5 Jul. 2007

Howard's Iraq Oil Admission: Damage Control, or Flying a Kite?

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I experienced the eerie sense of confused wonder that must be common to folk who live in countries where the State controls the media and regularly manipulate news stories.

It all started with a Fairfax news article at SMH, to which I linked in this post. Howard was finally linking the Iraq War to oil! Yegads, I thought, this is huge.

There followed a burst of blogging activity: four more related blog posts, plus outraged comments at other blogs, and a hurried email to antiwar.com (who picked up the story here). A few hours later I was home, watching the evening TV news to see how this huge bombshell would be reported to the Australian people.

Channel Ten buried the story just before an ad break, ten minutes into their 60-minute news. It wasn't a bad piece, but I was surprised to see that John Howard was now denying that he had ever linked the Iraq War to oil. They showed him sputtering on radio 2GB:
"We are not there because of oil," he said. "We didn't go there because of oil and we don't remain there because of oil."
Channel Nine's coverage was even worse: a non-story about how Howard never said anything of the sort. But SBS World News, who I would have expected to take the lead on this, was the most disappointing of all. SBS led with a story on the increased minimum wage, not exactly big news since it's been in the pipeline for a while. Then Kim Novak (where DID she get that American accent?) did everything possible to spin the Iraq-oil story Howard's way:
The Prime Minister says Australia's alliance with the United States has never been stronger, broader or deeper. Launching the latest defence update, he reinforced the importance of that relationship and spoke about a number of worrying strategic trends in the Middle East that he says affect Australia's security. Among those mentioned, the demand for energy - including oil.
Michael Brissendon did a better job on the ABC's 7:30 report, but his interview with Hugh White framed the whole thing in a "silly Howard gaffe" box:
I think Howard and his colleagues have deliberately been trying to make that linkage with oil precisely to avoid being accused of that kind of thing. I think to have raised it now is a mistake. I think it shows the Government is getting sloppy and careless in the way in which it handles rhetoric on these issues.
Whatever happened to the big bombshell story I was expecting? I wondered if I had misread the early reports. So after putting my daughter to sleep, I went back and checked my original blog post. I clicked on the original Fairfax story URL, only to find that the text had now changed! Instead of a story about Howard linking the Iraq War to oil, it was a story about Howard denying the linkage!

Now, I realise that newspapers often go back to make corrections and update stories as events unfold, but this was really a wholly different story: on the one hand there was the linkage, and then there was the denial of the linkage. Two different but related stories, right? But the first story appears to have been totally replaced by the second, and not just on this one Fairfax URL either.

What was going on? Did the media get mislead by some sloppy reporting early on, and then rush to fix their mistakes? Or was this some very heavy-handed damage control by the government?

A Google search shows some very intriguing results...

Here's the original Fairfax story at The Age, as it still appears in Google:

The text shown in Google is from the original:
Fairfax newspapers report that Mr Howard will link the Iraq war to oil for the first time in a speech on the future direction of national defence policy....
But click on the link and here's the updated story you see:

No more allegations of linkage - it's all about Howard denying the linkage!

SBS still had the original text showing at Google:

As you can see, this story also credits Fairfax press with breaking the story. But click on the SBS link now and what do you now find?

Instead of crediting Fairfax with the story, they are now crediting "The Australian newspaper"!
Prime Minister John Howard is expected to announce Australia must retain its involvement in the Iraq war in a defence speech later today.

The Australian newspaper reports the Prime Minister will spell out an unambiguous commitment to a long-term Australian military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan...
So did News Ltd break the original story? Is that why Fairfax rushed to rewrite their text? Well, not according to News Ltd!

If you believe what Matt Price writes in Teh Australian today, it was Fairfax who caused all the trouble:
Nelson ensured the PM spent much of yesterday denying the price and supply of oil had anything to do with the Coalition’s resolute commitment to keeping troops in Iraq.

To be fair to the Defence Minister, he’d been suckered by a newspaper headline. “Howard links Iraq to oil,” screamed the front page of yesterday’s The Age, followed by a sub-heading: “Prime Minister to cite ‘energy dependency’ as a reason to keep troops in the Middle East.”

Actually, Howard, and the body of the story, didn’t say that at all.
What can you say? It's all rather Kafka-esque, isn't it? Did the Murdoch media deliberately "fly a kite" for Howard? Was this a pre-emptive attempt to take the media spotlight away from the outrageous long-term changes to our nation's defence policy, which Howard announced last night?

Seems to me that (one way or another) Fairfax got a leak of what was coming in Howard's big Defence policy speech and rushed it into print with a pretty obvious peg: Howard links Iraq War to Oil. Then Brendan Nelson rushed to embrace the story, and I think that's where things went off plan.

As Crikey noted yesterday, Howard's camp is feeling the loss of their main spinmeister, Arthur Sinodis (Johnny's own Turd Blossom). Nelson said too much, and went too far. Howard had to crank the Damage Control machine into top gear:
"I had a look at what Brendan said and I think in fairness to him he didn't quite say that," Mr Howard told Macquarie Radio.
Now Matt Price and the other turds at News Ltd are helping with the mop-up operation. It wasn't poor Brendan Nelson's fault, you see - he thought the cat was out of the bag, when actually Howard was just letting the press hear a little meow of truth.

UPDATE: News Ltd is doing their own revisionist history thing too (hat-tip Eafster at Blogocracy):
In ‘Archives’ of News Ltd there is this ‘headline’…

Minister says oil a reason to stay in Iraq

Yet the Headline at the top of the actual story now reads…

PM outlines plans to keep troops in Iraq

With this disclaimer at the bottom…
Clarification: An earlier version of this story from the Australian Associated Press incorrectly reported the Prime Minister as saying oil was a reason for Australia’s continued military presence in Iraq.
Why are the papers so quiet about it all today...its getting ridiculous…