Bush fires, Brexit and Fox News make 2020 pivotal year for Murdoch
Awkward 12 months attracts Australian scrutiny, end of Trump and a boardroom exit
Rupert Murdoch at Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, Scotland, with Donald Trump and Murdoch’s wife Jerry Hall, in June 2016. File photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters
A “cancer on democracy” is a stark description of anybody, but former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd knows what he’s doing when he applies it to Rupert Murdoch, the mogul under renewed fire in the country of his birth.
“It’s a cancer on democracy when the Murdoch media monopoly acts effectively as a protection racket for the conservatives,” Rudd told the Financial Times. In a “why I’m taking on Rupert Murdoch” opinion piece published by Financial Times sister title Nikkei Asia, he expands: the climate change denialism perpetuated by Murdoch-owned Australian media relies on the same “pseudoscience” tactics used by Big Tobacco in the 1950s and 1960s to muddy the connection between smoking and cancer.
Seasoned observers have noted that Rudd’s petition calling for an independent inquiry into Australian media diversity is unlikely to have Murdoch quaking in his 89-year-old boots. Awkwardly, however, he isn’t the only former Australian prime minister launching salvos.
That Malcolm Turnbull hails from Australia’s conservative Liberal party rather than Rudd’s Labor hasn’t stopped him either backing the petition – signed by more than 500,000 Australians – or from going viral after a televised clash with Paul Kelly, editor-at-large of Murdoch title the Australian.
An energised Turnbull contended that Murdoch media had devolved from “tending” to lean right rather than left to “pure propaganda”, including a “just staggering” campaign on climate denial that not even James Murdoch could stomach. “He is not a dangerous leftie, he is not a grumpy old ex-prime minister. He is the son of the proprietor, and he has walked away.”
But it was when Kelly suggested there were two sides to climate change that Turnbull really let rip on “the company you work for” and its friends in politics, including one Donald Trump. “You have turned something that should be a question of engineering and economics into undiluted ideology and idiocy, and we are paying the price in delayed action to address global warming.”
Murdoch, he added, deserved “a huge share of the blame” for this and it was “a shocking legacy”.
Legacy is a concept that crops up often in discussions of Murdoch and News Corp, as it would for all empires headed by a frighteningly successful businessman a few months off turning 90, though in his case the conversation has also been fuelled by decades of intrigue over which of the elder Murdoch children will inherit the keys to the family kingdom.
The boardroom-adjacent drama – in which fans of television series Succession have understandably spotted the occasional parallel – reached a clear conclusion in July when James Murdoch resigned from the board of News Corp citing “disagreements over certain editorial content”, having previously criticised the company for equivocating about climate change even as Australian bush fires raged.
For many who have learned not to underestimate Rupert Murdoch, the surprise plot twist actually came three years ago when he agreed to sell his 20th Century Fox film studio and other entertainment assets to Disney. “Are we retreating? Absolutely not. We are pivoting at a pivotal moment,” said Murdoch.
But a year later when he lost out to US cable giant Comcast in the race to buy all of European pay-TV company Sky – having more than once sought to increase his 39 per cent stake to full ownership – the “legacy” debates started up again. What, apart from climate change scepticism, will Murdoch leave behind him anyway?
The latest anti-Murdoch outbreak in Australia has coincided with a pivotal winter for Fox News, one Fox asset Murdoch decided to keep. Trump is out, almost, and that creates a sensitive situation for the network overseen by Fox Corporation chief executive Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s eldest son. The Trumpian audience that has sustained its profits of late is now in play because its stop-start process of distancing itself from Trump’s fictions has created market space for more extreme, reality-challenged competitors such as Newsmax and One America News Network.
Regime change at the White House may yet turn out to be little more than a minor wrinkle in Fox’s tale of dubious glory, of course. Perhaps the bigger point is not that Murdoch’s US outlets have “turned” on the losing presidential candidate, but that the Murdoch candidate lost in the first place.
In this time zone, the Murdoch front has been quieter. In the UK, his latest play is the launch of would-be BBC competitor Times Radio. In Ireland, he does business through the Irish editions of The Sun and The Sunday Times and through the digital-only Times Ireland, which made most of its staff redundant last year after the axe fell on a short-lived print edition.
News Corp is also the parent of TalkSport radio group Wireless, through which Murdoch has somehow ended up inheriting the Strawberry Alarm Clock. The Wireless portfolio in the Republic – loss-making, according to its most recent accounts – stretches to Dublin radio stations FM104 and Q102, Cork’s 96FM and C103, Louth-Meath station LMFM and Limerick’s Live 95 FM.
In a world of Google and Facebook, News Corp could be having a better time of it commercially: the business, which doesn’t include Fox, made a loss of $1.5 billion in the year to the end of June. On a brighter note – for him – everybody in Westminster seems far too depressed about other things to “take on” Murdoch these days. Well, it’s much too late for that.
Rudd’s verdict inevitably recalls the oft-quoted remark by late screenwriter Dennis Potter, who said he called his cancer “Rupert” because “there is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press”. Indeed, as the UK flounders its way to the end of the Brexit transition period, the ramifications of Murdoch’s anti-Europe stance have simply become part of the fabric of everyday bureaucracy. It manages to be a shocking legacy – yet also a painfully dull one.