Today
Thu 21 October 2021

While Fox News and other outlets have polarised Australia, the US and UK, CJ Werleman fears that an even ruder shock awaits us

A week after thousands of Donald Trump supporters, radicalised by the former President’s lies and conspiracy theories, stormed the US Capitol to overturn the result of a free and fair election, Rupert Murdoch’s youngest son – James – took aim at his father’s news media empire, accusing it of unleashing “profound damage” on the United States and being complicit in the violent insurrection.

“Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years,” he told the Financial Times. “I hope that those people who didn’t think it was that dangerous now understand, and that they stop”.

He didn’t mention Fox News by name, but he didn’t have to, given that his father’s cable news network, which is now run by his brother Lachlan, was the only mainstream news outlet to give cover to Trump’s bogus claims of a stolen election.

“Spreading disinformation – whether about the election, public health or climate change – has real world consequences,” said James Murdoch and his wife Kathryn in a joint statement. 

“Many media property owners have as much responsibility for this as the elected officials who know the truth but choose instead to propagate lies. We hope the awful scenes we have all been seeing will finally convince those enablers to repudiate the toxic politics they have promoted once and forever”.

It was the shot heard around the world, a son calling out his father – a billionaire media baron – for bringing the world’s most powerful democracy to the brink of collapse. His comments dominated the international news, but with one notable exception: the country of Murdoch’s birth, Australia.

The Murdoch news empire controls more than 70% of the Australian news media landscape, including ownership of the major tabloid newspapers in each of the major cities, the national broadsheet The Australian, and 24/7 cable news network Sky News. But not one of these outlets published or commented on James Murdoch’s remarks, leaving roughly three-quarters of the Australian public essentially in the dark.

The editors at the Herald Sun (Melbourne), Daily Telegraph (Sydney), Courier Mail (Brisbane), Advertiser (Adelaide), and Australian (national) made a deliberate choice to suppress criticism of the way in which they conduct their operations from their former boss, a son and brother to their current bosses.

It’s little wonder that Trumpism has taken root Down Under and it explains why, rather than denouncing Trump by name for inciting a violent insurrection against the United States Government, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack offered only weak condemnations, with the latter falsely comparing plotters and perpetrators of the violent coup with Black Lives Matter protestors against racial injustice, which drew a rebuke from world leaders and human rights groups.

Former and current leaders of the country’s conservative coalition even lend support to Trump’s proven lies about election fraud, including former Australian ambassador to the US Joe Hockey and Queensland Liberal National Party MP George Christensen, who explicitly backed Trump’s conspiracy theory in a social media post about ‘Democrat Vote Fraud‘.

Murdoch has essentially turned Australia’s political discourse into a giant right-wing, pro-National Party echo chamber, and it is therefore of little surprise that the country’s democracy has been downgraded from “open” to “narrow” in the most recent annual report on the civil rights of countries worldwide.

It should also be noted that Murdoch’s Australian news outlets also mimicked Fox News by downplaying the Coronavirus and spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation about face masks, lockdowns and vaccines.

When James Murdoch announced his resignation from his father’s news business in August, he accused it of “legitimising disinformation” and argued that the mission of “great news organisations really should be to introduce facts to disperse doubt – not to sow doubt, to obscure fact, if you will”. He also savaged the company for amplifying conspiracy theories during last summer’s unprecedented bushfires in Australia to divert attention away from climate change.


‘Foxification’ to be Amplified

The untold damage the Murdoch empire has done to democracies in Australia, the United States and the UK is measured in the deepening social-political divisions, the mainstreaming of hateful rhetoric, and the widespread belief of conspiracy theories and the rejection of science. Even more worryingly, it is likely that the ‘Foxification’ of these respective countries is about to be made ever worse.

In the UK, two new right-leaning channels are set to be launched in April and May, including Murdoch backed News UK TV, which will run by a former Fox News executive; and GB News, which has appointed the chief executive of Murdoch’s Sky News in Australia.

“Unlike America’s Fox News, of course, the new channels will be bound by Ofcom’s impartiality rules – but those rules can be bent,” observed Martin Fletcher in the New Statesman. “Commercial imperatives… all push in one direction only. In its early years Fox News was relatively mainstream, but it soon realised how to drive up rating and advertising revenue. The trick was not expensive, high-quality journalism, but the stoking of division, tribalism and outrage, and the decrying of rival channels as purveyors of liberal agendas and fake news.”

In the US, cable and streaming upstarts One America News and Newsmax aim to pull away Fox News viewers who believe that the Murdoch-owned outlet isn’t sufficiently right-wing, anti-liberal, conspiratorial and nativist enough – by dialling up what James Murdoch described as “insidious and uncontrollable forces”.

“This could lead to the most profound change in news consumption that America has seen in decades,” observes Axios.

The amplification of racist rhetoric, xenophobia and conspiracy theories within the right-wing mainstream media ecosystem has also served to unite far-right groups in the US with like-minded groups and individuals in Europe, Australia and UK – with many finding inspiration and common cause with the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol.

“Far-right extremists, Corona sceptics and neo-Nazis are feeling restless,” Stephan Kramer, head of domestic intelligence for the eastern German state of Thuringia, told The New York Times. “There is a dangerous mix of elation that the rioters made it as far as they did and frustration that it didn’t lead to a civil war or coup.”

The arrival of news media outlets aiming to out-flank the Murdoch empire from the far-right should send chills across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

If the Murdoch media empire’s toxicity hasn’t made the ascertainment of truth hard enough in these post-truth times, then it is likely that an even ruder shock awaits.

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