A curious diversion in the Leveson Inquiry took us back to 1983 and the serialisation of the fraudulent “Hitler diaries” in The Sunday Times. I’ve been reading Selling Hitler, Robert Harris’ terrific book on the shameful affair, and may write on it further at some point. For now, though, here are two thoughts. Firstly that I’d love to be around to see the exposure of the archives of Kim Jong-il’s LiveJournal. Secondly that the case is a marvellous illustration of the poisonous influence of Rupert Murdoch.
Gerd Heidemann, a journalist for Stern magazine, obtained the diaries over time from “Dr Fischer”, who was known for selling Nazi memorabilia. “Fischer” was, in fact, Konrad Kajau and a gifted if inelegant forger who was swotting up on Hitler’s life and writing the diaries himself. Germany’s most credulous man had met one of its most dishonest. Over time Heidemann talked more of his colleagues into trusting the validity of the documents he’d received from Kajau and as they invested more and more of their funds into the project they had no option but to convince themselves they were authentic. Under the pretence of secrecy they sent mere fragments to be studied by handwriting experts and decided not to let historians observe the diaries. One of the pair that did was Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was dispatched by Times Newspapers. The quantity of the documents, and the belief that they’d been firmly authenticated, led him to the presumptuous view that they were valid. This was enough for Murdoch. He imposed the publication on his doubtful employees.
Frank Giles, editor of the Sunday Times…[was] unenthusiastic, yet comforted by his belief that [the diaries] would be running in The Times. His sang froid had been shattered the previous day by a brief, transatlantic announcement from Murdoch that the Hitler diaries were going to be serialized in the Sunday Times after all: now that the Stern would be appearing on the Monday, Sunday had become the perfect day to print the extracts. It would enable the paper to avoid the risk of rivals getting hold of advance copies of the German magazine and printing pirated extracts of the diaries twenty-four hours ahead of them.
Murdoch was not a proprietor who encouraged dissent. Even strong editors found it had to stand up to him. Giles was not a strong editor.
On the day before publication Trevor-Roper, whose doubts had been simmering within his cerebrum, admitted to himself that the diaries were probably fraudulent. He rang Giles. (“These doubts aren’t strong enough to make you do a complete 180-degree turn on that? Oh. I see. You are doing a 180-degree turn.”) The Deputy Editor phoned Murdoch to ask if they should consider rewriting the paper…
“Fuck Dacre,” replied Murdoch. “Publish.”
Murdoch, then, dismissed the scepticism of the man on whose authority he had accepted the diaries as valid. Before Leveson Murdoch granted that he was responsible for the subsequent rhapsodising over Kajau’s scrawls and described it as a “major mistake”. But, of course, he was as liable to accept its implications as a Trophozoite is the feelings of its host: that his work is premised on gratifying his and his allies’ interests and that he’s prepared to enforce his plans across his fiefdom without care for principles of truth and hopes of enlightenment. The dangers of this would clear when he promoted a far more destructive hoax almost exactly two decades later.