Murdoch's bravado forced through the publication of the Hitler diaries
He is now sorry – but after I edited the Sunday Times 'scoop' against my better judgment, Rupert Murdoch was belligerent
Interesting that Rupert Murdoch now says he is "sorry" to have published the infamous Hitler diaries in 1983. That was very far from his attitude then – as I know to my cost. At the time I was an executive editor on the Sunday Times, and was given the thankless task of converting the diaries into journalism. It was an uphill task, partly because the daily entries were tosh – ("That Goebbels, what a pain in the neck … must do something about the way Goerring is throwing his weight around" – that kind of thing), but partly because Murdoch refused to allow the Sunday Times, the greatest investigative newspaper of its day, to inquire into the authenticity of the diaries for itself.And, when Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) finally questioned that authenticity, Murdoch famously responded: "Fuck Dacre – publish."
He had acquired the diaries for a knockdown price and after a brilliant piece of negotiation from Stern magazine. But so terrified was Stern that the diaries would leak, that its publishers insisted the only person who should be allowed to vet them was one man – Lord Dacre.
In vain, a number of us, including myself, Hugo Young and Phillip Knightley – pleaded with the editor, Frank Giles, to allow us to investigate the origin of the diaries and to test the handwriting and paper. We had already had our fingers burned when we bought the apparently authentic Mussolini diaries, only to find they were fake.
But once Dacre had given the diaries his approval Giles was under orders from Murdoch to publish them without any further inquiry or delay. My colleague Paul Eddy and I sat up throughout the Friday night before publication, trying to knock the material into shape. I am ashamed to say we made a pretty good job of it. By Saturday morning we had the makings of one of the most sensational front pages the paper had ever produced. But so filled with doubt were we that at one point we wondered whether we should resign. Instead I agreed to ring Dacre at his Cambridge college, Peterhouse, and ask him point blank whether he would vouch for their authenticity.
"Of course," he said, "I'm 100% certain." Then, pausing briefly, he added: "Well, let's say 99%." Since we now know that he had already expressed his doubts to the then editor of the Times, Charles Douglas-Home, that was, shall we say, disingenuous. I've never quite trusted the "99% certain" argument since.
And so we went ahead with one of the most humiliating episodes in the history of the Sunday Times. Murdoch's attitude, however, was belligerent in defence of his decision – even when the diaries began to fall apart. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," he was reported as saying. "Circulation went up and stayed up, we didn't lose money or anything like that."
Some days after the event, a group of us walked down the Gray's Inn Road to see Murdoch at the Times. We wanted to explore how the Sunday Times could extricate itself from the Hitler diaries debacle. We talked about the damage the episode had done to the paper's reputation, and wondered whether we should admit we had been conned, mount an investigation of the fake, or simply put it down to experience.
I remember at one point looking up at Murdoch and noticing: "He's bored" – bored by whingeing journalists wringing their hands about something that none of us could do anything about it. "Look," he said, "I don't know why you're all so worked up. We put on 60,000 in circulation last week, and there's every evidence we're hanging on to it." Soon afterwards, we were ushered out of the room.
Today, at the Leveson inquiry, he concedes that he is sorry he published. So the years have taken the edge off his former bravado. Nevertheless, he deserves credit for saying he takes full responsibility for it. He did and he does. But I'm not sure whether the rest of us were as robust as we should have been in standing up to him.
I was so thrown by the whole affair that I felt compelled, for some reason, to call Professor George Steiner, then at Oxford, to seek his guidance. I had sat at his feet at Cambridge, and respected his moral position. Down the line, he commiserated. "This is a terrible day for the Sunday Times," he said. "I wonder if it will ever recover."
Then he brightened up. "Have you heard the limerick that's going round the senior common rooms?" he asked. "It goes like this:
"There once was a fellow called Dacre
Was God in his own little acre.
But in matters of diaries was quite ultra vires,
And just could not spot an old faker."
It sort of made me feel better.
• This article was amended on 26 April 2012. It originally referred to Peterhouse as an Oxford college. This has now been corrected