Saturday, August 13, 2011

"All you do is quote fact and figures..."

"'After all, we are in the entertainment business.'
- Ruper Murdoch on the Hitler diaries”

Quoted in Robert Harris, Selling Hitler, p. 293.

The Dr picked up Selling Hitler – The story of the Hitler diaries for 90p in a charity shop. The book was first published in 1986 and this battered paperback with Alexei Sayle mugging on the front was brought out in 1991, to coincide with, says the back cover, “the major five-part ITV drama series, starring Jonathan Pryce, Alan Bennett, Barry Humphries” and Sayle. Yet the true story of a huge publishing swindle seems particularly relevant now: how News International and other publishing companies were so consumed by commercial pressures that they, fatally, ran a major scoop despite serious questions about the source.

It's a fascinating story, Harris detailing the huge market in the 1970s for Nazi-related material. On telly there was Colditz and Secret Army, the papers were tracking down former SS officers to interview and/or bring to justice, and a trade in illicit knick-knacks that the Fuhrer might have touched was commanding ever higher prices – and ever more outlandish fakes. I was also struck by the context in which Hitler's diaries are set.
"It was clear that the only author who might remotely be compared Adolf Hitler was Henry Kissinger. His memoirs had been syndicated across the globe in 1979 in an intricate network of deals, simultaneous release dates and subsidiary rights, which was a wonder to behold. Hitler was probably bigger than Kissinger – 'hotter', as the Americans put it.”

Ibid., p. 210.

Forger Konrad Kujau produced a pile of diaries, hundreds of paintings, notes and manuscripts – most as if by Hitler, but also corroborating details from those in his inner circle. His previous forgeries had been already spotted by – or embarrassed – other historians and publishers. If the German magazine Stern and the other publishers had been more open with their haul and sought more opinions, the whole fraud would have collapsed much sooner.

Harris is good at explaining the slow erosion of the experts' doubts and hesitance. The reputation of Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper) was seriously damaged by his authenticating the diaries as genuine, but we see how he was given little time and little access, and was apparently lied to. Those with the skills and experience to make judgments – scientists, historians, those who'd dealt with forgeries, journalists who'd seen this kind of thing before – were not let in on the secret or only in limited ways.

But even as the deals were being signed, on Wednesday, 20 April 1983, Philip Knightly at the Times listed his own concerns, based on having seen the costs incurred by faked Mussolini diaries in 1968. His concerns perfectly spell out the errors being made under commercial pressure to rush out the exclusive:
"Questions to consider:
  1. What German academic experts have seen all the diaries? Has, for instance, the Institute of Contemporary History seen them?
  2. What non-academic British experts have seen all the diaries? Has David Irving seen them?
  3. How thoroughly has the vendor explained where the diaries have been all these years and why that have surfaced now: the fiftieth anniversary of Hitler's accession to power.
The crux of the matter is that secrecy and speed work for the con man. To mount a proper check would protect us but would not be acceptable to the vendor. We should insist on doing our own checks and not accept the checks of any other publishing organisation.”

Quoted in ibid., p. 290.

I've quoted Jacob Bronowski before describing Nazism as a faith not a science because it preferred certainty not awkward questions. The history of Agent Zigzag showed that the Nazi secret service were less effective than the British because the Nazis could not admit weaknesses of intelligence information. The same thing seems to be going on here – the various editors and management people were so keen on the publishing event of the century that they trapped themselves in the story. They wanted to believe so they ignored the doubts.

As it is, David Irving became the unlikely sceptic-hero who wouldn't stop asking awkward questions and pulled down the whole house of cards. A little like, I thought, Hugh Grant suddenly becoming the moral arbiter on phone-hacking, or John Prescott this week on Question Time being criticised for always bringing up “facts and figures” to support his case.

But I've also been fascinated by the insight into the culture at News International so soon after Murdoch had taken over the Times.
"In the spring of 1983 ... [Murdoch] ruled his empire in a manner not dissimilar to that which Hitler employed to run the Third Reich. His theory of management was Darwinian. His subordinates were left alone to run their various outposts of the company. Ruthlessness and drive were encouraged, slackness and inefficiency punished. Occasionally, Murdoch would swoop in to tackle a problem or exploit an opportunity; then he would disappear. He was, depending on your standing at any given moment, inspiring, friendly, disinterested or terrifying. He never tired of expansion, of pushing out the frontiers of his operation. 'Fundamentally,' Richard Searby, his closest adviser, was fond of remarking, 'Rupert's a fidget.'”

Ibid., pp. 263-4.

With publishing and broadcast subsidiaries, Murdoch was in prime position to fully exploit the diaries. Harris says Murdoch could be furious and sweary as well as ruthless. He was explosive when Stern reneged on a deal for the diaries after they'd shaken hands. And he refused to be played off against the buyers from Newsweek – instead, making a deal with Newsweek to buy the rights together and share them out to mutal advantage. When Stern tried again to bump up the price, Murdoch and Newsweek walked out – and Stern were forced to pursue them and offer a much lower price. It's an astonishing, shrewd and wily bit of dealing. And all, of course, in vain.

If there's one criticism of Harris' book, it's the lack of notes or references. A lot of his material comes from publicly accessible reports and inquiries that followed the swindle being exposed. But he also says in his acknowledgments that,
"Almost all this information came to me on the understanding that its various sources would not be identified publicly.”

Ibid., p. 9.

So we have to take his story on trust.


Anonymous said...

That Prescott moment about 'facts and figures' had me shouting at the screen.
To be fair, I often do that during 'Question Time.'

0tralala said...

It's like a live broadcast of an internet forum.

Dave said...

The continuity announcer said "and you can join in the debate after the programme". I can't help but join in the debate throughout the programme, but no one ever listens...

Dave Wrote This