The Australian newspaper at war
By MARTIN HIRST and ROBERT SCHUTZE
From the start, Murdoch’s Australian
was firmly committed to the coalition of the willing and provided a
well-orchestrated cheer squad for Prime Minister John Howard and the war
Just a week out from the start of combat operations, the Australian was reporting the mad scramble by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair to pull something out of the public relations disaster of the United Nations (UN). Blair was described as ‘bleeding politically’ while the White House was claiming that any vote by the Security Council to support war would be a ‘moral victory’, with or without a veto by China, Russia or France. A report from USA Today that the US was threatening aid to recalcitrant Latin American nations, unless they supported the war, was buried in the last par of 16 (Lusetich 2003a). Prime Minister John Howard’s 20 minute phone conversation was the second lead on 13 March and reported that Australian diplomats were ‘frantically lobbying’ at the United Nations on behalf of the coalition (Shanahan 2003c). This story was reinforced by a UN ‘scorecard’ on page 8 outlining how former colonies of France and the United States were being pressured over their crucial Security Council vote (Sutherland 2003a). At the same time, a reprint from The Times was headlined: ‘Chirac’s defiance earns national hero status’ (Bremner 2003a).
In a remarkable and dramatic fashion
a senior officer with the spy agency, the Office of National Assessments (ONA),
Andrew Wilkie resigned his post a week before the
fighting started. Wilkie cited his disagreements with
ONA over their threat assessment of
“I have been following the flow of intelligence very closely and, as far as I am concerned, I have seen nothing that justifies a war against them.” (Andrew Wilkie quoted in McIlveen 2003a)
At this point, about one week out from the fighting, the news media, including the Australian, was still asking the ‘Why?’ questions about the war, as well as the ‘What?’ questions. In the minds of many Australians these issues had not yet been satisfactorily resolved.
Nations and Human rights: The fundamental question about the validity of
the war, with or without UN approval was not yet resolved. Large number of
people were yet to be convinced that the war to bring ‘Western-style’ democracy
mass destruction: Did
· Regime change: Like the question of the UN and human rights, the fundamental issue of whether ‘regime change’ was a permissive sanction of the war was not resolved in favour of the military alliance.
· Oil and other economic issues: Questions about the impact of the war and its inevitable aftermath were still not settled. The oil producing nations were split through their council OPEC. Many Arab nations did not want to be seen to endorse the attack against Iraq, but still wanted to benefit from the global trade in oil (AP 2003a).
Empire-building: Of course, this issue was never discussed too openly or
too frequently in the media, in
September 11 and the Bal bombing: The
Al-Qaida: Like he did with the
Murdoch’s Australian newspapers enjoy a close relationship with other mastheads in his international stable. During the conflict this was a convenient way of filling space in the extended coverage of a crisis such as Gulf War II. In an Australian column (13 March), lifted from The Times of London, Simon Jenkins (2003a) outlined the ‘paradox’ of Tony Blair: a British Labour Prime Minister ‘leading Britain firmly into the embrace of Washington’, while simultaneously being ‘where no wise statesman should ever be – up a creek without a paddle.’ Jenkins referred to the then beleaguered Prime Minister as ‘Tony Blur and implied he may not survive much longer in power. On the same page is a large Reuter’s photo of Blair looking haggard and glum. The lead on this page was the ‘gravest crisis’ of Blair’s career (Reuters 2003a) as his support in the opinion polls tumbled.
If, before the fighting started, the
news pages of the Murdoch press appeared to express some divergent ‘news’
analysis of events, the leader pages could be relied upon to put the founder’s
position in a loyal and succinct kind of way. The editorial, ‘French toast
irrelevant UN’ makes it clear that the Australian regarded Chirac as a
faded power living an ‘impossible dream’ and whose arguments at the UN were
‘less weak than feeble’. France, the editorial warned, could be accused of
reducing ‘global politics to a competition between great powers in which a
nationalist France cannot compete’ (Australian 2003b). At least the paper’s consistent in October 2002
an editorial appeared arguing the UN must take a tough stand against Iraq (Australian 2002). However, the debate about UN relevance and
As usual the Australian’s chorus of support for the Australian government was
led by the very conservative and pro-Howard Foreign editor
Greg Sheridan. On 13 March
Australian public opinion is
sensitive to perceptions that its government might be accused of being a junior
A week before the fighting began, the
Australian’s National Security editor
Patrick Walters, (2003b) reported negative comments
about the unilateral approach of the US. The local angle on this piece was
Francois Heisburg’s comment that
Don’t accept for one moment the
The ‘propaganda’ Steketee
referred to here was the false argument that the anti-war movement was
‘anti-American’ and believed that John Howard was merely following
The leader of the
official political opposition, the Australian Labor
Party (ALP), Simon Crean, found it tough going to
differentiate himself from John Howard, while maintaining credibility in the
eyes of the
As the head of the ‘alternative’
government and a key supporter of Labor Prime
Minister Paul Keating when he committed
Immediately the fighting actually got under way (as opposed to 12 years of bombing raids on soft Iraqi targets), broadcast network news presenters set a poor tone for the coverage that followed. On the first Saturday (22 March) some newsreaders were smiling and almost cheering ‘our first strike’ on Iraqi targets: a bombing mission by an Australian FA18 and some ship-to-shore fire at the Al Faw peninsula.
In the first few days there was plenty of patriotic footage and novelty stuff from the front of tanks. The Weekend Australian (22 March) blared ‘PUNCH INTO IRAQ’ over front page stories bout the military action (Eccleston 2003a) and an opinion poll showing support for the war was ‘growing’ (Shanahan 2003a). The key element of the Australian’s front page was that carefully staged photograph of the Iraqi soldier being given water while an assault rifle is aimed at his head and his hands are bound. This image was also on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald the same day (Saturday 22 March).
While the Australian media’s appetite for the ‘our troops in action’ type of stories was satisfied by an easing of restrictions, the main game was still the coalition’s confidence and apparent lack of resistance by Iraqi forces.
The second day coverage in the Weekend Australian reported American concerns that the Iraqis would begin setting fire to oil wells, ‘Fears of a new scorched earth’ (Browne 2003a). It was another opportunity to quote further from the briefing by Donald Rumsfeld. This time to the effect that by setting fire to oil wells Saddam Hussein was ‘destroying the riches of the Iraqi people’ (Rumsfeld quoted in Browne 2003a). On the same page Hussein is labelled a ‘master of propaganda’ and a White House briefing paper, ‘Apparatus of Lies’, summarised without criticism. This piece repeats the standard line from Washington: that Hussein is responsible for diverting food aid into ‘weapons programs and luxuries for himself’ and lying to the Arab world (Kerin 2003a). Throughout the military campaign, the Australian repeated these justifications almost daily.
On that first weekend, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s correspndent in
In a frank exchange with Insiders
host Barry Cassidy, Lloyd told of his frustration and that of the 100s of
reporters at the alliance military command centre in
From very early on in the conflict
Australian reporters complained about the lack of access to and information
from their own national military sources. The Australian’s staffer in
However, it must be said that the
Further attention was drawn to the media’s role by Ashleigh Wilson’s story (22 March) about war coverage and comment on the Internet, ‘Conflict comes to a PC near you’ (Wilson A. 2003a).
The Australian media wanted more
information about what Australian forces were doing. In the second week the
Australian military PR operation began to allow reporters to visit ships in the
Gulf on search missions and mine clearing (Kerin
One ABC news crew was allowed to ‘embed’ with Marines as they entered
On the other side, Australian journalists
operating behind Iraqi lines were confined to
‘Operation Mushroom’ was not only going on close to the war-zone. On the home front too, the fog of war descended quickly on that first weekend. As we sat in our homes watching the war unfold on television was like being carpet-bombed with expert opinion. Most commentators were pro-war, very few anti-war and pro-peace voices were seen or heard.
On that first Saturday night, one of
On the main television bulletins on the first Saturday (22 March), the
peace rallies held around the nation and globally got very short shrift. At
most in a 90-minute bulletin the peace activists got a couple of short vox-pops and the marches were mentioned. But they were
bracketed with the violence of some protest actions in the
In fact the Channel 7 reporter in
1st par: ‘demonstrators threw eggs and tomatoes at…Howard’s car’;
2nd par: ‘one protestor was taken into custody after charging at a Commonwealth vehicle containing Mr Howard’’
3rd par: ‘Earlier…protesters pelted Mr Howard’s car with eggs and tomatoes’;
4th par: ‘One egg hit the rear window of the vehicle containing Mr Howard’;
5th par: ‘Demonstrators chanting anti-war slogans and carrying placards were kept about 15m from Mr Howard by South Australian police’;
6th par: ‘…despite the police barrier, protesters pelted three Commonwealth vehicles with eggs and tomatoes’;
7th par: ‘The protesters then left [the scene]’;
8th par: ‘When he left, one protester broke police ranks, charged at the vehicle containing Mr Howard, and appeared to throw something. No charge was laid.’
Apart from one mention of ‘anti-war slogans’ this item did not say anything about the nature of the rally. Instead we got pointless repetition of two basic incidents: the ‘eggs and tomatoes’ thrown at the car and one person running at ‘the vehicle containing Mr Howard’. This is a typical ‘news’ report of the anti-war protests and the ‘deviant’ nature of the smaller actions, such as confronting John Howard in Adelaide, is then applied to the movement as a whole. This technique was also reinforced by the way demonstrations were reported on television.
The local peace rallies were always covered by long-distance camera, a few anonymous shots of the crowds, a couple of colourful banners perhaps and, on a slow news day, a grab from one of the speakers. The rallies overseas were most often covered with a reader voice over that gave bare facts and where possible focussed the shots on ‘disturbances’, the question of ‘violence’ never quite resolved, but the clear implication it is the protesters.
Why didn’t the news directors and editors – with their endless hours of coverage to fill – get some pro-peace experts into the studio to discuss their point of view? Why Instead of any decent analysis of the politics of the peace movement, most newspaper columnists join the attack on their credibility, spokesfigures and politics.
Where were the newspaper columns for anti-war activists to make their case? Even if the usually unreliable Newspoll in the Weekend Australian (Shanahan 2003a) was right on that first weekend, support for the war was still a 50-50 proposition. Surely, in the interests of balance and fairness, the anti-war arguments should have been put in front of people so that they could continue to make up their own minds.
There was no chance of that happening: from the moment of the first missile strike on that elusive ‘target of opportunity’, Saddam Hussein, the Australian news media and opinion-leaders became more pro-war.
Once the war started there was a violent shift in the political attitudes of the police and most politicians towards the anti-war marches. This was particularly aimed at students and young people and the police were egged on by the usual talkback rant-jocks.
After the massive international
rallies public sentiment in
The marchers were a good
cross-section of ordinary Australians from every ethnic and religious
background. There was a sense of purpose and strength in the crowds and
sentiment way to the left of the official Labor
leadership. In Brisbane the Labor leader, Simon Crean was booed when he addressed the crowd of about
80,000. His right-wing position of support for a ‘legitimate’ UN-backed attack
The anti-war movement was also
growing politically and intellectually. Sales of left-wing literature and
paraphernalia were huge. Radical speakers got the loudest cheers and many
people participated in illegal street occupations to hold ‘speak-outs’ against
the war. On at least two occasions in
High school students were mobilising in impressive numbers in all major cities. Spontaneous walkouts, some supported by parents and the teachers’ unions, saw several large student actions. Church groups, green and peace groups worked with the various left groups and the unions to build the anti-war rallies.
As the war got closer the news media’s attitude to the peace movement changed. The NSW police signalled a tough stand against student demonstrations and warned parents not to let their children get involved with anarchists and violent young men of a certain ethnic background. This policing action also sent a strong signal to the media that the gloves were off and the peace movement was no longer a ‘good’ news story.
It would be unfair to characterise the Australian news media as solidly pro-war. Some, like Canberra Times editor in chief, Jack Waterford, made their opposition clear and so did Sydney Morning Herald online political editor Margo Kingston. Others took a similar stand and some held to a diminishing middle ground of critical distance and vague support for something to be done about Saddam Hussein. Australian columnist Matt Price typified this latter position:
Millions of Australians are despairing at this war. We want it to end quickly, even if this elevates Howard to short-term heroism and makes his slavish media cheer squad even more unbearable than usual. (Price 2003a)
Lies, propaganda and deliberate
misinformation are to be expected in all wars. As British journalist and
author, Phillip Knightley, says the use of public
information as a weapon of war is an honoured tactic of presidents and generals.
Only rarely do working journalists, particularly senior ones, acknowledge this
openly; though many will say so quietly at dinner parties or in the bar after
hours. One rare editor in this category is Jack Waterford of the Canberra Times. Jack wrote a leader (5
April) detailing the countless lies we were told by ‘our’ ‘own’ side. He noted
how western journalists had been lied to about some events – the outcome of
battles, the numbers of POWs, how civilian deaths had occurred at checkpoints.
Surely the fact that the truth will usually emerge, often only in a day or so, might make some soldiers and politicians less willing to lie? Not necessarily, it would seem, if it serves some immediate purpose. (Waterford 2003a)
A direct propaganda hit on the news media won on the day in the Private Lynch affair and by the next day there was a new outrage, atrocity or allied victory to take its place.
The Australian news
media shared the pleasure of the allied victory in
It’s clear, and hardly surprising,
that Rupert Murdoch’s Australian led the patriotic media brigades in
Just like in Gulf War I, the American
military had total control of the air above
But we also saw much more intensive footage of the fighting, this too has impacted on the language of the war. Like the Australian television news reader who excitedly reported ‘our’ fighters had had a ‘productive’ day in the battlefield. Or the one who smiled when announcing the RAAF had dropped its ‘first’ bomb – like it was a birth or something to celebrate.
Everything it seems was more bloody
and extreme in Gulf War II. The embedded media also showed us some horrible
stuff. Dead, wounded prisoners of war, bombed homes, a
British journalist John Simpson and
his party were strafed by the
In the new language of this war, these things became commonplace. They shocked us momentarily, but then the relentless, but more subtle language of war took over.
The tone of the Australian’s coverage was, of course, more purposeful, yet less obvious form of propaganda: ‘the big lie’. That which conforms most closely with what politicians like to call a general ‘common sense’ approach. It is a lie so big, so monstrous, that those in power like to pretend it doesn’t exist.
It is an ideological appeal to
nationalism, patriotism and the myth of free markets and democracy. It is a lie
because what it offered – so-called ‘western liberal democracy’ as the solution
In the same linguistic frame is the snarling, sneering and sometimes vicious response that the more radical elements of the peace movement provoked from Murdoch columnists and news reporters. The offensive commentators of the far right who inhabit Murdoch’s papers like a large tumor took great delight in personally attacking their political opponents. The ‘charddonay socialist’ slur and its pathetic variants were put to constant use to the point of complete boredom of the reader. Side-stepping the political argument to take the cheap shot appears to be the only rhetorical style these literary goons have.
This open hostility from the
columnists then emboldened the news writers to take on a sharper tone. The
coverage of the
The point is a very simple one: Once
you demonise the enemy and make your opponents deviant in terms of the
‘commonsense’ approach, the use of force is legitimised. This technique was
applied to the military enemy –
Saddam Hussien’s followers were constantly referred to as the’fedayeen’, they were ‘thugs’, they were vicious and criminal. This approach from the opinion writers and columnists justified the attacks and the killing, even though, according to these same apologists, any death in war is ‘regrettable’. At home, the effect was the same: Peace activists were derided as the loony-left, the ‘peaceniks’, or worse, manipulating communist cells operating clandestinely.
Young working class students and
In both cases – the Iraqi regime and Australian protestors – the media tended to fall back onto racist stereotypes. And counter-posed to this was the so-called ‘national interest’. Of course the ‘national interest’ argument was bolstered and defended vigorously by the media’s unquestioning acceptance of so-called ‘operational security’ and the line that all Australians should express ‘support for our troops’ – whatever we might have thought about the war.
It is easy to target and get angry about the obvious linguistic tricks of war – ‘friendly fire’; ‘smart bombs’; ‘unfortunate’ civilian deaths; the callous disregard for basic human rights and outright lies.
It’s not so easy to unpick the more
embedded language. Gulf War II was an imperialist war and the American state
continues to be driven by a desire for world domination.
In a small way the Iraqi people now
know that. The language on their side began changing too, in the aftermath of
the fighting. At one of the first anti-American protests in
Attempts to ‘rebuild’
I think that at home there’s been a certain amount of ‘shock and awe’. In the peace movement there was an air of despair following what appeared to be a quick American victory. This war was over so quickly and it appeared that the Americans were so powerful that they could not be stopped.
I don’t think we should get too
pessimistic. Several months later and
The American regime is likely to
press on. We could see more wars break out and policing actions stepped up. Perhaps more bombing raids on
The other important thing to remember
is that in terms of global public opinion, the small majorities who supported
the war– if they exist – in
The peace movement is in a strong
position to rebuild when this thing goes wrong, or when the Americans decide to
I think this is because we too have developed our ideas and our language of war and peace. A significant and large group of people became active over the months of the build-up to war and during the conflict. Many of the newly politicised are students still in high school. It is among this layer that a group of politically active and knowledgeable leaders of the future peace movement will emerge.
Through exposure to new ideas and to political activity this group will begin to develop new and relevant arguments about the big questions of the day. A new generation will cut through the fog of war. A new wave will articulate their own language of resistance and liberation.
Throughout the period of the
fighting, support for war increased in the combatant nations: the
There can be no doubt that the
Murdoch press played an important role in cohering what support there was for
Now there’s more resistance to the American occupation and talk of it extending for months or even years to come. The political climate is beginning to shift again. The fact that several major Australian media organisations didn’t fall in compliantly with the line of the Australian government points to significant fractures inside the ruling class and its leadership. This will continue to open up space for oppositional voices, both in the press and on the streets.
AFP. 2003a. Before the fight, the contracts. Australian, 13 March, 7.
AP. 2003a. OPEC to keep oil flowing. Australian, 13 March, 7.
Australian. 2003a. Journalists kept in dark. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 2.
———. 2003b. French toast irrelevant UN. Australian, 13 March, 10.
Australian, Weekend. 2002. UN must take tough action against Iraq. Weekend Australian, 12 October, 18.
Bremner, Charles. 2003a. Chirac's defiance earns national hero status. Australian, 13 March, 8.
Browne, Anthony. 2003a. Fears of a new scorched earth. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 4.
Courier-Mail. 2003a. Eggs, tomatoes fly in Adelaide protest. Courier-Mail, 15 March, 4.
Dibb, Paul. 2003a. Loud, and carrying a big stick. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 11.
Eccleston, Roy. 2003a. Allies race to key port. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 1.
———. 2003b. Sidelined UN more relevant than ever. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 9.
———. 2003c. Coalition building says Bush. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 6.
Kerin, John. 2003a. Dark arts of a master of propaganda. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 4.
———. 2003b. Frigates in hunt for fleeing cronies. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 4.
Lusetich, Robert. 2003a. Get off the fence, orders Bush. Australian, 13 March, 1.
McIlveen, Luke. 2003a. Security analyst dismisses damage control bid. Australian, 13 March, 6.
Price, Matt. 2003a. Bungler of Baghdad digs in for a long war. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 40.
Reuters, London. 2003a. Labour havoc unleashes the doves of Blair. Australian, 13 March, 8.
Shanahan, Dennis. 2003a. Support for war growing. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 1, 7.
———. 2003c. Howard called in to help White House. Australian, 13 March, 1, 6.
Sheridan, Greg. 2003a. UN power play cannot effect war's morality. Australian, 13 March, 11.
———. 2003b. Americans try to psych rational opponent. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 11.
Steketee, Mike. 2003a. Buck the conventions. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 40.
Sutherland, Tracy. 2003a. Council minnows resisting tug of war. Australian, 13 March, 8.
Ullman, Harlan. 2003a. Pillars of security shaking. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 11.
Walbran, Tony. 2003. Crisis calls for full vote of General Assembly. Australian, 13 March, 10.
Walters, Patrick. 2003b. Strategic alliance system 'in decay'. Australian, 13 March, 6.
Waterford, Jack. 2003. Yes, they would like to you (online edition of Canberra Times) [Internet]. Canberra Times 2003a [cited 11 April 2003]. Available from canberra.yourguide.com.au/.
Wilson A., Ashleigh. 2003a. Conflict comes to a PC near you. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 4.
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