Holding the line at News

An introduction to Limited News by Bruce Page

If ever a prize is awarded for unanimity over the Iraq war, News Corporation will win easily — outdistancing all Western political parties, and even the American military. No organisation can quite eliminate dissent while operating under democracy. But Newscorp keeps it down to homeopathic dosage: here an isolated columnist; there a liberal TV pundit, coming on in the apologetic way of a Good German in traditional war movies.

How is it done, given that any representative bunch of English-speaking humans will exhibit passionate differences about Iraq? Some evidence is available in the American documentary Outfoxed (distributed via CD at www.outfoxed.org) and now there is a specifically Australian dimension, available on the website http://www.limitednews.info.

Both contain Newscorp internal documents which deserve examination — particularly with elections upcoming in both countries, likely to turn on the discredited counter-terrorist prospectus which Murdoch's employees have made dedicated efforts to put across.

In reading this stuff, certain points of news-media culture should be borne in mind. Firstly, journalists rarely require or receive policy instructions: because estimating motive and intent is part of their tradecraft. Second, media organisations tend to recruit people who fit the local culture, and assessment doesn't require a battery of psychological tests. Newscorp people need to subscribe to ideas of Rupert Murdoch as a rebellious outsider devoted to challenging the power-structures of the world, and believing that requires much docility and flexibility of mind.

This background means that the memos which fly around newspaper and TV offices don't usually contain — even within Rupert's empire — the kind of hortatory note shown in The Australian Gazette, a Newscorp internal newsletter you'll find at http://www.limitednews.info (and similarly in the Outfoxed movie). Usually, executives are concerned with matters of professional expertise, rather than moral or political points. A great British editor, Charles Wintour, who was famous for his pointed internal memos, used to insist they were only technical footnotes: all substantive propositions must be in the actual newspaper, a continuous memo addressed openly to staff and readers simultaneously. Real journalism, biassed or not, works along those lines.

Things are trickier in the matter of propaganda, where the outward message is rarely the same as the inner purpose. It's not possible for Newscorp to confess that its aim is promoting the current policies of Howard, Bush and Blair by hook, crook and anything else available, wherever in the world it has an audience. Even privately, Newscorp has to make out that it's a news organisation letting the chips fall where they will. But as one studies the Gazette — which hasn't been published before — one should ask whether it provides even faint encouragement for independent and sceptical examination of issues like the Iraq invasion and its consequences. And the rather clear answer is no. It plugs an unyielding line, offering a clear benchmark for Newscorp’s public sheets — into which some of the real world’s complexity must make its way sometimes.

These days it’s probably necessary to be a little explicit to hold the line. There isn’t a precedent in media history for Murdoch’s tri-national Iraq war propaganda, and when Baghdad fell it looked like pretty good business for a company which above all likes being helpful to the masters of political power. But there are intelligent journalists inside Newscorp, and some of them must be getting uneasy about the effect on their personal repute of handing such a long succession of bum steers to their readers. Sadly, the promised peace in Iraq which seems as elusive as the weapons which were cited as justification for invading the place. By now there must be some people having to hold their noses as well as the line.

Bruce Page is the author of The Murdoch Archipelago, published by Simon and Schuster.