News

Pressure is mounting against News Corp, led by former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd. They say democracy is damaged by the company’s ‘propaganda’ and ‘vendettas’. By Mike Seccombe.

How do you cure a cancer like Rupert Murdoch?

News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch.
Credit: Lev Radin / Alamy

Sometimes, silence speaks volumes. It certainly did on Wednesday this week, when the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young moved in the senate for the establishment of an inquiry into the “diversity, independence and reliability” of Australian media.

The government knew perfectly well what she was talking about: providing a forum for the many critics and victims of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire to speak up, under protection of parliamentary privilege.

And yet it did nothing to stop her. No government senator spoke up in defence of the Coalition’s great supporter in the media. The government didn’t call for a vote – which it might well have won. Instead, the Coalition meekly surrendered, and her motion was passed “on the voices”. Hanson-Young’s inquiry will have four months – it is slated to report next March – to take submissions, hear witnesses and, no doubt at all, cause great embarrassment to the Murdoch media.

The only inference to be drawn from Wednesday’s events in the senate is that the Morrison government determined it was politically unwise to be seen defending Rupert Murdoch – a decision that might be viewed by some as pretty ungrateful, considering all that Murdoch’s Australian empire has done for the Coalition.

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, for example, points out that in “19 federal and state elections since 2010, Murdoch has campaigned vigorously for one side of politics, and viciously against the other”.

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull notes that the Murdoch media is “very, very protective” of the current prime minister and his government.

Hanson-Young, as chair of the inquiry, plans to call both Rudd and Turnbull to give evidence, which should be colourful, given the added legal protection it will afford them to elaborate on swingeing critiques they both have already offered.

Indeed, it is arguably Rudd and Turnbull – along with recent events in the United States – who created the political space for the inquiry.

Rudd set the ball rolling a month ago, when he drafted a petition calling for a royal commission into media ownership and concentration in Australia.

“Our democracy depends on diverse sources of reliable, accurate and independent news,” it began. “But media ownership is becoming more concentrated alongside new business models that encourage deliberately polarising and politically manipulated news.”

Rudd’s petition went on to canvass a number of areas of concern, including whistleblower protection, official secrecy, unjust searches and prosecution of journalists, and the threats posed by Google and Facebook. But its strongest language related to News Corp, “founded by Fox News billionaire Rupert Murdoch”.

News Corp’s “overwhelming” control of the nation’s print media, the petition said, gave it power that was “routinely used to attack opponents in business and politics by blending editorial opinion with news reporting. Australians who hold contrary views have felt intimidated into silence. These facts chill free speech and undermine public debate.”

The petition garnered more than half a million signatures – including Turnbull’s – and might have got even more had it not overloaded the parliament’s website.

Despite this popular support, neither Labor nor the Coalition showed any interest in a royal commission. When The Saturday Paper spoke with Malcolm Turnbull on Monday, he conceded it was probably a quixotic endeavour.

The Morrison government had no interest in biting the hand that feeds it, he said. As for Labor: “Was it Bill Clinton who said you shouldn’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel?” he asked. “I mean, it’s obviously the same reason why Albo won’t support a royal commission.”

Some Labor people showed a modicum of courage. Rudd’s petition was tabled in the house of representatives by Andrew Leigh, who offered his thanks to “each of the 501,876 citizens who signed it”.

Leigh also quoted the words of US president-elect Joe Biden, who this week called on his country to “marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness”.

Said Leigh: “Essential to this is media accuracy and diversity. Yet Biden has faced forces like Fox News, which has downplayed coronavirus … perpetuated climate change denial and called refugees an ‘invasion’. There’s nothing fair or balanced in the way they have treated politics.”

The implication of Leigh’s words was that progressive forces in this country face the same bias from the same media organisation. But no current major party politician will say so openly.

Then again, they don’t really need to. The case against News Corp could hardly have been made more vigorously than it has been by Rudd and Turnbull now they are out of office.

Almost exactly three years ago, in November 2017, in an interview with The Saturday Paper’s Karen Middleton, Rudd first called the Murdoch media “a cancer on democracy” – a description he has repeated many times since.

Turnbull’s best-selling autobiography, A Bigger Picture, published earlier this year, is highly critical of the “clickbait” culture of the media in general, and especially savage about Murdoch in particular – not only in this country, but across the Anglosphere. In the US, Turnbull wrote, Murdoch’s outlets are “the fiercest defenders of Trump” and in Britain, “the keenest promoters of Brexit”. Everywhere, they “routinely exploit and encourage intolerance and racial and religious animosities” and “relentlessly” champion climate change denial.

Following the enormous public response to the petition, Rudd and Turnbull have only dialled up their criticism.

When The Saturday Paper spoke with Rudd the day after the petition’s tabling in parliament, he said a royal commission was only part – perhaps the ultimate end – of what he hoped to achieve.

“In the first instance, [the goal is] to cause people across Australia to realise they can raise their voice against Murdoch without fearing that they’ll be attacked and have their reputations destroyed, which is their normal pattern of behaviour,” he said.

“This is a long process. The culture of fear … is the first barrier to break down.”

Beyond that, Rudd said, he hoped for what he called “consciousness raising” among the populace – in particular a broader understanding of “the anti-science core to the Murdoch agenda”.

Rudd cited as examples the many stories run by News Corp mastheads during last summer’s bushfires, blaming arson “without any evidentiary basis”, and the company’s response to coronavirus, “challenging the authority of the chief medical officers of the world, whether it’s Fauci in the United States, or whether it’s the chief [health] officers in the states in Australia”.

The third goal, Rudd said, was to get people to understand the ideology that drives Murdoch and his media empire.

“And the ideology is that of the far right, which says we should have a minimalist government … because that means we pay the least tax and we have the least regulation. So: climate change action gets in the road of business; therefore, we should kill it.”

Ditto for coronavirus: “Engaging in large-scale lockdowns, in his judgement, is bad for business.”

Turnbull was no less harsh in his criticism of Murdoch when The Saturday Paper spoke to him on Monday.

A former journalist himself, Turnbull recalled a time when the Murdoch newspapers in Australia “dealt with the news as it came … and generally leaned to the right at election time”.

“But what’s happened,” he said, “is in recent years – I’m not quite sure what date it occurred – but they’ve turned into political propaganda. You might call it the Foxification of News Corp.

“It is literally undiluted, partisan propaganda. They support and cover up for their mates. They bully their enemies.”

Responsible media, Turnbull said, did not do that. “They don’t make stuff up. They don’t undertake vendettas.”

Turnbull talked of three centres of power that ended his prime ministership in 2018, and which continue to subvert any credible climate policy in Australia.

“You’ve got a kind of a troika of right-wingers: right-wingers in the Liberal Party and the National Party; amplified by the right-wing populist media, of which News Corp is the principal part; and then, of course, you’ve got the vested interests, the fossil fuel lobby.”

He cited, as an example of the way they acted in concert and protected one another, what happened when the New South Wales Environment minister, Matt Kean, spoke out about climate change at the height of last summer’s bushfires.

“We’ve got to stop making climate change a matter of religion and we’ve got to start making it a matter of science,” Kean said, suggesting there were a number of people in the Morrison government, including in cabinet, who wanted stronger action.

Kean’s words were perhaps a little provocative politically, but in scientific terms they amounted to “conventional, respectable stuff”, Turnbull said.

“There was nothing remotely startling or revolutionary in it. And he was attacked. The Telegraph went after him. It was a classic hit job,” Turnbull said.

“Then ScoMo had a go at him, too. It was unbelievable.”

Morrison went on radio and attacked the NSW Liberal minister: “Matt Kean doesn’t know what he’s talking about … Most of the federal cabinet wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was.”

Turnbull says that while he was prime minister the Murdoch media worked to remove him from office “because I was not going to run the government in partnership with News Corp, which Abbott certainly did. And, you know, the reality is the relationship Morrison has with News Corp is not, I don’t think, as hand in glove as Abbott’s was, but there’s certainly a very, very tight relationship. And Scott’s had that for many years.”

That was on Monday afternoon. On Monday night, Turnbull appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program and went even harder, tearing into The Australian’s most senior writer, Paul Kelly, about News Corp’s political bias and, in particular, its position on climate science.

He said the company had “turned this issue of physics into an issue of values or identity” – the equivalent of denying gravity exists. He said Murdoch had used “undiluted ideology and idiocy” to delay action on climate change and that this was “a shocking legacy”.

Turnbull made it very personal, going so far as to call for Kelly to do as Rupert Murdoch’s son James had and quit the company. The younger Murdoch, said Turnbull, “was so disgusted, he dissociated himself from the family business. Now, what does that tell you? How offensive, how biased, how destructive does it have to be, Paul, before you will say – one of our greatest writers and journalists – ‘It’s enough, I’m out of it’? I mean, how long will you keep apologising?”

Kelly was furious. He maintained it was valid to be sceptical about climate change. “How dare you?” he bellowed at Turnbull, repeatedly.

“I dare to do it,” the former prime minister said. “And I’m saying to you, Paul, it is about time that people that work for the Murdoch organisation speak up and say, publicly, what they say privately.”

The on-air argument had an odd sequel the next day, when News Corp released a statement about the show. It did not defend the company’s star writer, or take issue with Turnbull’s various assertions that News Corp and Murdoch were propagandists who had done “enormous damage to Western democracy and, in particular, to the United States and Australia”.

Instead, it applied some statistical analysis to one of the former prime minister’s milder utterances – that “we had 12 million hectares of our country burnt last summer and your newspapers were saying it was all the consequence of some arsonists”.

News Corp called this “blatantly untrue”. Between September 1 last year and January 23 this year, it said, “The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, The Courier-Mail and The Advertiser published 3335 stories about the bushfires …

“Only 3.4 per cent mentioned ‘arson’ or ‘arsonists’. In this same period, news.com.au also published more than 300 bushfire stories, of which only 16 mentioned arson, equivalent to 5 per cent. Not one of these small number of stories stated the bushfires were ‘all the consequence’ of arsonists.”

No doubt this was technically true – Turnbull was loose with his language. But News Corp was also being quite misleading, says Dr Simon Bradshaw, researcher on climate science and impacts at the Climate Council, who is across the detail of the various official reports commissioned following the bushfires.

Only one, commissioned by the NSW government, addressed the question of arson, says Bradshaw, “and it dealt with it very briefly, saying deliberately lit fires accounted ‘for a very small proportion of the area burnt’ ”.

The NSW government report listed 32 major fires over the 2019-20 fire season, the smallest of which burned 2771 hectares and the largest of which burned 512,626 hectares. Twenty-four were started by lightning. Others were started by “debris burning”, arcing power lines, mechanical equipment and a shredded tyre.

None was attributed to arson. None. Yet News Corp published some 130 stories linking the bushfire crisis to arson.

“It was particularly egregious to be pushing that myth – and it is a myth – about the role of arson in last summer’s fires,” he says. “The fact that arson was mentioned in a certain percentage of articles really doesn’t negate that at all. There was never a truth there.”

Another expert on the reality of the Black Summer bushfires, Gavan McFadzean, climate change and clean energy program manager with the Australian Conservation Foundation, suggests that News Corp’s tabulation of the number of stories about arson only underlines its “ideological predisposition” when it comes to climate science.

“That predisposition is not to rely on science and facts when it reports on these issues, and to try to ensure that extreme weather and climate change are decoupled.”

The strange statistical exercise may indicate something more than “the anti-science core to the Murdoch agenda”, as Rudd calls it.

It may also indicate that the media giant is a bit rattled. Right across the English-speaking world, it is looking increasingly isolated in its ideological positions.

In Britain, Murdoch’s favoured Tories are in disarray over the Brexit deal, which he and his papers championed. This week, former British prime minister John Major – a Conservative – lambasted the plan as a breach of international law that damaged the nation’s economy, its reputation and its influence with both Europe and the US. Brexit, he said, ensured that Britain would never again be a great power.

In the US, Murdoch’s former “very good friend” lost the presidency, and angry Trump supporters turned against Fox News for reporting that fact.

In this country, the great majority of people accept the reality of climate change. All the states and many of Australia’s largest corporations – but not Morrison and his troika – are committed to net zero emissions targets. Just this week Woolworths announced its ambition to be carbon negative by 2050.

The senate inquiry is already accepting submissions, and Hanson-Young’s office says it has been contacted by a significant number of people wanting to make one.

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller said the company would do as it has in “at least nine media inquiries held over the past decade”.

In a statement, he said: “As always, we will continue to constructively engage in these important conversations.”

It’s not the royal commission Rudd and Turnbull and half a million other Australians wanted, but it’s a start.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2020 as "How do you cure a cancer like Rupert Murdoch?".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.