Ten years ago today US-led forces invaded Iraq, in one of the most egregious breaches of international law of the last fifty years. It’s hard now to credit – indeed for many of us it was hard even at the time – the number of apparently sane, intelligent pundits, policymakers and other opinion leaders who appeared to take leave of their senses and advocate for an adventure that patently lacked legal or moral justification. (John Judis in the New Republic this week tries to recapture some of the atmosphere.)
One of the key elements in the rush to war was the unanimity expressed by the media outlets of News Limited (or News Corporation, as it’s known internationally). Not a single one of Rupert Murdoch’s 175 or so papers editorialised against the invasion; his major outlets were vociferous cheerleaders for it.
I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that the Bush administration wasn’t quite capable of going to war on its own, without News’s prompting. But such strong media support must have played some part in creating that circle of mutual reinforcement of pro-war views that allowed people to ignore the obvious warning signs about what they were getting into.
Even so, public opinion remained mostly anti-war. Imagine how powerful it could have been if all those newspapers had been doing their job and telling the truth rather than acting as propagandists.
Ten years later, News Ltd is showing the same unanimity again, this time in its campaign against government plans for media reform both in Australia and the United Kingdom. The issue is several orders of magnitude smaller, but the tactics being employed are strikingly similar.
The campaign for war against Iraq rested on presenting an assertion as if it were established fact. Murdoch’s papers did not try to argue that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; that would have opened it up as a matter for debate. They just proceeded on the assumption that he did, taking it as a given and going on to argue about the appropriate response. (You can see a later version of the same thing in the repeated references to “Iran’s nuclear weapons program”, where the threshold question of whether such a thing exists is just ignored.)
The campaign against the Gillard and Cameron governments over media regulation works much the same way. The claim that the proposals represent a limitation on press freedom is not defended but simply assumed, so that debate can be confined to the consequences of that – which, since most of us think press freedom is a good thing, will generally go in News Ltd’s favor.
My point is not to defend the particular changes that have been proposed. I have some serious reservations about the Australian package (some of which overlap with those of my colleague Margaret Simons), and even more so about the peremptory way it has been put forward. But opposition can fall short of demonisation – just as, of course, one could be opposed to Saddam Hussein without believing all the lies told about him or believing that the rule book had to be torn up in order to reach him.
As other commentators have pointed out, the media’s current behavior is providing as good an argument as you’ll get for why some sort of regulation is necessary. I’m a free speech absolutist, so I’m utterly opposed to any government-imposed regulation. But I have no problem with the idea that certain privileges that the government accords to journalists and media organisations should be restricted to those that sign up to an appropriate scheme of self-regulation.
(One of the most significant of those privileges is apparently not written down anywhere, namely the exemption from prosecution for fraud that our media organisations seem to enjoy. I’d be inclined to start there, rather than with the Privacy Act.)
Nor do I have any sympathy for the argument, made against the Australian reforms, that restrictions on ownership are a limitation of free speech – an argument fairly obviously tailored to suit News’s business interests. Freedom of speech demands that everyone be free to start a newspaper, not that everyone be free to buy one. Restrictions on the latter freedom may or may not be a good idea, but they are not a free speech issue.
In each case, mendacity exacts a price. The Iraq war helped to discredit the whole idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East, and the media regulation campaign threatens to tar free speech as a sham that shields the interests of unscrupulous media barons. That would be a much more serious consequence than anything we might have to fear from a revamped press council.
The moral of the story is that supporters of freedom should think very carefully before getting into bed with News Ltd.