A short history of treason in the media

A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Tony Abbott breached tradition and civility by accusing the ABC of ‘instinctively taking everyone’s side but Australia’s’ in its news coverage. His charge was taken up by the usual suspects in the anti-ABC brigade – Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, his Sky News channel, and commercial radio shock jocks in Sydney and Melbourne. Thirty years ago, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher brought the dark art of media intimidation to the Western world when she accused the BBC of being unpatriotic and aiding the enemy.

At the outbreak of the Falklands War in April 1982, the British government sent a rapid deployment force of naval ships, war planes and soldiers to the South Atlantic on a mission to recover the bleak outcrop of islands (population 1800) from Argentinian occupation – and to save Thatcher and her Tories from an increasingly discontented electorate.

As the war unfolded, the media began to irritate the government by asking more and more questions about the advisability of a conflict that could cost thousands of lives.

‘The most prominent among Tory voices did not conceal their belief that, under cover of a theoretical impartiality, the producers and editors of the major BBC news and current affairs programmes were persons of left-wing inclination, and in some cases out-and-out Marxists,’ wrote Hugo Young, The Guardian political editor in his book One of Us in 1989.

No serious research was known to have been done before these sweeping denunciations were levelled. They were simply a convenient smear, privately circulated by such influential figures as the prime minister’s husband and publicly canvassed by the more raucous among Tory backbenchers, not to mention (Employment Secretary) Norman Tebbit’s personal staff.

A recent direct parallel was when the incoming Abbott government declared ‘war’ on people smugglers, appointed an army general to manage its Operation Sovereign Borders task force and implemented its ‘turn back the boats’ policy on the high seas between northern Australia and Indonesia.

Then, when the ABC reported that RAN personnel were involved in the physical mistreatment of refugees detained and turned back at sea, Abbott and his senior ministers launched a public relations attack.

This condemnation would have had little support or interest but for the fact that it was supported by the Murdoch press, which controls more than 60 per cent of the local newsprint media and the Sky News pay TV channel.

The Australian weighed in with an editorial slamming the ABC story about the alleged mistreatment of refugees and its coverage – in conjunction with The Guardian – of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the illegal activities of America’s National Security Agency:

Who is taking responsibility for stories (at the ABC)? That the answer is obviously ‘no one’ may give comfort to the ABC’s collectivist, inner-city clique of broadcasters, bloggers, latter-day Trotskyites and inked hipsters, but it should chill the blood of taxpayers and a broad audience seeking reliable, factual and comprehensive news and current affairs.

Meanwhile, back in London at the time of the Falklands War, Thatcher was relying on the Murdoch media to whip the media (and public opinion) into line.

Enter Ronnie Sparkes, a friend of Murdoch’s since his Oxford days, who was recruited from the Daily Express to become The Sun’s chief leader writer.

Sparkes’ most infamous editorial – ‘DARE CALL IT TREASON’ – opened dramatically: ‘There are traitors in our midst.’ The paper said it did not hesitate to state that the BBC’s defence correspondent, Peter Snow, was guilty of ‘treason’.

The editorial identified other ‘traitors’ as ‘the pygmy Guardian’ and ‘the timorous, whining Mirror’, which was pleading ‘day after day for appeasing the Argentine dictators’.

Bruce Page, a former New Statesman editor and author of The Murdoch Archipelgo wrote: ‘Treason is of course the worst crime short of genocide, and so The Sun’s words caused deep, deliberate offence.’

During their campaign, The Sun’s editor (Sir) Kelvin MacKenzie hung a picture of Sir Winston Churchill in the newsroom, senior reporters gave themselves military ranks and the paper carried this front-page slogan on the masthead: ‘The paper that supports our boys.’

So far Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of The Australian, and his key lieutenants Greg Sheridan, Dennis Shanahan and Janet Albrechtsen haven’t yet adopted the same jingoism as the boss’s favourite newspaper in the 1980s, but there is still time.

Because News Ltd has recently recruited Gerard Henderson from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald to write a regular column for The Australian, it is a certainty that the anti-ABC salvos will continue.

Henderson is the country’s most voluble critic of the ABC, having spent decades amassing files on ABC staff and their programs.

Thatcher won the 1983 election although the Tories received only 43 per cent of the vote. She had overcome her relative unpopularity with a war, a victory and by stiff-arming the BBC and the liberal-minded press. Back in Downing Street with an increased majority, she started her war on the miners and the trade union movement with an attendant Murdoch media in full cry.

As writer Matthew Engel remarked, ‘The alliance of Thatcher, Murdoch and MacKenzie was unshakeable.’

It was the divisive and demented Tory politics of that era that formed the outlook of London-born, Oxford-educated Tony Abbott. People of conscience should be taking their place on the barricades.

Alex Mitchell

Alex Mitchell is former state political editor of Fairfax Media's Sunday newspaper in Sydney, The Sun-Herald, and author of Come The Revolution: A Memoir (NewSouth Books, 2011).

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  1. Thanks Alex. As usual, you place current events in context. May the ABC continue to report fearlessly and without favour.

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