Saturday, May 29, 2010

Murdoch and Hitchens: Two Great Non-fiction Reads

Over the last two weeks I've read Sarah Ellison's War at the Wall Street Journal and Christopher Hitchens' Hitch-22. You won't find any better non-fiction around at present. Both books are superb.

Sarah Ellison was a senior reporter with the WSJ during the months of struggle by Rupert Murdoch to acquire the paper, a true American icon, in 2007. She covered the story for the Journal, so was in a prime position to bring all the threads together to produce what must be one of the best business books of the year (up there with Michael Lewis' The Big Short).

What is simply amazing about this book is the incredible access Ellison obviously had to all the players, major and minor, in the drama. This is about as 'inside' as a book can get. It's almost as if she had secret microphones under board tables, tray tables, crockery, car seats, beds, urinals...whatever. Everybody seems to have disclosed virtually every piece of detail to her. Even Murdoch himself seems to have allowed her unlimited access. 

But the real pleasure of the book is the riveting tale itself - how the Bancroft family, owners of the Journal for over a century, were slowly but surely worn down and outmanoeuvred by a master at the game. 

And the subsidiary story is just as powerful: it's about newspapers and their future, if any. How, in the first instance, would the WSJ change under Murdoch's control - would the culture, values and journalistic integrity it enshrined for decades be undermined? And how would, not just it, but all newspapers fare in a radically changing media world?

Ellison is fair, broad-minded, and professional to the end. Her own biases are never thrust down the reader's throat. But the facts she marshalls speak for themselves. The Journal is a very different paper two years after Murdoch took control. Many observers lament this. But Murdoch, of course, begs to differ: 'We produced a better paper. I'm sorry but it's as simple as that'.

I've long been a fan of Christopher Hitchens, one of the West's most vociferous and intelligent defenders against fascists, extremists, dictators, totalitarians and other fools. Since the Iraq war however, when he, alone in leftist circles, came out in support of Bush's 2003 invasion, he has been pretty universally vilified by friend and foe alike, and he's challenged the loyalty of his many fans. He's also recently, of course, joined the Atheist brigade along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. (I found his 2008 treatise God is Not Great almost unreadable in its anthropological ignorance and all round pomposity).

Hitch-22, A Memoir can be seen as a monumental justification of his unpopular positions (it's a densely typed 435 pages), or as a fascinating exploration of his lifelong obsessions, beliefs, passions and friendships. It's clearly the latter but works also as the former.

This is a beautifully written story of a passionate believer in political liberalism, secularism and global democracy. One admirable feature of Hitchens' style of journalism is his constant determination to get out from under his desk, to get away from his books, friends and comfortable lifestyle, and personally visit the trouble spots of the world on a regular basis. He's been a political activist, a player, all his life, from his rabble-rousing Oxford and Cambridge days, through to his frequent excursions to Cuba, Poland, Argentina, Romania, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Zimbabwe, Cyprus, Morocco, Uganda, Venezuela, Nicaragua and many others.

He's almost Woody Allen's Zelig, his famous everywhere man...talking to heads of state and other key players at seemingly every momentous turning point in world history.

But one of the real pleasures of this book is the fine intellect and profound literary and cultural erudition that underpins it. There are so many wonderful allusions and apt quotes - they could be assembled as small books in themselves. And talk about interesting friends!

Hitchens is a fabulous character who has written a fabulous book. Well worth an investment of your time.

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