that justify their existence.

Contempt is quite widespread among journalists for the Murdoch posse's visibly foam-flecked steeds, such as the New York Post, The Sun and the News of the World. Fox News – televising Iraq roughly as the Peking Daily covers Tibet – amused many when it tried to stop Al Franken using its "Fair and Balanced" logo to subtitle Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (Dutton, 2003). Fox's lawsuit merely pushed Franken's account of wild unbalance further into bestseller territory.

But some respect persists for broadsheet assets like The Australian or The Times and Sunday Times in London: easier to see as normal newspapers, not propaganda sheets. Like Damon Runyon's faro player, professional journalists hate to admit the fixers may be in at the biggest game in town. "Normal" is the clue: journalism's real concern isn't with normality. Lots of it occurs in serious media, but only because seriousness recognises that real worlds are generally orderly and gross disruption rare.

Tabloidism demands permanent eventfulness, so wild inflation is its typical sin. Serious media sin by supposing rare means non-existent: the test for them therefore is the response to abnormality. What they do between-times is insignificant.

 

DEMOCRACY'S SUPREME ABNORMALITY is fraud in matters of war, and until 2002, there were two true cases: Suez, 1956; the Tonkin Gulf, 1964. Charges may be laid about 1914 – about Korea or the Falklands – but those conflicts weren't principally spurious. Papers like The Times or The Australian can look quite real while the issues aren't so stark. But the new century's media benchmark is performance in the third great fraud in the matter of war, where weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and WOT intertwine.

Not everyone failing to denounce the combination is guilty equally with the perpetrators – whose offences anyway aren't uniform. Expertise, opportunity and motivation form a subtle context. But subtle isn't the word for War Prospectus Part I – the September 2002 Dossier (Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government, The Stationery Office www.official-documents.co.uk) concocted by Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee, bristling with antique sophistries and factoid science apt to raise goose pimples, not understanding. Discussing aflatoxins, while ignoring the weaponisation problems that have rendered their military role trivial, is like discussing the tiger snake's lethality without allowing that more lives are lost falling off horses. Such a document needed to show how a regime struggling to maintain orthodox armaments could surpass the cutting edge in several arcane technologies. It didn't try.

Its professed business was validating the intelligence used to refute Iraqi weaponry denials – and it proceeded by assuming the truth of the matters at issue. Realities of bio-weaponry, remote-control WMD aircraft and ballistic missiles the authors claimed simply to "know from intelligence": circularity notorious when Aristotle compiled the Sophistical Refutations.

Saddam Hussein was, of course, a famous liar. But coming after introductory hype worthy of the 1962 Cuban missile images, the dossier proved only that the British Government wanted Iraq to seem a terrifying international threat, and would pump up any evidence available. The scope was startling but not the method: although intelligence agencies have good people at various levels, their high-level performance is commonly shaped by political wish-lists.

Today, Newscorp's apologists assert that in 2002 everyone – French, Russians, Germans – believed in Iraqi weapons, and it's quasi-true. We were all wrong about an extraordinary fact: that Hussein was speaking the truth. But insistence on danger sufficient to justify pre-emption was the exotic fancy of a powerful few and their hangers-on. Prima facie, this pointed towards fraudulent war fever, which should fire the investigative reflex in any media outfit with a claim to be serious (or with any institutional memory). Certainly there could be no competent response less than deep institutional caution about the symptoms. By comparison: a doctor failing to identify meningitis may be competent. A hospital, however, that rules that all feverish headaches signify malingering is clearly mischievous. This is the comparison Newscorp's attitude to WMD diagnosis invites.

 

MORE CONTEXT: THE best of us news-people bend somewhat to authority. Even lawful governments are poor investigators, but all are potent sponsors of delusion. Prospectus II – America's WMD presentation to the United Nations – would have drawn ribaldry had the subject been talking horses and its spokesman a circus barker: still, many found Secretary of State Colin Powell's portfolio of speculative artworks "convincing". Judith Miller, a New York Times veteran, defending recitals of WMD "facts", said that as an investigative reporter: "My job isn't to assess the Government's information ... My job is to tell readers ... what the Government thought about Iraq's arsenal."

Fearful times favour this conduit theory of reportage. Notoriously, Appeasement's editorial aspect involvedThe Times, but Richard Cockett in Twilight of the Truth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989) showed that most British accounts of Munich were corrupted by official notions of resistance to Hitler as suicidal – based on spurious intelligence about Nazi weapons of mass destruction. Still, certain individuals and newspapers – theDaily Mirror, the (Manchester) Guardian – resisted. And hindsight shows the variation was just enough for the people to see clearer than their prime minister.

Variation still exists today. The Independent made the brave negative call and exposed Blair's dossier as twaddle; The Guardian was sceptical; the Daily Mail dubious. The New York Times and the United States media mainstream – though shocked more deeply by 9/11 – apply growing scepticism to the neocon war. Indeed, the NYT has made detailed and precise apology for WMD reporting errors: something we have yet to hear from the statespersons whose fantasies gave them origin.

Simply, editorial under-performance will last for some time when an icon like Powell so pitches things that doubt seems to require giving him the lie. "This is not just an academic exercise," he said in February 2002. "We are talking about real weapons ... We're talking about nuclear weapons programs."

But in Murdoch's archipelago they don't do variation. Hyping the WOT, Newscorp didn't under-perform according to its standards. The great thing, said Col Allen, editor of the New York Post, was to avoid readers being "confused" – to which end Newscorp has striven hard.

Take an instance from the quality end: The Times in March 2003 as the US and United Kingdom frantically sought evidence to swing a UN vote for war. Hans Blix's inspectors uncover a drone aircraft in Iraq, but judge it insignificant. US officials disagree: it might well deliver WMD freight against America. On March 9, Fox News carries Powell's assertion that Blix, though a "decent, honest man", has minimised the drone. Next day, the State Department falsely adds that he has wholly hidden it.

James Bone of The Times reports this as suppression intended "to avoid triggering war". But the vote, he says, is shifting nonetheless. Here, just in time, is the "smoking gun" – "a biggie". Britain and America will make Blix confess, and get the vote. And he follows-up with a startling op-ed: "Blix should turn the 'smoking gun' on his own head". Having "betrayed the trust of ... millions", the inspector must quit. Afraid to be "the man who triggers war", he is tricking the Security Council. In "the history of this tumultuous time – Dr Blix will be the man who tried to hide the 'smoking gun' ..." While Bone pumps up Washington's propaganda, reporters inspect the actual item in Baghdad: balsawood wings; motorbike engine; eight-kilometre range; payload, one video-cam. No smoking gun, just smoke and mirrors. The vote falsified Bone's prophecy.

 

WORLD WAR I began about a decade after the appearance of "commercial professional" newspapers – to use Michael Schudson's American-made concept (The Power of News, Harvard University Press, 1995). The original and a baneful variant – the "commercial-political" paper, Murdoch's product – are conspicuous in Australian history. But Rupert's invasion of the UK – his decisive break – encountered a less professionalised industry, rich in feral populism.

Schudson never says big-city papers a century ago emulated the Athenian democracy in Euripides. But he demonstrates a break from the 19th century, when the ethic of hired Augustan pamphleteers took industrial form in the "yellow press" – making Joseph Pulitzer's fortune, while disturbing his social conscience. And not just Pulitzer's. The fear of mass democracy served by a propagandist news industry generated reformist ideas, and they centred on ideas of independence: reporting independent of political stance and state authority; editorial and commercial management as independent responsibilities. Professional education was part of this – Pulitzer's Columbia Graduate Journalism School, for instance – and in Australia, A.N. Smith's concept of non-partisan analysis. It was a limited model, doubtless – rarely rising even to its limits. But combined with competitive parties supporting roughly consonant law, it may be humanity's least-worst synthesis. Where it persists, authority does not morph to authoritarianism.

Though The Times was its prototype, the commercial-professional model had restricted British success, chiefly because a literate franchise grew slowly by American – still more Australian – comparison, and "quality" newspapers viewed its belated arrival with elitist disdain. Mass readership was left to Northcliffe, who – unlike the contrite Pulitzer and unlike Theodore Fink at the Melbourne Herald – was an incorrigible propagandist and enemy to professional independence.

Northcliffe's legacy persists for multiple reasons. First, accepting responsibility gives journalism – rightly, but alone among professions – no compensating power over reckless competitors. Max Weber was unsurprised journalists should therefore be insecure enough to surrender judgement to corporate authority: only that some might refuse and some bosses not insist. It was in Lord Northcliffe's old territory that Newscorp found, half a century later, reservoirs of populist aptitude actually eager to surrender. Kelvin MacKenzie, the ideal Murdoch editor, always said The Sun and he were at the disposal of The Boss for any purpose he might decree. And the essential in commercial-political media assets is to be disposable – as allegiance is disposed of or acquired.

Second, there is war's long shadow. Independence was still growing up when, in 1914, nationalist furies engulfed newspapers and readers. Resisting the official illusions of "total war" was something reporters found often impossible. And though much has been regained since that "golden age of lying" – mostly in 1939-45 – notions persist that the state in distress is owed some duty of untruth.

Keith Murdoch is significant because – mythology aside – he didn't resist at all. He was a military-political official under journalistic cover. Post-Gallipoli, the Australian Infantry Force entered the Western Front killing machine, of which Murdoch was a ruthless advocate. His illusions were not of course unique: simply derived from Northcliffe and Billy Hughes, the most powerful figures visible to him.

Sir Keith's project in the next war was ill-fated, but in 1940 he briefly outdid Northcliffe, simultaneously commanding the official information machine – Menzies' gift, bringing total censorship powers – and the corporate assets of his own Herald group. Fink's last project was undoing the Menzies appointment: an identity between state power and media business he regarded as aims of the authoritarian enemy.

Australia's past being obscure to the British, they were startled when The Sun and News of the World joined the Falklands War as blunt instruments of government propaganda. Newscorp's campaign surpassed anything Margaret Thatcher did for herself: notably the claim, made in simian earnest, that questioning official statements could count as treason. But nobody familiar with Keith Murdoch's example could be surprised.

 

WE MUSTN'T SUPPOSE NewsCorp can do war quite in Francesco Sforza's practised way.Condottieri ("condotta" = contract) expected clear gains from their continuous battles, but Iraq so far has done little for its backers – Rupert, for instance, hoped oil would fall to $20, not rise to $40. It resembles a caper Sforza or the White Company would have turned down. However, Newscorp does its regular business within today's peacetime state – a structure that would have entirely amazed Francesco.

There, Newscorp maintains a congenial environment via accommodations with power that rivals cannot or will not emulate. Identifying power is the ongoing requirement and peace allows time for allegiances to be juggled and understandings developed rather than contracts. Power is usually a government. But decayed or immature specimens must be avoided and the manoeuvres involved sometimes land Newscorp in a scrape.

No choice exists over Iraq. Actors in the rare drama of taking the modern state to war obviously command its present power – and have Newscorp at their service. It cannot turn them down.

Under democracy, newspapers and broadcasters can seek to maintain wartime independence. But it is the supreme test of their qualities, for power at risk of its existence lusts for support and fiercely loathes dissent. Those who have practised the necessary arts in peacetime may hope to succeed, but the Murdochs never have, and can only denounce the attempt as treachery. They are survivors from journalism's prehistory, no less dangerous for that, but perhaps a danger to themselves. For without a triumphant conclusion to the war, they may be in their most threatening scrape.

Newscorp's stock-in-trade is being monolithic, and at disposal. What impresses politicians is that Murdoch delivers. But while Western society retains pluralist qualities, so large an organisation inevitably has a few contributors or employees with minds or reputations of their own. Some, like The Times columnist Simon Jenkins, have attacked the war all along – and such scattered instances look well enough. But others are now seeking exits, needing to save what honour and credit they can. If the monolith disintegrates over Iraq, repair will not be easy.

The US weapons-hunter David Kay, saying it's essential to "come clean" about intelligence failures (his own included) adds: "We have a history of usually ending up on the right side of wars for the wrong reason." If "we" means the Western democracies, it's true that the last century's hot and cold wars were survived: no small achievement in the presence of Mao, Hitler and Stalin, truly titanic monsters. But it was a halting, bloody progress, rich in self-inflicted wounds. Surveying the Cold War in Secrecy: the American Experience(Yale University Press, 1998), Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan guessed that his country did itself more damage than everything Soviet malice could inflict.

Disaster's origin, repeatedly, has been government imposing on electorates gross fantasies, concocted to political taste by secret departments and propagated by media dysfunction. This record – from Appeasement through Vietnam, Ireland, Iraq – illuminates the WOT. And light is needed, for Bush & Associates, by promoting spurious dangers, are creating very real ones. Democracy is a learning process and its decay is still far from irreversible: as an example, which Rumsfeld rhetoric should not drown out, US infantry officers today don't always share the faith in mass destruction of those officers from the Vietnam era. But authority's clandestine side doesn't learn: regularly, (in Kipling's words) "The burnt Fool's bandaged finger/goes wobbling back to the Fire".

 

DELUSION INFECTS GOVERNMENT because the quality of contentious data varies inversely with the proximity of source to issue. This works through into spook craft as "double-agent" mystique, and into journalism as the creed of "inside sources". General Frank Kitson explained with classic brevity in Low Intensity Operations (Faber and Faber, 1971) that whatever time and treasure goes into suborning the general secretary of the Malayan Communist Party, more will always go into considering which side that person's really on.

Investigation must gain a coherent grasp of low-intensity data before chasing (if at all) small quantities of high-intensity stuff. Chief spooks habitually ignore this unglamorous principle, as its output isn't easily tailored to political patronage. Journalists habitually confuse themselves with "sources close to the prime minister" – who inhabit emotional force-fields so fierce that they cannot tell truth to themselves, let alone others.

Kitson's Rule doesn't restrict inquiry's scope. In my own investigative experience, exposés of the Philby or thalidomide type owed little to "inside sources". (Unhappily, Watergate is mythologised as an inside job: in fact Deep Throat was only part of it.) Authority suffers insider-effect particularly because it can usually get close to sources, but rarely in objective conditions: social fabric bends around political mass just as space-time bends around physical mass to produce gravitation. And secrecy intensifies this: a curse government endures as addicts endure a habit – happily.

Moynihan first described a general dynamic: secrecy expands because more complex societies create more potential secrets, and though they try – even seriously – to open up, there is net occlusion, because attempts so far have been inadequately radical. Rhetoric of disclosure then interacts with a reality of concealment to generate distrust, and from that apathy – a syndrome that corrupts democracies increasingly as their electorates grow in education. Politicians then are isolated in command of a state unable to interact with its citizens and for this predicament the tabloid publisher makes a quack remedy available.

Service on the Senate Intelligence Committee enabled Moynihan to analyse this syndrome's ultimate manifestation – in clandestine departments, where scrutiny is finessed by invoking material immune from scrutiny. His initial instance is the CIA's claim that its Bay of Pigs "liberation" would receive a joyous Cuban welcome. Only secret evidence agreed, and all open material correctly said the reverse. Other examples show how the fear that "they know something we don't" inhibits the negative call – personally, I needed several brushes with spooks to realise that the secret mask usually conceals a void.

The bezazz content of the British dossier wasn't in the low-level facts – many genuine, however twisted the frame. Transformation occurred in the space where mandarin spooks interact with politicians and media advisers. Though specially dangerous now, this is an ancient place, which in Ovid's pioneer account of transformation (Metamorphoses) occupies a peculiar dimension, enabling things everywhere to be "scanned and watched" by its inhabitants. But the chief of these is Rumour, occupying a house "open night and day ... with a thousand apertures and never a door", where confused, half-understood tales change shape.

Here is Credulity, here reckless Error,
Groundless Delight, Whispers of unknown source,
Sudden Sedition, overwhelming Fears.

Ovid didn't attach any greater velocity to outputs than inputs. Today, however, overwhelming fears may be broadcast instantaneously, followed swiftly by the "pre-emptive" war they justify. The notorious 45-minute missile claim deserved at most an F6 grade, the term of art equivalent to the Iraqi source's later, artless estimate: "a crock of shit". It was inconsistent with most of the dossier and still more with military estimates that deploying a tank squadron in 45 minutes would challenge the Iraqis.

Dr Brian Jones, former head of British Defence Intelligence Analysis Staff and boss of the late Dr David Kelly – resisted the inclusion of this tosh. He was (his word) "finessed": told that confirmation existed too secret for his expert ears. (The Observer has since reported it was brought to Tony Blair by the top-banana spook, Sir John Dearlove, then head of MI6.) Jones joined a parade of victims. In the opposite direction, the British Government was misled over Hitler by its secret sources: the spooks (rather admiring Adolf) underplayed his evil and overplayed his politico-military capacity. Expert aviators sceptical of a Luftwaffe "knock-out blow" were ignored: Appeasement then potentiated Nazism by delaying resistance while Hitler's "triumphs" gave him ascendancy over a once-sceptical Wehrmacht. Beware how you interpret the world, philosopher Erich Heller told his students. It might turn into that.

A gift for penetrating complexity is widespread in humans – but coexists with hallucination. A celebrated study tells us that if a gorilla enters a room while people are playing some intricate game, half of those watching won't see it (often denying their failure). Physical science is far our greatest success in moderating perception's eccentricities, and it works by combining free personal intuition with seamless collective oversight. Secrecy being eliminated, critical feedback cuts down error. Though wildly implausible – and capable of real mass destruction – no discoveries of recent physics turn out just to be blunders.

Most of us, probably, have heard demonstrations of the alternative model – positive feedback. When audio systems loop their outputs into each other, an insane howl results. Clandestine finessing provides similar feedback: error multiplies and additional loops power up when media recycle the Government's hallucinations back to it. The notorious line about the smoking gun as a mushroom cloud was fed to the US media by some Bush spinmeister: politicians then quoted the media, and media – Newscorp con brio – quoted them back to themselves. Polishing their account of Saddam's monstrous weapons, members of the Blair team asked themselves: "What do we want the headlines to say?" Traitors might sneer, but The Sun was right there for them.

 

SECRET EVIDENCE MAY be plausible for reasons little connected with its content, and its uses or disuses may be arbitrary. It was easy for the Appeasers to assume the Nazis nurtured vast plans for aerial destruction, because they certainly did so themselves. The CIA's secret inflation of Soviet economic progress gained credit because it made a neat fit with political notions peddled by strategists like Fritz Kraemer and Henry Kissinger. Tony Blair needed reasons to keep riding with a posse he seemingly joined without much study of the sheriff's character. In secrecy, officials can obligingly hitch arbitrary stars to any wagon needing traction. Obstructive realists, such as Andrew Wilkie, may need to get other work. But John Scarlett, chief "dossiersmith", becomes head of MI6.

Vietnam provides the arch instance because the media interaction is so clear, the original intelligence so exact – and policy outcomes arbitrary to perfection. Operational US officers knew Vietnamese nationalism was probably invincible and certainly immune to Soviet or Chinese control. Daniel Ellsberg's memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Viking, 2002), reveals just how smart Washington officials (himself included) made "morons" of themselves, by interring truth under skyscraping lies about victory over "domino effects". These they fed to accommodating journalists with a kind of glee. Their project owed little to concrete Indo-China, much to abstract Cold War accounting – and caused Vietnamese mortality equivalent to a 10 million deathroll for America.

When, finally, the US media revealed the fraud, savage defence of power's right to lie produced the Watergate crisis. It may seem hard to blame Newscorp – seemingly neophyte in world affairs – for aloofness from this battle, where non-American journalists often felt constrained to help. But a culture founded by Sir Keith can't be neophyte. Furthermore, Newscorp and Rupert had their peculiar response to Watergate. It inspired Fox's cultish asset The X-Files. This is the word from X-Files' creator Chris Carter, gratefully celebrating The Boss's participation as effectively a co-author. The Washington Post, risking its survival, exposed a vicious but limited conspiracy within the US political system, and evoked salutary (if incomplete) feedback: what this inspired in Fox was total dottiness. Carter says – assuring us Rupert was with him all the way – that the Post's work demonstrated universal conspiracy, in a world full of hidden evil.

Such cultural junk food would make better light relief had Newscorp any track record against actual conspiracies: it hasn't. Rather, it's peculiarly qualified to aid them because of The Boss's gullibility. Shortly before Murdoch's system devoted itself to WMD fantasies, Sigmund Freud's grandson Matthew (husband of Elisabeth Murdoch) revealed in Vanity Fair that his father-in-law believed the stuff in his own papers. The psychoanalyst's descendant perhaps wasn't surprised. But Britain's master PR man plainly was.

Credulousness enables Rupert to plug the "General War on Terror" terrorism as eagerly as Sir Keith plugged the conscription-fed meat grinder of an older superpower. Strange irony that Australia, which despite Keith Murdoch, was the sole combatant to reject conscription – and whose volunteers finally broke the trench-war deadlock – ever supposed him to represent its rebellious spirit. That notion has vanished from serious history: would it survive anywhere without the Murdoch presence in popular culture?

Newscorp displayed its essence in The Sun during the second half of 2002, when the Blair team feared the public and Parliament would jack up and unhorse their posse. Like Howard in Australia, members of the team thought a decision, once whipped through, would gather assent – for democracy allows its leaders an overdraft on loyalty once shooting begins. But hard whipping was needed and months before the September dossier, The Sun was asserting the grand menace of Saddam and his al-Qaeda allies – assertions, once more, which only traitors could doubt.

Any one edition distils a monomaniac flavour, but it's diluted somewhat by continuous study: Bum Week, for starters, fell in this period, celebrating the paper's parted-buttock fixation. It's not that amusement eclipsed calls to duty – particularly against chattering-class attitudes – as on August 16, 2002: "The Number One item on the world's agenda should not be global warming, rainforests or saving the whale."

But not Saddam either, momentarily. Rather, the "terrible cancer of child pornography and pedophilia, the sickness at the heart of society". Summon an Earth Summit pronto. Parliament and law must "wake up to the terrible peril that is all around us ... even in the quiet lanes of Cambridgeshire horrible monsters lurk ..." There was, The Sun suggested, "a pedophile on every street in Britain".

The death of two brilliant little girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, occasioned this, and The Sun saw in it something far beyond piteous local tragedy. It was a symptom of pandemic pedophile murder – now spreading across the internet, threatening every family in Britain and in the civilised world. Problems of electronic pedophilia are indeed global – if not number one in any sane list – but the Soham case lacked any internet connection. Overall, The Sun's tocsin was indecently phoney and its pandemic spectral. Britain has had for some time a falling incidence of child murder, in which pedophile cases are a small subset. Certain threats one can't bear to call "trivial". But the only way Iraq's armaments constituted a world menace was by comparison with The Sun's pedophile battalions.

A Sun defence might say getting the WMD truth was not easy. Perhaps. But two phone calls will reveal the basic facts of child murder to anyone really wanting them.

Actually, pedophilia was just one of the nightmares The Sun peddled in this period – along with powerline emissions, mobile-phone masts, mystery drugs and diseases. Though worse, allegedly, than Hitler, Saddam Hussein had to jostle somewhat for space. So far from a shrewdly wrought device, this central Newscorp asset is almost devoid of editorial criteria: an omnivore system into which junk can be shovelled indifferently, part-digested, and sprayed from the other end. The war dossier was just one item of throughput, receiving no editorial attention beyond stripping out all mild official equivocations.

Why would anyone take the product seriously? How can it matter to peace and war? The answers are: few people do take it seriously; but in present political conditions, the decision makers are among them. It is a myth that the media are generally distrusted. For serious newspapers and major broadcasters the reverse is true. But only some 14 per cent of people trust papers like The Sun, about the same score as for government ministers. The WOT case shows quite starkly the relationship of office-holder to political-commercial tabloid: when interests are aligned, the politician's propaganda passes through with no obstruction from independent judgement.

Nobody observing the Blair Administration doubted that in its drive to war, Murdoch's papers provided essential reinforcement. In the end, just enough momentum was raised to produce a Westminster majority. Dramatist Bertolt Brecht spoke of an East German government "dissolving the people and electing another". Here we might say the government dissolved the people and elected The Sun. More prosaically: the Newscorp papers, with the tabloids baying and the broadsheets in silent support mode – that is, maintaining investigative inaction in the presence of massive fraud by officials in Washington, London and Canberra – provided an illusion of public acquiescence in the war program.

 

CIVILISATION SURVIVES BY its capacity to identify and solve new problems. Governments will always be bad at this – at spotting the gorilla – but only irredeemably so if the systems by which they communicate with people become mechanisms for amplifying nonsense. John Milton, studying the modern state in its infancy, wrote:

This I know, that errors in a good government and in a bad are
equally almost incident; for what magistrate may not be
misinformed, and much the sooner, if liberty of printing be
reduced into the power of a few?

Milton reminds us that we have no knowledge that isn't provisional and uncertain: it must be refined continuously through dialogue if it's to provide a basis for action. However penetrating and seasoned our intuitions, they can't certainly show which enemies must be dealt with now, and which should wait. All we have is process, which if practised honestly may get us into the right war for the wrong reasons, or the wrong war for the right reasons: Kay is right to suggest these outcomes are not very different and either may be survivable. Process is destroyed when the media simply echo the obsessions of the elite and, as in the present case, have helped to get us into the wrong war for the wrong reasons.

Not many more such errors will be needed to destroy us.

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