After he was sacked as NSW Treasurer in September 2008, Michael Costa traipsed along the path well-worn by discredited Labor politicians and become a columnist at Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd.
Costa’s appointment to The Australian amounted to a "thank you" for the generous assistance he had given to Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph and The Oz after his elevation to the NSW Upper House in 2001.
Having widely declared his loathing for Fairfax journalists at The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review, the former secretary of the NSW Labor Council (now Unions NSW) set about cultivating News Ltd editors, columnists and political journalists. The hard work paid off and Costa now pens a weekly column for The Australian in which he issues irascible pot shots about Canberra, his former colleagues in the NSW Government and economic affairs.
However, on 23 January 2009, he vented his spleen about a most unexpected topic: British author Robert Harris and his best-selling political thriller The Ghost, in a column headlined: "More than the Left could Blair".
Harris’s 2007 novel concerns a ghostwriter engaged to work with recently ousted British Prime Minister Adam Lang, who turns out to have been manipulated throughout his political career by the CIA. Costa calls the book "an obvious and ludicrous attack on Tony and Cherie Blair".
Obvious, yes. The whole of Britain’s book reading public recognises its basis in the former denizens of 10 Downing Street. But ludicrous? In the novel the former Prime Minister faces the risk of being charged as a war criminal over his role in the invasion of Iraq. This possibility raises Costa’s ire to great heights. He deems it "absurd", writing: "The whole argument rests on the proposition that the war was justified by fabricated intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Despite a number of official inquiries, there is no evidence to support this proposition."
No, Mr Costa. The evidence that’s lacking, to this day, is any evidence of WMDs in Iraq. But of course that didn’t deter Costa and his right-wing Labor cronies in NSW from endorsing the George W Bush-led invasion or saying nothing so as not to embarrass their friends in Washington.
According to Costa, The Ghost is an expression of "personal revenge" on the part of a "cultural Left" disappointed with New Labour. Unfortunately, Costa has the author all wrong. Harris is no factional warrior. He is distinguished not only as a novelist but as a journalist. He worked for the BBC, was political editor of The Observer and was named columnist of the year in the 2003 British Press Awards. He has sold more than 10 million books around the world and their success comes not only from his skills as a writer but from his meticulous research.
His acclaimed non-fiction books include: A Higher Form of Killing (1982), a study of chemical and biological warfare; Selling Hitler (1986), a brilliant analysis of the Hitler Diaries scandal in which Murdoch and historian — and Times director — Hugh Trevor-Roper played an egregious part; and Good and Faithful Servant (1990), about Margaret Thatcher’s overbearing press secretary Bernard Ingham.
Harris is now even better known for his fiction. His novels include Fatherland (1992), an alternative story of post-war Europe informed by well-authenticated research into cover-ups by the Allies of Nazi crimes; Enigma (1995), which dramatised the breaking of Nazi codes at Britain’s spy centre Bletchley Park, and Archangel (1998) a book based on events surrounding the death of Stalin. And before The Ghost, Harris published Imperium (2006), the first volume in a projected trilogy fictionalising the life of the great Roman orator Cicero.
Harris, all critics agree, is no slouch when it comes to researching his scenarios. As far as Tony Blair is concerned, Harris is particularly well informed. Shortly after The Ghost appeared, he explained the background to Radio National’s Ramona Koval in an extended interview on The Book Show. As a columnist for The Sunday Times he was invited by Blair to travel with him during the 1997 election campaign, and gained privileged access, to the chagrin of the rest of the press corps. He was even at his side as the results came in.
"It’s taken me 10 years to find the fictional form to process this material," he told Koval. "Of course," he admitted, "it’s a satire on the Blairs, but I hope the characters then become quite distinct from the models."
Costa’s fulminations are unlikely to affect the popularity of The Ghost and, hopefully, may encourage many more sales. Still, the question remains: why did the over-excitable Costa decide to launch a public attack on Harris for daring to animate in literary form the CIA’s manipulation over many years of a British Prime Minister who subsequently did their bidding in Iraq? Good plot, good yarn, sounds almost believable. Perhaps that is what upsets the former union boss, failed politician and News Ltd hack.
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