Murdoch immediately set out to “make peace with the Chinese government,” as he told Forbes magazine. His most notorious gesture was dumping the BBC’s high-quality World Service Television channel—which drew Western criticism because it gave Beijing censorship powers over free audiences in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Murdoch apparently empathised with official Chinese dislike of the World Service. Its references to the Tiananmen massacres of 1989 were “driving them nuts.” Perhaps his most astonishing conciliation was putting $5.4 million into People’s Daily, the centerpiece of Beijing’s vast system thought-control system. To many, this was humiliation, but not to Murdoch. He called his earlier libertarian rhetoric “standard clichés” (which hasn’t stopped him recycling it subsequently) and said authoritarianism possibly wasn’t all bad.
What this shows is a Murdoch attitude toward governments that is essentially the same whether they are democratic or authoritarian. If possible they will be seduced or bullied. If not, the recourse is obedience. Lacking dominance, News Corp. truckles.
And for a democratic government no worse disservice exists. Most politicians and journalists know this—uneasily, because honest but critical interaction is mutually arduous. In the crucible politicians inhabit, particularly during an emergency, loyal critics in news media are an indispensable link in self-correcting processes. Implicitly the Constitution says so, but it hardly suggests it can be easy for anyone concerned (or that “critical” equals “correct”).
An alternative view is that in war and kindred cases the media must support national leaders without questions that weary the homeland and refresh enemies. That idea has numerous supporters (who often think it will guarantee victory). As a first general point, they are very far from a democratic majority. Second, News Corp. is the particular here, and a glance at Fox News shows it already offers what that persuasion wants. The question is whether it can also match the American way as normally defined.
Murdoch knows China hurts him, for there was other appeasement: a book by Chris Patten, Britain’s last Hong Kong proconsul, cancelled; also curious gaps in coverage by The Times. It helps to have Robert Thomson saying he hasn’t been censored since his appointment in 2002. The proposition is that Rupert is reformed, and that News Corp. has been clean for several years. Against this, the adverse record is very long, and so far from improving in retrospect, it develops new blemishes. The Wyatt diaries in Britain and the Scorpion files in Australia only appeared after decades of amnesia, to show that what had been known was barely the half of it.
And what we know about Iraq is already bad enough.
Properly, the politics of the War on Terror are distinct from the issues of editorial practice we are discuussing here. But readers may prefer to know the basic stance of anyone claiming to separate journalism from propaganda. To my mind, invading Afghanistan was a fitting response to Taliban complicity in 9/11. Risk was high, but the aim of a stable, even prospering Afghanistan seemed not impossible given long concentrated effort. Iraq was a reversal: the primary justifications—the bizarre weapons, the 9/11 involvement—were plainly spurious; the corollary—prompt replacement of dictatorship with democracy—utopian.
Many honest and varied views exist. But increasingly it’s common ground that Coalition actions have been built on group-illusion, and dressed in vain propaganda. And that news media, alarmingly, meekly retailed that stuff. Consequently, public anger and disarray run deep; a recent, detailed study on this topic by Professor W. Lance Bennett of the University of Washington, When The Press Fails, makes grim reading for any serious journalist.
But as Professor Bennett says, his team isn’t in principle describing a normal processes: rather, an anomalous episode, now in decline. Generally, American journalists have a record—if imperfect—of challenging power. To this News Corp. is a major exception: uncritical service to official propaganda is a Murdoch family tradition. (The Murdoch Archipelago traces this story across a hundred years.)
Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have apologized for disservice to their readers on the runnup to the Iraq war. But not News Corp., which far outdid them in fantasy. Its aim, said New York Post editor Col Allan was to avoid people being “confused.” Well, perhaps no Anglophone audience is more confused than News Corp.’s. Among Fox News users, 80% believe one or more of the war’s exploded myths (typically Saddam’s 9/11 involvement).
Initially, the Iraq project was propelled by a hot tide, flowing strongest in America, the target of the worst jihadist blow. But even then most major organizations—including the Pentagon—showed some independent thought. Exceptions were the White House—natural behavior in a political stronghold — and News Corp., displaying unanimity not remotely natural to a media group.