There are about 175 titles in the worldwide News Corp. system, and when Professor Roy Greenslade of City University London made a detailed survey in February 2003, he could not find one News Corp. paper that expressed doubt about the imminent war, or questioned Washington’s gung-ho prognosis. And this is something curious to see in democratic nations. Put a major issue to media professionals, and normally there will be disagreement, often strenuous—it is in fact their job. Not in News Corp. All Greenslade found within the company was a very slight muting of the ferocious tone of the company’s U.S. and British assets in Australia and New Zealand (where opposition to the war was as high as 75%, among people not poor in military virtue).
That so many editors should be of a mind astounded Greenslade, and he wanted to discuss it with them. But none of his calls were returned.
And Murdoch’s unanimous journalists saw little honor in anyone who wasn’t in full support of the war: such people were “wobblers,” “weasels,” “appeasers,” and “traitors.” One Times expert thought U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix was betraying the world, and, as the headline put it, he should “turn the smoking gun to his own head” when the weapons inevitably turned up.
News Corp.’s great sychronized display may be forgotten. But Murdoch’s spokesmen of serious journalism, such as Robert Thomson of The Times surely ought to explain the mechanism before The Wall Street Journal joins the system which produced it. We are told it’s not a system of censorship or interference. Can any paper that took part be described as editorially independent in any meaningful way? And perhaps the lawyers trying to produce a separate constitution for the Journal need help: how can they create safeguards against a collective process that hasn’t been explained? (To remind them: under democracy, the diversity of news media is no more a luxury than is academic freedom or rule of law itself.)
Today’s context is a complex one in which to sum up the impact of Murdoch’s Journal bid. Since the launch of the War on Terror, American, British, and Australian news media have been subject to massive official spin campaigns, and only two or three outfits have been tough enough to keep their vision consistently clear.
And we are in a situation in which the newspaper business model is changing—disintegrating, some say, as online culture expands. Yet the newspaper and its derivatives in high-quality television are still our only practical model of an organization capable of criticizing society’s daily processes (the university, no less necessary, works on a slower schedule).
“Organization” may be the key word: a newspaper is a diverse group of people, not necessarily large, with a shared awareness of techniques, moral principles, successes and failures—all of which enables them on occasion to uncover necessary truths. The concept is not necessarily confined to any particular technology.
But it is linked to the history of a few great newspapers, The Wall Street Journal being a prime example. The argument for Murdoch’s qualification to control the Journal seems to be predicated on his stewardship of another great newspaper, The Times.
But The Times is only the ghost of a great newspaper, which died decades ago, and which has not come back to life after a quarter century in Murdoch’s hands. It did try to revive itself, under a great editor, just after he bought it. And as we’ve seen it that was quickly suppressed, for fear of offending the politicians in power. (A similar reflex showed itself when the Australian showed signs of greatness.) There is a good case for arguing that the remnants of The Times’s soul migrated to the Independent in 1986. But that paper has had a very hard time competing against a multi-sectioned, low-price Times, which is permitted to lose as much as $40 million a year (not noticeable money to News Corp.). Still, The Independent survives, and probably no paper in the world has done better for its readers when it comes to stripping off the propaganda surrounding the War on Terror.
During its period in clear Murdoch control, The Times has managed various extended periods of tolerable mediocrity. But it has been distinguished only for disgraceful episodes––kowtowing to Downing Street and Beijing, and joining the witless WMD consensus. Sometimes its performance has been simply weird, as when in 1999 it accused the Tory Party treasurer of massive tax evasion, only to apologize in a deal that was put together by Murdoch in person.