Murdoch holds the power but takes no responsibility
Published 12/07/2011 | 08:00
He is a caliph, I suppose, almost of the Middle Eastern variety. You hear all these awful things about Arab dictators and then, when you meet them, they are charm itself.
Hafez al-Assad once held my hand in his for a long time with a paternal smile. Surely he can't be that bad, I almost said to myself - this was long before the 1982 Hama massacres. King Hussein would call me "Sir", along with most other journalists. These potentates, in public, would often joke with their ministers. Mistakes could be forgiven.
The 'Hitler Diaries' were Rupert Murdoch's own mistake, after refusing to countenance his own 'expert's' change of heart over the documents hours before The Times and The Sunday Times began printing them. Months later, I was passing by the paper's London office on my way back to Beirut when the foreign editor, Ivan Barnes, held up the Reuters copy from Bonn. "Aha!" he thundered. "The diaries are forgeries!" The West German government had proved they had been written long after the Fuhrer's death.
So Barnes dispatched me to editor Charles Douglas-Home's office with the Reuters story and I marched in only to find Charlie entertaining Murdoch.
"They say they're forgeries, Charlie," I announced, trying not to glance at Murdoch. But I did when he reacted. "Well, there you go," the mogul reflected with a giggle. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Much mirth. The man's insouciance was almost catching. Great Story. It only had one problem. It wasn't true.
Oddly, he never appeared the ogre of evil, darkness and poison that he's been made out to be these past few days. Maybe it's because his editors and sub-editors and reporters repeatedly second guessed what Murdoch would say. Murdoch was owner of The Times when I covered the blood-soaked Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982. Not a line was removed from my reports, however critical they were of Israel.
After the invasion, Douglas-Home and Murdoch were invited by the Israelis to take a military helicopter trip into Lebanon. The Israelis tried to rubbish my reporting; Douglas-Home said he stood up for me. On the flight back to London, Douglas-Home and Murdoch sat together. "I knew Rupert was interested in what I was writing," he told me later.
But things changed. Before he was editor, Douglas-Home would write for the Arabic-language Al-Majella magazine, often deeply critical of Israel.
Now his Times editorials took an optimistic view of the Israeli invasion. He stated "there is now no worthy Palestinian to whom the world can talk" and that "perhaps at last the Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip will stop hoping that stage-strutters like Mr Arafat can rescue them miraculously from doing business with the Israelis."
These past two weeks, I have been thinking of what it was like to work for Murdoch, what was wrong about it, about the use of power by proxy.
Murdoch could never be blamed. Murdoch was more caliph than ever, no more responsible for an editorial or a 'news' story than a president of Syria is for a massacre - the latter would be carried out on the orders of governors who could be tried or sacked or sent off as adviser to a prime minister - and the leader would anoint his son as successor.
In the sterile world of the Murdochs, new technology was used to deprive people of freedom of speech and privacy. In the Arab world, surviving potentates had no problem in appointing tame prime ministers. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.