Thursday 12 December 2019

Kevin Myers: Mankind opts for tales that serve a purpose

Rupert Murdoch, Part Two. There are two key features of Rupert Murdoch. The first, that he is a man of towering personal presence and willpower. The second is that he inherited these binary qualities from his father, Keith. Great fathers seldom beget great sons: indeed, the very opposite is the more usual -- vide Winston Churchill, and his mewling puking drunken brat of an offspring, Randolph.

But what united Keith Murdoch and Winston Churchill is this: they were great men who created narratives that stuck. What defines a myth is that it is universally accepted as a gospel truth. Few 20th Century myths are as powerful as those created by Keith Murdoch -- a man of immense charm and presence -- about the British army and the First World War. This is extraordinary, for he had no knowledge whatever of military matters. He arrived as journalist with some good personal contacts in Gallipoli in 1915, and spent just four days there. Then in London, he wrote up an account of his experiences from memory, and even the 'Australian Dictionary of National Biography' admits that it was full of errors and exaggerations.

Yet its general tenor and conclusions captivated British society, and they remain as an enduring condemnation of British High command -- hence this oft-repeated quote: "The conceit and self complacency of the red-feather men are equalled only by their incapacity. Along the line of communications, especially at Moudros, are countless high officers and conceited young cubs who are plainly only playing at war ... appointments to the general staff are made from motives of friendship and social influence."

However, it was Murdoch's charisma which did the captivating, not the truth. The actual problem with Gallipoli was less the unfortunate soldiers who had to execute its deplorable strategy than the strategy itself. Not even a Prussian army could have succeeded where the British army failed. But that is irrelevant in the creation and perpetuation of the myth that the British army was officered by fools and knaves. It is embodied in the now universally believed aphorism from General Ludendorff that the British army were "Lions led by donkeys". The problem is of course that he didn't say it: why would he? The lions and their donkeys won.

Yet the fiction of the uniquely blundering British generals of the Great War lasts to this day, both in the 'Blackadder' comedy sketches, and in every single literary representation of the time. Yet who invented the entire concept of armoured warfare? Who invented the all-arms battle, involving radio co-ordinated tanks, advancing ahead of infantry, and ground-attacking fighter bombers interdicting the enemy deep behind their lines of communication? And who actually won the war? Why, the army led by Field Marshall Haig, the last British commander ever to beat a German army in the field. Haig, of course, is today universally reviled, not just in Ireland and Britain, but throughout the Anglophone world, whereas his American counterpart Pershing is a national hero at home. Yet it was this latter butcher who gratuitously squandered lives right up to the bitter end, even ordering an offensive on the very morning of the Armistice, November 11, 1918, and losing 2,000 US dead and wounded, for no conceivable gain.

You have probably never heard any of this: indeed, you probably feel deeply affronted and outraged by any defence of Haig: proof that myth can become so powerful that it actually forms part of the psyche of those who believe it. To be sure, that particular Murdochian myth could not have survived without other factors: the British dislike for a neo-Cromwellian professional soldiers, an English literary disdain for brute patriotism, an emerging Australian nationalism, and so on, all producing a mood in which the great lie was possible. But it is a lie nonetheless, and it could only have taken root originally because of the personal magnetism of its author, Keith Murdoch, who, by 1917, aged just 30, had become a celebrated guest in the power salons of London society. Senior politicians sought his advice: generals entertained him; society ladies fawned on him: yet he knew nothing about war.

Like father, like son. Five successive British prime ministers have courted Rupert Murdoch because of his influence -- and that in turn could only have resulted from his own brutal charisma, combined with his awesome determination to have his way. Moreover, British and Irish journalism owes him a huge debt -- for only his willpower could have broken the toxic stranglehold of the corrupt and villainous print-unions over journalism, in which, rather typically, the National Union of Journalists became the flaccid and weak-willed accomplice of its actual enemies, the printers.

Given the incredible personal might of Rupert Murdoch, and the extraordinary ability of his organisations to create compelling public narratives, I should not be at all surprised in five years' time to see that the horror story of TNOTW will have become a largely forgotten footnote in the history of British journalism. For remember this: mankind does not endlessly relate tales about the truth, but instead studiously opts for tales that serve some particular social function. And of course, almost all modern Murdochian tales serve a very particular purpose indeed; namely, dynastic pride.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss