Antony Loewenstein writes Webdiary’s Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media.
�At the very centre of the history of war reporting has been the struggle between the media and the military to decide who controls the battlefield. No side ever achieved clear-cut victory � until now.� Phillip Knightley, Media at War conference, Berkeley University, March 2004
In his autobiography A Hack�s Progress, Australian Phillip Knightley comments on the �death� of decent journalism, a despairing cry of many in the business:
So my advice for the new generation of journalists is to ignore the accountants, the proprietors and the conventional editors and get on with it. And your assignment is the same as mine has been � the world and the millions of fascinating people who inhabit it.
Known as one of the world�s foremost journalistic experts on the world of intelligence, Knightley has been paying particular attention to the case of Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins, the Australian military whistle-blower who recently suggested systemic problems in our intelligence services and the existence of a �Jakarta Lobby.� He has described Collins as “probably the best and brightest military intelligence officer this country has produced�.
Knightley believes the mainstream media hasn�t chased the story hard enough, partly due to its failure to identify �the main issues of the day, plugging away at them, revealing government equivocation and spin and sticking with them through thick and thin and not giving up too easily�.
I would continue running the Lance Collins story daily, and even repeat the allegations. I would ask my Canberra correspondent to ask the PM every day if he�d answered Colonel Collins� letter. There are ways to push the story. You can make a general appeal to the intelligence community for anybody else who�d had bad experiences and might like to come out. You don�t give up just because the PM says the story is over.
Knightley highlights a gripe of many critics � editor�s and journalist�s short attention span:
All the press today is failing its readers There are a lot of stories in Australia which start with a big bang, then exposure, then inequity. Such was the story with Colonel Lance Collin. It was big news and now it�s tapered off and disappearing. Newspapers lose interest. I think readers care. You can make the readers care.
Knightley rose to fame while working for The Sunday Times in London in the 1960s and 70s, in a pre Murdoch age, free of modern cost cutting and at a time when making a difference wasn�t determined by the bottom line:
One of the best editors I�ve ever worked for was Harold Evans [editor of the Sunday Times between 1967 and 1981] and he said that just when a newspaper, including the editor and the journalist, feel that the story is becoming boring, is the very moment in which readers are just waking up and getting interested.
Working with a small team of dedicated journalists, many of whom were Australian, the Insight team covered and broke some of the major stories of the era, including the Profumo affair, the Hitler diaries forgeries, the Thalidomide scandal and the Bloody Sunday outrage. Knightley is one of only two people to have won the prestigious Journalist of the Year twice at the British Press Awards.
One of Knightley�s biggest complaints is the increasingly cosy relationship between politicians and journalists – a trend in Australia, the UK and America:
The Canberra press gallery has too incestuous a relationship with politicians. Any journalist who makes too big a wave runs the risk of being cut of the loop. The only person who would take a major risk is someone who is not afraid of losing their job or access. The clever press officer working for departments, often to their shame, ex-journalists, have ways of rewarding journalists who come along and punishing those who don�t.
Australia does produce inquisitive journalists, however, and Knightley is keen to praise those across the political divide:
Paul Kelly has always been interesting, though he�s much more pro-American than I thought he would be. Margo Kingston, I think, is a great journalist. Paddy McGuiness, for his perverse views, is always stimulating. Gerard Henderson, I enjoy reading. I don�t agree with what he�s saying but he argues powerfully. Tony Walker, Peter Hartcher and Alan Ramsey – he�s the best political journalist in the country.
Knightley reserves his toughest condemnation for the mainstream press before, during and after the Iraq war. (His book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth-Maker, is the definitive work on war journalism and government spin.) During a Media and War conference at Berkeley University in March this year, he revealed a military plan for war reporting that was tested by the British in the Falklands war, refined in Granada, the first Gulf War and Kosovo and mastered in Iraq, where “from a military point of view, [it] worked to near perfection”.
Firstly, devote as much care to your media strategy as you do to your military strategy. Information is a weapon and employed properly can be a powerful one. Next, appeal to the media�s patriotism and sense of duty in the run-up to the war, and after the fighting starts, pull media dissenters into line by accusing them of not backing their �boys at the front�. Three: limit access to the battlefield to those correspondents you know support the war. Four: try to get them to identity psychologically with the troops and to write and film stories about the bravery of ordinary soldiers. Five, offer to provide the media with an overall view of the war and its progress by regular briefings from senior officers. At these briefings, appear open, transparent and eager to help: never go in for summary repression or direct control; nullify rather than conceal undesirable news; control emphasis rather than facts; balance bad news with good; and lie directly only when certain that the lie will not be found out until the war is over.
During the Iraq War, we saw all these techniques utilised by the ‘Coalition’. Embedding journalists was hailed a success by the Bush administration and they�ve indicated they�ll use similar methods in future conflicts. Knightley concluded in Berkeley that the Pentagon�s policy is working, as news organisations will not take the risk of sending reporters who don�t want to play by the government�s rules:
Fears for the lives of correspondents who want to be independent will deter their organisations from allowing them to be so. As well, insurers will either refuse to underwrite correspondents� lives or demand prohibitively high premiums � one estimate is one third of the gross budget allocated for covering a war.
Knightley is scathing about the media’s performance on Iraq:
Coverage in Britain before, during and after the war was appalling. It helped promote the war. There was a gentle hysteria that grew as war approached, even in liberal, left wing papers. I was shocked when The Guardian ran a strap-line on its coverage of the run-up, �Countdown to War�. Not stated, but an understood interpretation that it�s like a countdown to a blast-off of a rocket ship – like there�s no way of stopping it. It surprised me The Guardian did it (though The Guardian has its own internal dissent). And not a single paper I can think of in Britain said, �Hang on, wait a minute. Is there no way out of this? What are the alternatives?�
The Australian media was similarly unquestioning of the Howard Government�s rationale for war – Saddam�s supposed WMD. Dissenting voices were largely shut out. Like Blair in Britain, Howard was considered by the mainstream media as essentially good, sincere and caring. Most media outlets accepted the government�s lies on WMD rather than investigating the intelligence claims themselves:
I thought right from the beginning there were no WMD or unlikely to be. From everything I�d read and heard and studied, and I looked for more sources in all the intelligence reports quoted, I was unimpressed by who they were. One of the great failures of the British [and Australian] media, and probably the American as well, was that it never made clear who all these sources were.
The anti-war movement was generally sidelined in the Western media, given only fleeting coverage. The biggest protests in history were deemed less important than pronouncements from our elected officials. Knightley says the UK�s media coverage was depressingly reminiscent of past wars:
It was full of all the logistics…they think their readers are excited by. Like who�s moving where, what�s happening, how we�re mobilising for war, who�s going to go, has the SAS left yet, the boys get ready and photographs of tanks being loaded onto aircraft. It gives you a sense of inevitability that the machine is in motion and, �Sorry folks, it can�t be stopped.�
Knightley says the other profound failing of our media was the generally blind acceptance of the Iraqi exile�s stories (despite many of them being disputed after the first Gulf War):
They [the media] were being used and manipulated by the Iraqi nationals who had an axe to grind, and that weren�t sufficiently sceptical of who these people were and open enough with their readers to say, �Yes, this is what we�ve heard, this is what they say, but we must remember they�re Iraqi nationals who have an axe to grind.’
With an American administration that saw intelligence as just another government department, and a weakened CIA unable to provide less politicised information, it became increasingly clear that the neo-conservatives wanted to go to war in Iraq and therefore expected to see intelligence that pushed this end-game. In The Bulletin in March, Knightley wrote a startling article about the intelligence failure of 9/11 and Iraq�s missing WMD, and asked this question: “How many intelligence heads have rolled? None. Not here. Not in Britain. Not in the US. The only casualties have been foot soldiers.”
Under these circumstances, the role of Andrew Wilkie becomes even more remarkable. A former Australian senior intelligence officer who resigned in March 2003 over what he claimed were false WMD claims from the Howard government, Knightley praised his bravery:
He�s following his conscience – it�s so rare these days. We need a lot more people like that… It didn�t surprise me that nobody else spoke out before the war – they�ve got careers. Only Ray McGovern, from Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity comes to mind. (This group of retired intelligence officers claimed before the war that �Coalition� claims over Iraq�s WMD were false, yet received virtually no media coverage.)
Whistleblowers are highly principled people who are in the job because they thought they could do it in an ethical manner. When something pops that shows them they can�t, they feel compelled to blow the whistle. All the genuine whistle-blowers I�ve ever met have never wanted money for it.
Knightley says the recent avalanche of pictures depicting American military personnel and contractors torturing Iraqi prisoners is a turning point. Writing in The Bulletin in May, he argued that Western media organisations have long censored the gruesome realities of war, frequently in collusion with government:
Take the photograph of an Iraqi man cradling a young girl severely injured in a coalition bomb attack on Basra on March 22, 2003. You can’t recall it? I’m not surprised. The shot, which showed the girl’s horribly mangled leg, ran in the Arab press in its entirety. But in the western press, editors took it upon themselves to crop it � on the grounds of taste � so the bones and shreds of flesh that was once the little girl’s right leg were not visible.
Knightley is pessimistic about the future of journalism. Writing last year in The Myth of the Perfect Proprietor on the Howard Government�s proposed changes to cross ownership laws, which would effectively have given Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch carte blanche in buying more media outlets, Knightley said the rise of the media mogul has greatly reduced independent and fearless journalism:
Until the day comes when the newspaper world consists only of proprietorless newspapers like The Independent, what’s the next best thing? Safety in numbers: as many newspapers as possible in the hands of as many proprietors as possible. To be avoided at all costs is a tightly-owned media world in which a few players dominate the market, especially where those players own TV stations and newspapers.
Today, Knightley laments our era of media organisations deeming it essential to make huge profits:
Journalism is not the craft it once was. You never did it for the money. Rich journalists are pretty rare, unless you�re a columnist or an editor on share options. Things changed with the arrivals of the accountants on the scene who wanted newspapers to be cost-effective. Newspapers shouldn�t make huge profits – it should plough the money back into decent reporting. There is nothing wrong with a newspaper making money, but even the profit isn�t the main thing now, it�s the share price.
Knightley pines for a return to the era of benevolent proprietors, such as Lord Thomson of Fleet:
He liked to see things happening as a result of his papers and as long as they didn�t break him, he�d spent more on better journalism. Just before he was taken over by Murdoch, I recall the various department heads. Thompson ran a budgetary system which had a budget for journalism and a smaller budget for each individual department. When new budget times came around, all the department heads were furiously running around spending money to make certain their budget was used up, otherwise there was a risk, though it never happened, that your budget would be cut next financial year. This made for great journalism, because they�d say, �what are going to do?� �Want to go to New York?� �Do you want to go to Moscow?� �Do you want to spend a couple of weeks in South America� �Do you want to do a language course?� The budget would then be spent.
Murdoch arrives and immediately introduces zero budgeting. I think one of the News Executives commented that Murdoch said, �Don�t give journalists a budget, because the bastards will spend it.� And the new method was that the foreign editor would have to get permission from an accountant, somewhere up the line, for every single penny he wanted to spend on a project. I�m told reliably, since I�ve been in Sydney this trip, that there are various news organisations here that after you�ve been on a foreign trip, a lineman calls you in. He�s got a computer program that reads what you�ve written, counts the number of words, and compares it to the cost of the trip. He can give you a per word cost. If you get to be known as a guy who can produce assignments at 25 cents a word, you�ll be sent more often. If you spend, say $1 a word, it all goes into a file and it�s pulled out when you�re going for a promotion.
From the broadsheets to the tabloids, the last decade has seen a drastic reduction in international news and a greater emphasis on celebrity gossip and local information:
One of the sad things about Fleet Street is that it�s gone. There�s not a single newspaper organisation left in Fleet Street. It used to be the street of adventure. People would be walking down Fleet Street and say, �I�ll tell the Daily Mirror about that, or the Daily Telegraph or the Express� and they�d walk in off the street and ask to see a reporter.
Knightley supports the work of a handful of English journalists, including Robert Fisk (�brave, independent, compassionate and thoughtful�), The Guardian�s Richard Norton-Taylor, who writes on intelligence matters (He�s very good and isn�t taken in by the bullshit. He�s constantly querying and is a friend of nobody in government. He�s careful to keep to himself). Also, George Monbiot, �a really intellectual force in The Guardian�.
One of the great political dramas of the modern Australian era was the Whitlam dismissal in 1975. Containing all the ingredients of a tight-knit thriller, lingering questions remain about the way in which Governor-General John Kerr removed the Labor government from power. At the recent Berkeley conference on media and Iraq, Knightley started thinking about the dismissal once more, especially after hearing a speech by former US Ambassador to Iraq, Joseph Wilson, now fierce critic of the Bush administration:
He was talking about the power of the State Department. He said war should be the last of the alternatives that the State Department could use for regime change, only if there was nothing morally wrong to attempt to change the regime of a country to suit the regime of your country. There are various ways of doing it. Trade embargoes, bribery etc. It�s a shame, he concluded, these methods were used mainly against left-wing regimes in Latin America.
He was so convincing that these methods had been used in the past, it became suddenly blindingly obvious to me that these methods were used in getting rid of Whitlam in 1975. All it would have needed is a meeting between the CIA and the State Department, and somebody would have said, �Things are happening in Australia we�re not very happy about. There�s a Labor Government there and they�re thinking about reneging on the bases agreement at Pine Gap. They�re unfriendly to the US and they pulled their troops out of Vietnam. It�s not a friendly government, and we should do our best to get back a friendly government.� Having made the decision that it wasn�t a friendly government, word would go out to every CIA office in the world that Australia is not a friendly government and to keep your eyes open for things that may discredit the government and lead to regime change. To this day, I remain suspicious about the loans debacle that brought down the government. I reckon it will come out one day. Who was Khemlani? How come he disappeared after and hasn�t been heard of since? The American government wouldn�t have necessarily known in advance it was going to work, of course.
Knightley is confident that the American administration is researching the life of Labor Leader, Mark Latham:
It would not surprise in the least that at this very moment there are CIA teams turning Latham over, looking for something in his past that they would give to the [Howard] government � it would be normal practice. You have to understand how intelligence agencies work. Every time there is a major new political figure in a country in which they�re interested, somebody will say, �Who is this guy, what do we know about him?� And then there will be a big dossier gathering exercise – that�s par for the course. They�ll want a big dossier on Latham. I think the Liberal Party would be very aware it was happening. When he came to power [in 1996], there would have been a dossier on Howard. The CIA have dossiers on every major political figure in the world.
In a further sign that government and big business are increasingly colluding in restricting information flow in democracies around the world, Knightley recalls a story told to him by The New Yorker�s Seymour Hersh:
Seymour Hersh is a worried man. I met him at a conference in Washington two years ago and he was saying he�d just produced a piece for The New Yorker about oil. He�d been warned by The New Yorker�s lawyer, and his own lawyer, to move his resources offshore because the lawyers for the oil companies might well attempt to bankrupt him with legal actions. He�d never felt that kind of intimidation before. This was the new way of intimidating journalists. There are law firms that take pre-emptive action. They advertise themselves saying, �If you feel you�re being investigated by journalists, don�t wait for the piece to appear, and then attempt to sue for libel, come to us and we�ve got ways of stopping it before it gets in the paper.� What ways? American libel insurance companies allow a maximum of two lawsuits against you at any given time – they won�t cover you for a third. So, if the law company who�s going to take pre-emptive action on your part looks at the record of the media company that you�re with, then launches a libel action against them, no matter how frivolous, which makes the third, then the insurance company says, �Sorry, you�re not covered.� They also try and find ways of bringing criminal actions, as distinct from civil actions. Breach of confidence is but one.
Knightley says his proudest moment as a journalist was interviewing Kim Philby. Philby was simultaneously head of the British Intelligence Service’s anti-Soviet section and a long-time KGB agent. It was an explosive story:
The interview happened just before he died. It was regarded, at the time, as reward for 25 years of persistence and waiting. It was a lesson that I learnt as a result of that – no �no� is ever final. I interviewed him in January  and he died in May. It brought an interesting conversation with his lawyer, who said after he died, �You�re a lucky bastard, Knightley. Now you can write anything about him and nobody can deny it!� I said, �Hang on a minute, what about journalistic ethics, haven�t you heard of that?� He said, �No, I know of no journalist who has.�
* Knightley’s Bulletin articles: Too few good men, Moving Pictures and Deadly secrets.