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Fintan O’Toole: Rupert Murdoch is a super-spreader of ignorance on coronavirus

Spit at someone and you go jail. Spread deadly lies and you enjoy impunity

Rupert Murdoch: between them, Trump and Murdoch have helped to make the US the epicentre of the pandemic. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The comparison of the coronavirus crisis to a war is worse than useless. But it does prompt a question: if this were a war, who should be put on trial afterwards? Donald Trump, for obvious reasons. Xi Jinping for China's initial cover-up of the outbreak, a crime that seems ever more egregious as we begin to understand that the virus may well have been circulating in Europe in December. But the other member of this triumvirate of infamy would have to be Rupert Murdoch.

In the political epidemiology of this disaster, Trump, Xi and Murdoch are the super-spreaders. They are the three monkeys of Covid-19 denialism: see no problem, hear no problem, speak no problem. Trump and Murdoch – the feedback loop between Fox News and the White House – have helped to give the US, with just five per cent of the world’s population, a third of global coronavirus infections.

It takes practice to be so good at spreading fatal ignorance and Murdoch has lots of it. No individual on the planet has done more to undermine public trust in scientific warnings of the threats facing humanity.

Climate change denial has been so outrageous in some of Murdoch’s newspapers and on Fox News that, when the terrible wildfires were blazing in his native Australia in January, his own son James and daughter-in-law Kathryn issued a statement saying; “They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among the [Murdoch] news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary”.


Not that Murdoch cares one way or the other about climate change. It’s just business. There’s a great market in telling people what they want to hear; that global warming is not really happening – and if it is, it has nothing to do with human activity.

Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

So, for example, while the Great Barrier Reef is being destroyed, Murdoch’s Australian papers run headlines like “Sea life thrives as coral blooms”. In the US, Republicans who watch Fox News are more than twice as likely to deny human causation of climate change than Republicans who don’t.

The dope of ignorance is addictive and Murdoch is a cartel-boss grade pusher

Given this history of peddling comforting lies for money, it is not surprising that Murdoch applied the same template to the threat from the coronavirus. The formula is simple: ignorance plus false reassurance plus conspiracy theories equals dollars. There was no crisis – it was all “hysteria” generated by liberals to undermine the great Donald Trump.

We know Murdoch himself did not believe this. Why? Because, while 90 per cent of Fox News viewers told pollsters in mid-March that they were not staying at home, Murdoch had already cancelled his own planned birthday party on March 8th and gone into isolation on his California ranch. He knew the danger, but he heroically sent his cash-cow viewers (average age 65) out to face them anyway.

The dope of ignorance is addictive and Murdoch is a cartel-boss grade pusher. So, for example, 16 per cent of Americans who watch cable channels other than Fox News believe Trump’s suggestion that exposure to UV light can be an effective protection against Covid-19. For those who watch Fox, the figure is 63 per cent. On every measure of how well people understand the virus and know how to stop it spreading, Fox News viewers are the most deluded. In this crisis, delusion kills.

Reckless disregard

Most countries treat the knowing infection of other people, or reckless disregard for the possibility of transmitting a virus, as crimes. Spit at one person and you go jail. Put millions at risk for your own profit by pouring lies into their ears, and as Murdoch announced he would do on Friday, you graciously forgo your corporate bonus.

Murdoch and Trump have between them helped to make the US the epicentre of the pandemic

Murdoch is no different to the mine owner who sends his workers into tunnels that might collapse or the chemicals mogul who knows his plant is poisoning the local population but keeps it going anyway. He is one of the world's great polluters, pumping out noxious disinformation 24 hours a day. But he does so with impunity because, as Trump, Boris Johnson and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison can testify, he affects elections.

And he’s not yet finished with coronavirus lies.

The next phase is the shifting of blame. Murdoch and Trump have between them helped to make the US the epicentre of the pandemic. They are now moving in lockstep to channel the anger that should be unleashed against them into a conspiracy theory: that the virus is not a natural phenomenon but was, rather, manufactured in the Wuhan Institute of Technology.

As Trump's secretary of state Mike Pompeo puts it: "There is enormous evidence that that's where this began." Part of Murdoch's Australian media operation has been making the same claims and Fox News is amplifying them.

On March 17th, an authoritative study led by the Scripps Research Institute in the US definitively ruled out the possibility that the virus could have been manufactured in a lab or engineered by humans: “We can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.”

But so what? For the Trump-Murdoch axis, the conspiracy is a necessary fiction. The higher the body count rises in the US, the more virulent the spread of the virus of lies about how and why the disaster happened.