The Price of Selling Out


Two imposing media entities are concluding a mating dance this week. Both carry much blame for getting Western democracy into its worst fix for a couple of generations but one still contains a potential for prophylaxis.

These outfits are News Corporation which needs, unhappily, no introduction and Dow Jones, owners of the Wall Street Journal, which has characteristics that are not always well-understood.

Having conferred in Boston, the principal members of the rich Bancroft clan, who hold the bulk of the Dow Jones equity, have retired to their several homes to consider whether to get richer still by selling-out to Rupert Murdoch. If they do, says the celebrated economist Paul Krugman, it will be ‘a dark day for American democracy.’

And such dark days, of course, tend to be darker yet for the world outside. Vide Iraq.

The Journal is the ultimate example of C P Scott’s recommendation to make comment free but keep facts sacred. ‘Free,’ indeed, is a feeble term for the character of its comment pages: ‘libertine,’ ‘berserk’ or ‘cuckoo’ come readily to mind. Supply-side tax-cutting theory the nearest thing in economics to the Lysenko fraud was born there. Few War on Terror notions haven’t bombinated there before exploding, and the resident opinionators are valiant in support of the Bush-Cheney universal-snooping project.

The news pages, however, are stone-cold sober. Stylistically, they are racier than the Proceedings of the Royal Society but only just. And they have a similar determination to exclude anything which hasn’t been written with a sacred attention to fact.

They can of course fail. Like most US media, the Journal‘s reporters were deceived by the smokescreen Bush, Blair and Howard laid around their crusade for Mesopotamian pseudo-democracy. But it was truly hard for Americans to believe that their nation could have produced a Government quite as mendacious and incompetent as that of Bush and since then the Journal has recovered much ground. As a reporting enterprise, it doesn’t challenge the tenets of marketplace. But as the Enron geniuses found, it cuts no slack for anyone using them as a mask for fraud.

For Newscorp, the prospective purchaser, comment has all the excessive quality of Journal editorials except for freedom. It conforms always to the fancies of Rupert Murdoch’s current political friends. And the facts are whatever fits.

Wars can be started, fought and ended with some net if melancholy gain to the human race. But the Iraq enterprise can’t: being built almost exclusively on lies and delusions, of which a remarkable number bear the smelly imprint of News Corporation. And just as the Bancrofts settle down to decision-making, some new but not surprising evidence comes in about the mechanisms involved.

Four years ago the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury and a journalist on The Independent requested under the Freedom of Information Act disclosure of contacts between Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair during 2003 and 2004. So long as Blair was in office, the request was totally blocked but the new Brown regime has made limited information available.

Brown’s Cabinet Office says Murdoch and Blair spoke three times during the nine days leading up to war. And though no account has been given of what was said, in one case the date and the files of Murdoch’s chief tabloid, The Sun, make reconstruction fairly easy.

Blair called Murdoch on 11 March and 12 March 2003 when the Prime Minister was trying strenuously to place the blame for inevitable war on President Chirac of France. He had promised there would be no invasion without authorisation in a second and specific UN resolution. But now, he said, the French were determined to veto any such resolution treacherously extending protection to Saddam.

The Sun let Chirac have it right between the eyes. On 13 March: ‘Like a cheap tart who puts price before principle, money before honour, Jacques Chirac struts the streets of shame. The French President’s vow to veto the second resolution [on Iraq]at the United Nations whatever it says puts him right in the gutter.’

On 14 March 2003: ‘Charlatan Jacques Chirac is basking in cheap applause for his œSave Saddam  campaign but his treachery will cost his people dear. This grandstanding egomaniac has inflicted irreparable damage on some of the most important yet fragile structures of international order.’

Fiery comment and maybe, under Prime Ministerial urging, Murdoch and his minions thought it justified. But only a few phone calls would have shown anyone that the facts were quite otherwise. The French didn’t say they were totally against military action only that they were against it while the UN inspectors were making progress on the issue of whether weapons of mass destruction were present in Iraq.

The Wall Street Journal‘s news pages as so far conducted would not be capable of any such politicised fact-massage. And a nation which still has enough honest newspapers can probably extract itself, given time, from any sort of trouble. But by next week America may well be much less off in that regard.

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