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Sun 25 October 2020
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CJ Werleman reports on calls for a royal commission into News Corp in Australia, following James Murdoch’s comments that his father’s media empire ‘legitimises disinformation’

The former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has launched a petition to establish a royal commission inquiry into the oversized influence Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation has on his country’s media and political landscape, accusing the Australian-born billionaire of running a “protection racket” for the conservative coalition.

In the past, Rudd has called News Corp a “cancer on democracy”. The petition has attracted more than 250,000 signatures so far.

“Australia’s print media is overwhelmingly controlled by News Corporation” and “this power is routinely used to attack opponents in business and politics by blending editorial opinion with news reporting” Rudd said.

The day after he posted the petition online, Rupert Murdoch’s son James Murdoch told reporters that he quit his father’s news empire in August because it “legitimises disinformation”, arguing that the mission of “great news organisations really should be to introduce fact to disperse doubt – not to sow doubt, to obscure fact, if you will”.

Earlier this year, while still a member of News Corp’s board, James Murdoch slammed the company’s deliberate and ongoing efforts to disseminate disinformation on climate change and deceive the Australian public about the causes of last summer’s unprecedented bushfires. It was a sentiment shared by Emily Townsend, the company’s commercial finance manager, who sent an email to senior staff blasting an editorial for “contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies”.

The issue with News Corp it its capacity to ‘influence the opinions of the vast majority of less engaged citizens whose political understanding is shaped directly by the popular newspapers’.

Robert Manne

It is not for nothing that Australia ranks 57 out of 57 countries on climate change action.

Instead of attempting serious journalism, News Corp pushed the ideological bent of Rupert Murdoch, a US-based billionaire who doesn’t care what hazard or harm is inflicted upon Australia’s social and political wellbeing by his army of tabloid-level shock jocks, so long as his profits climb ever upwards and government doesn’t interfere with the ownership of his assets.

That a US judge ruled in favour of Fox News prime host Tucker Carlson in a defamation lawsuit against him by arguing that Carlson is not a provider of “news” or “facts” as we commonly understand them is everything we need to know about the seriousness with which News Corp treats journalism in the public interest.


A Threat to Democracy

For Kevin Rudd, there are two primary concerns.

Firstly, News Corp controls nearly 70% of the country’s newspaper landscape, reaching 100% in the state of Queensland. It owns The Australian, the Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, Courier Mail, Mercury, Advertiser, and NT News, while also controlling Sky News, widely regarded as Australia’s near-equivalent to Fox News.

Secondly, there exists a level of coordination between the Murdoch news empire and the conservative coalition and Rudd believes it is in the public’s interest to flush this relationship out by means of a royal commission.

“Details of the supplications, threats, deals, promises, attitudes and motives that are the stuff of these interactions would shed extraordinarily valuable light on a highly influential aspect of the way Australia’s democracy works,” observes Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism. “It would enable the public to assess just how extensive Murdoch’s influence is, and what effect it has on public policy and electoral outcomes”.

Robert Manne, who is widely regarded as one of the country’s leading public intellectuals, believes that the issue with News Corp it its capacity to “influence the opinions of the vast majority of less engaged citizens whose political understanding is shaped directly by the popular newspapers and indirectly through the commercial radio and television programmes which rely on the daily papers for the content of their programmes and, more deeply, for the way they interpret the world”.

News Corp’s entire editorial policy seem to pivot on aligning the outrage and fear provoked in the public with the interests of the country’s conservative Liberal Party – a modus operandi that is distorting the way Australians interpret current events and issues that affect their daily lives.

Were it not for company’s dominance of the media landscape, it is probable that a majority of Australians would never have backed the conservative coalition’s military support for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq; a clear majority would support climate change action; Australia wouldn’t have become one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, specifically with regards to its mistreatment of refugees; and far fewer than seven Prime Ministers would have been rotated in and out of government in the past decade.

The Murdoch media empire’s ubiquitous and round-the-clock dissemination of racist, nativist, ultranationalist, conspiratorial and counter-factual propaganda and misinformation has rocked the foundations of Australia’s democratic institutions and norms, as evident in the way that the country’s democracy was recently downgraded from “open” to “narrow” by the democracy watchdog group CIVICUS Monitor.

The group cited the Australian Government’s prosecution of whistleblowers, crackdown on peaceful protests, and raids on the homes of journalists who were investigating alleged war crimes carried out by Australian forces in Afghanistan.

Then there’s the fact that ASIO, the country’s top spy agency, has identified violent right-wing extremism to be the country’s most pressing domestic terror threat, jumping from 10% of its caseload to 40% in the past four years – another indication that the politics of extremism has moved from the fringes of Australian society into the mainstream.

An inquiry into the way Murdoch conducts his news business is one of great and desperate importance – the wellbeing of Australia’s democracy depends on an informed citizenry gaining an understanding of how it is that they are being misinformed.


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