There has been a characteristic outburst of puerile glee among the right-leaning part of the Pundit Establishment this morning after the Murdoch Sunday Times - just four days before a round of local elections in which the Tories are expected to do particularly badly - splashed the headline “Exposed: Russians tried to swing elections for Corbyn … Robot Twitter accounts rooted for Labour and attacked Tories”.
Thus the desperation of the Tories - and yet another confirmation, if one were needed, that the supposedly upmarket end of the Murdoch press is being used for party political propaganda, as well as the odd slice of misinformation. And anyone seeing the name of the “Insight” team on an ST article, which this one has prominently displayed, should know that this is not the mark of investigative journalism. It is the mark of editorial interference.
Rupert Murdoch took over the ST in 1981. Three years later, Hugo Young questioned the paper’s direction under its editor Andrew Neil: “Whereas the old Sunday Times, if functioning properly, would have stood back and asked difficult questions of both sides, the new Sunday Times became the accomplice of one side only … The investigative tradition, which depends on detachment and irreverence as well as professional competence, has been all but abandoned”. Neil was later quite candid about his partiality.
In his memoir Full Disclosure, he explained the ST’s support of Margaret Thatcher thus: “On many of the biggest struggles of her decade in power, the Sunday Times stood shoulder to shoulder with her … Thatcher’s battles were our battles”.
In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies took readers through the way in which the work of the ST’s Insight team was subjected to highly creative reworking as the paper decided to lay into Thames Television over Death On The Rock, a documentary in the This Week strand which examined the fatal shooting of three unarmed IRA members by what were believed to be SAS forces. Mrs T had been enraged by the programme.
The ST therefore sought to discredit it. It libelled Carmen Proetta (as did the Sun), one of This Week’s witnesses who saw the shootings from the balcony of her apartment. One of the ST’s journalists, Rosie Waterhouse, later resigned from the paper. Some months later, the ST retracted its claims. Davies makes two telling points about that.
“[The ST] did not tell their readers that [criticisms of the paper’s account] had been laid in front of them by their own reporters many months earlier. Nor did they explain to their readers that the underlying error in their stories flowed from their willingness to recycle untested claims made by a Government which, from the earliest stage of the story, had dealt in official misinformation”. The climb-down did not feature a name on the by-line.
Zelo Street regulars may recall the ST’s Government-backed attack on Edward Snowden, which featured Tom Harper fetching up on CNN and telling, with a straight face, “We just publish what we believe to be the position of the British Government”. That happened in June 2015. It’s happening again now. And it’s been happening for 35 years.
The Sunday Times, in the days of Harry Evans, was a respected source of real news. Now, thanks to Rupert Murdoch and a series of compliant editors, it is nothing of the sort. Today’s front page splash is Tory Party propaganda. That is all.