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As Rupert Murdoch Prepares to Hand Over His Media Empire, A Look At His Legacy of Climate Change Denialism

by Earth.Org Africa Americas Asia Europe Oceania Mar 15th 20218 mins
As Rupert Murdoch Prepares to Hand Over His Media Empire, A Look At His Legacy of Climate Change Denialism

In 1952, when Rupert Murdoch was 22, he inherited a chain of Australian newspapers following the death of his father. Fifteen years later, Murdoch had amassed a portfolio of newspapers worth more than $50 million. Today, he is one of the most influential people in the media industry, with his two empires built over the last 60 years- News Corp and Fox Corporation- owning media properties across five continents including The Herald Sun, The Australian, Fox News, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. As Rupert Murdoch turns 90 and his investors and children get ready to battle over the future of his media empire, Earth.Org takes a look at the climate change misinformation and denialism that has, and continues to, permeate through many of his publications.

Murdoch is credited with creating the modern tabloid, encouraging his newspapers to publish human interest stories focusing on controversy, crime and scandals. He has been embroiled in various scandals over the years, not least the phone hacking scandal that resulted in the demise of the mogul’s News of the World newspaper in 2011.

News Corp is the publisher of the Daily Telegraph, The Australian and it also owns some of the world’s most influential television channels, including Sky News in Australia and the UK and Fox News in the US. Murdoch’s papers in Australia are known for their conservatism, and their columnists frequently rage about the threat posed to the country by immigration and increasing recognition of LGBTQ rights.

Looking at the preferred content matter of his publications, it is clear that Murdoch has always valued profit over professionalism in journalism. This extends to climate science, a field which many of his writers have for years denigrated and belittled at the hope of stirring up controversy to sell newspapers.  

At the end of 2020 at News Corp’s annual general meeting, Rupert Murdoch claimed that the company does not deny climate change. Murdoch said the same thing at the 2019 AGM, declaring that News Corp was free of climate deniers. However the next day, geologist Ian Plimer published an opinion piece in the Australian saying that the major pollution in western nations was “the polluting of minds about the role of carbon dioxide.” He wrote, “There are no carbon emissions. If there were, we could not see because most carbon is black. Such terms are deliberately misleading, as are many claims.” Rupert Murdoch himself declared on Twitter in 2015 that he is a “climate change sceptic not a denier.”

This hypocrisy is a running trend. Amy Remeikis at the Guardian wrote an excellent piece exposing the disconnect between Murdoch’s claims and the content of the publications under his editorial control. 

Below are some of the stories that appeared over the same time period that News Corp publications were putting out hundreds of articles about climate change, including warnings from scientists about the need for action, glaciers melting and criticisms of Australia’s policies in particular:

Bushfires blind alarmists in media to climate reality” – the Australian, 24 November

Chris Kenny:

Hysterical efforts to blame the fires on climate change continue, even though we have always faced this threat and always will … Tinder-dry conditions on the eastern seaboard this year are attributable to drought but as I have reported before, according to the head of the UNSW centre for climate extremes, Professor Andy Pitman, there is insufficient evidence to directly link the drought to climate change. Much media ignores the history of worse conditions and fires, and the lack of long-term rainfall trends, and runs hard on climate causal links.

ABC reporters the real climate deniers” – the Australian, 2 December

Chris Mitchell:

Andrew Bolt told his viewers on Tuesday night that he had again complained to the ABC about the latest Media Watch segment. If you follow Bolt’s many writings about climate it is obvious he does accept the temperature is rising. It has risen one degree since the start of the 20th century.

But Bolt also reports scientists from other disciplines who question parts of the science. Many say climate models are not yet sophisticated enough to account for the effective regulation of atmospheric CO2 by the deep oceans, forests and soils. Bolt and others criticised by Media Watch often point to effects from solar activity. Many writers, like many climate scientists, say CO2 is not the most important greenhouse gas, pointing to water vapour and methane. These are all facts.

Greta Thunberg’s invincible ignorance has infected our smartest” – the Herald Sun, 8 December 

Andrew Bolt:

The science is clear: Morrison can do nothing to change the world’s climate and stop fires. Australia is just too small to make a difference.

[Therese] Rein and other critics such as Malcolm Turnbull are plainly irrational to suggest Morrison could dial down some giant thermostat.

Is there any point in also showing that the fires aren’t caused by global warming, and that a recent Nasa study shows fires are now burning less land, not more?

[Scott] Morrison can do nothing to change the world’s climate and stop fires.

No, facts have lost their power ever since postmodernism conquered our universities and reassured the stupid they were mere social constructs. Even conspiracies.

To mention facts now is no longer to bring light into darkness, but to set fire to your reputation.

News Corp faced heavy criticism over its coverage of climate change and the devastating bushfires that ravaged parts of Australia in late 2019/ early 2020, notably from Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, the heir apparent to the media empire, who left the board in July 2020. That January, he sent an email to all staff criticising the company’s coverage. He and his wife, Kathryn, both staunch believers in the climate crisis, told US website The Daily Beast, via a spokesperson, that their “views on climate are well-established and their frustration with some of the News Corp and Fox coverage of the topic is also well-known” and that they were “particularly disappointed with the ongoing [climate change] denial among the news outlets in Australia given the obvious evidence to the contrary.” Since stepping back from day-to-day roles with the business at the end of 2018, he was unsuccessful in an attempt to cash-in his stock completely and make a clean break with the company, after his brother Lachlan declined to buy him out.

A figure who peddled much of this misinformation about the bushfires was Andrew Bolt, a political commentator for News Corp’s Australian newspapers who is known for promoting the views of climate science deniers. He also has a programme on the Murdoch-owned Sky News Australia, where he has criticised the “constant stream of propaganda” on the public broadcaster ABC about the role of the climate crisis in the bushfires. In a broadcast, he criticised politicians who said that carbon emissions needed to be cut to avoid future fires, saying, “As if that would stop a fire. You’d have to be a child like Greta Thunberg to believe that fairytale.”

You might also like: Op-Ed: How the US Can Tackle Climate Change

How “Murdochracy” Controls the Climate Debate in Australia

News Corp’s newspaper account for 60% of Australia’s newspaper sales. This clear monopoly on the market means that News Corp can essentially guide the public narrative on issues, which is unethical in any case, but especially in cases where it is peddling falsehoods. 

During the bushfire season of 2019/ 2020, News Corp continued to deny the link between extreme weather events and climate change, despite a royal commission into the event fingering human-caused climate change as the culprit in its final report. 

While newspapers around the world featured the bushfires on their front pages, News Corp’s flagship newspaper, The Australian, dedicated its front page to a photo of a new year’s day picnic, and its tabloid Herald Sun relegated the story to page four. By that point, eight people had died in the bushfires, mass evacuations were underway from Victoria’s East Gippsland region, and the New South Wales (NSW) south coast had seen whole villages wiped out.

Overall, it is believed that 28 people have died in the bushfires across three states since September 2019. More than a billion animals were killed, over 2 000 houses lost, and at least 10 million hectares burnt.

News Corp’s Stance on Climate Change

The Australian’s associate editor once said that climate change was “not the era’s burning issue”, and the paper published an article that argued climate change activists were “global catastrophists” and part of a “socialist plot.”

This is despite the fact that the Australian public is largely in support taking more action on climate change; the 2019 Climate of the Nation survey found that 61% of Australians believe that climate change is caused by humans and 64% think that the country should have a national target for net zero emissions by 2050.

News Corp has long been conservative on climate change. Last year, a News Corp finance manager sent an email as she resigned that was addressed to chairman Michael Miller and copied to all staff. The woman wrote, “I find it unconscionable to continue working for this company, knowing I am contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies.” She described the news reports that came out of The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun as “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” The email was reportedly removed from staff inboxes within an hour.

Research at Griffith University in Brisbane conducted research on media coverage of climate change and found that News Corp’s media outlets do not take the reality of climate change as their starting point.

Susan Forde, a journalism professor at the university who conducted the research, said, “We tend to think that everything is up to editors, but this is clearly not true. The tone set by the owners of media organisations does in fact have a big impact on content.” 

In 2011, after the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World newspaper, there was a government inquiry into Murdoch’s domination of the Australian media. The inquiry found that existing self-regulation mechanisms were insufficient to ensure accountability by media outlets, and recommended that a News Media Council be established to set journalistic standards.

As Rupert Murdoch readies to hand over his empire, there are concerns that the climate change denialism editorial oversight that has pervaded throughout his tenure will continue. According to experts, change with the climate change narrative will require either an economic threat to Murdoch’s outlets or changes to editorial positions, which will need to come from Rupert or Lachlan Murdoch themselves. Journalism academic and media expert Margaret Simons says that “they would need to see that they’re losing readers, advertisers or shareholders as a result of their current views for there to be a shift.”

Featured image by: Flickr 

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