Iraq and the Rupert Murdoch connection: The media mogul’s network of pro-war campaigners
The screaming headline on the front of today’s edition of The Sun added to the shredding of Tony Blair’s reputation. “Weapons of Mass Deception,” it blared. That was bit rich, considering the role of The Sun and the rest of the global media empire owned by Rupert Murdoch in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, summed it up in his evidence to the Leveson inquiry – “I’m not sure that the Blair government – or Tony Blair – would have been able to take the British people to war if it hadn’t been for the implacable support provided by the Murdoch papers. There’s no doubt that came from Mr Murdoch himself.”
On one side of the Atlantic, the TV channel Fox News, owned by Murdoch, shot up the ratings as they beat the drum for the Iraq war. By the end of March 2003, they had 5.6 million prime-time viewers, compared with CNN’s 4.4 million. On this side of the ocean, his four newspapers performed a similar function; and that’s not counting all the other titles in the News Corp empire, which rallied round with startling unanimity. One analyst estimated that 175 editors around the world all, happily, shared Murdoch’s enthusiasm for the invasion.
Few of those who helped to spread this enthusiasm in the UK get a mention in the Chilcot report, yet their collective influence on events was huge. And many of the key players have continued, happily, to work for Murdoch.
Tony Blair’s relations with Washington in the run up to war were not always easy. A faction in the White House that include the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not care whether the British took part in the invasion of Iraq or not. Eight days before the invasion, in March 2003, Rumsfeld plunged Blair into despair by announcing at a press conference that the US might start the invasion without the British. That evening, the exhausted Prime Minister had an unexpected phone call, from Rupert Murdoch. The Chilcot report says that Downing Street has no record of this call, implying that the tycoon did not need to go through the Downing Street switchboard. According to the diary kept by Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell. Murdoch “was pressing on timings, saying how News International would support us etc. Both TB and I felt it was prompted by Washington, and another example of their over crude diplomacy”.
Rupert Murdoch has long-standing ties with the US Republican party, which is good for business and suits his right wing prejudice. Fourteen years ago, he was helping prepare public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic for the invasion of Iraq – and even expressed the view that one benefit of the invasion would be cheaper oil. Now, he is a keen backer of Donald Trump. In March, he married the former model, Jerry Hall, his fourth wife. He is 85, she is 60.
Appointed editor of The Sun in January 2003, the former editor of the News of the World seemed even keener on the “war on terror” than her spectacularly jingoistic predecessary, David Yelland. The Sun argued that “a swift and successful war that proves to the world just what a deadly menace Saddam has been for years will cement Blair’s place in history”. When Liberal Democrats leader Charles Kennedy emerged as a leading opponent of the war, The Sun ran his picture on the front page with a snake in the background, and the caption: “Spot the difference. One is a spineless reptile. The other is a poisonous snake.” Other opponents of the invasion – Jacques Chirac, Robin Cook, Clare Short – were also savagely denounced.
Appointed chief executive of News International in 2009, Brooks resigned at the height of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011, but was acquitted in 2014 of any involvement in the scandal (though her ex-lover Andy Coulson was convicted). She was reappointed CEO last September.
The publicity shy Australian former Editor of The Times was said to be closer to Murdoch than any other man. In 2002 and 2003, crucially, he swung The Times behind the war.
According to the Chilcot report, John Williams, head of the FCO news department, referred approvingly to The Times’s coverage in a message to Jack Straw’s Private Office (11 March 2003), stating that “the process of preparing media and public opinion for possible action on Iraq is under way”. Thomson’s paper remained enthusiastic once the invasion was underway, and on 10 April 2003 its splash headline declared: “Victory in the 21-day war”
Thomson left The Times at the end of 2007 and moved to the US, where, after a spell as editor-in-chief of Dow Jones and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal (both Murdoch-owned), he became chief executive of News Corp in January 2013.
In 2003, Gove was assistant editor of The Times, and so keen for military intervention that Tony Blair was almost a peacenik by comparison. In an article on 3 December 2002, he condemned “that unhappy section of the British Left whose antipathy to Western policy makes them Saddam’s useful idiots” and asked: “Why is it that so many of those whose political creed should be driven by a desire to emancipate those who are suffering choose to object to a course of action which would deliver millions from misery?” Now better known for his passionate, eloquent and unqualified support for another high-risk adventure, Brexit, Gove does not rate a mention in Chilcot. Earlier this week, however, the veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke was caught on camera giving his assessment of Michael Gove, who was then still in the running for the Tory leadership. “With Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once,” he joked.
Few people come out of Chilcot so badly as the then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was heavily criticised, notably for ignoring the possibility that Iraq might not have had any WMDs. “At no stage was the hypothesis that Iraq might not have chemical. Biological or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined by the JIC … Iraq’s statements that it had no weapons or programmes were dismissed as further evidence of a strategy of denial.” Scarlett, who was also responsible for producing the “dodgy dossier”, was later knighted and made the head of MI6. Since leaving that position in 2009, he has found a number of lucrative roles – including one as a director of Times Newspaper Holdings. He has also written columns for The Times.
The only European head of government to rival Tony Blair in his anxiety to keep in with Washington was the Spanish Prime Minister. According to the polls, 91 per cent of the Spanish public opposed the war, but Aznar used Spain’s seat on the UN Security Council to support the US. He lost office in an election in 2004. Spain is mentioned seven times in the Chilcot report, always as a firm ally of the US and UK. In 2006, Aznar joined the board of directors of News Corporation.