The ructions inside the Murdoch empire last week when youngest son, James made a very rare but very public criticism of the family companies news coverage of climate change in the wake of the Australian bushfires shines a revealing light on what is likely to be the continued ” Foxification” of our local media.
James and his wife, Kathryn, committed climate change activities and liberals – at least by Murdoch family standards – broke with the family ranks and issued an extraordinary statement accusing News Corp’s Australian publications in particular, of promoting climate change denial.
The couple, through their spokesperson, noted how frustrated they were with some of the News Corp and Fox News coverage of the topic, but “particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial [of the role of climate change] among the news outlets in Australia, given obvious evidence to the contrary”.
There have been long simmering rivalries and feuds within the family for many years, but tensions have almost never erupted publicly. James’ criticism was all the more striking since not only does he still command a significant interest in the family company – and a seat on the board – but that it was directed fairly and squarely at his elder brother Lachlan – who along with father Rupert is Co-Chairman of News Corp and executive chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation – parent of the Fox News channel.
That James is less than enamoured of his father and sibling rival’s stewardship of what remains of the family company after its 21st Century Fox division was sold off to Disney early last year, is not new. When in late 2018, Murdoch Snr determined that it would be Lachlan who had won out, and be the heir apparent who would oversee the remains of the empire, James promptly offered to sell his substantial voting stock in the company to Rupert and Lachlan. He wanted out entirely. Whilst his father was reportedly in favour of the deal, Lachlan baulked at the scale of the financial commitment and James remains locked inside the business.
At odds is less the ideological differences between the relatively liberal James and the more conservative Lachlan on issues such as climate change but a more fundamental clash between idealism on the one hand, and sheer pragmatism on the other. The younger Murdoch committed as he is to what he believes is the growing threats in the West to liberalism and democracy has always been uncomfortable with the populist polarising views espoused by the right wing night time anchors of the company’s Fox News channel. He saw a more connective role for the News Corp’s media properties around the world as the way ahead, not one which manipulated people to fight with one another.
Lachlan, on the other hand, does not care about the politics, so long as it is making money. And without doubt, Fox News is by far the most successful and profitable news channel in the United States by a long margin, and as such it is a business model Lachlan intends to export across the globe – including most importantly Australia.
In truth, both News Corp and the Fox Corporation are publicly traded companies, and as their joint chairman and chief executive, Lachlan’s first duty is to his shareholders to ensure that in an increasingly competitive and disrupted media sector, those business remain both profitable and viable. And if you have a model that appears to be working in the face of the competitive onslaught coming new media monoliths such as Facebook and Google, why would you.
Populist politics targeting immigration, nationalism, environmental protectionism, globalism and climate change denialism appeal to an older, white, right conservative demographic that are still enormously important to advertisers. It is a credible survival strategy in a sector filled with the pain of digital disruption.
Rupert Murdoch was never in the media because of the journalism. He was there because it is – or at least it was – good business. I remember sitting in the back of a limousine with Murdoch in Beijing China, in early 1995 when he was still mulling over whether to give Roger Ailes Fox News channel the green light or not. It was, he explained, less about any perceived conservative ideological stand, it was that he saw an audience that was being underserved by what he perceived as a left-wing, anti-business media – in particular CNN, MNBC, the New York Times and Washington Post amongst others. He didn’t care about the politics – it was the chance to make money. That it became enormously politically influential in the lead up to – and now during the Trump Presidency -is a bonus along with its financial success. That was, and always has been Rupert’s gift – the ability to peer around corners and see opportunities where others see none.
The Foxification or News Corp’s Australian media outlets was initially slow but has accelerated under Lachlan’s leadership. This is in part recognition that Australia’s centre and left audiences are well served by a crowded market that includes the ABC, the Nine newspapers, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review, the Saturday Paper, New Daily, Crikey and The Guardian to name a few. So why play there when there when you can serve an relatively untapped market right of centre and make it your own. It differentiates you from the crowd.
In part this explains the increase in the plethora of conservative right-wing anchors and columnists on Sky News after dark, in the opinion and too often front pages of the national broadsheet The Australian and mainstay tabloids of Sydney and Melbourne, respectively the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun. Hard news has become a commodity available everywhere on multiple devices at any time of the day. Opinionated commentators preaching to the populist prejudices of the right, resonate with their target audience. The downside is that some of the commentators shout so loudly, so often so shrilly that it skews perceptions of the channel or the paper and hides the often-excellent journalism, straight-laced reporting and fine writing contained within. That’s true of Sky News during the day and The Australian’s factual reporting in particular. Perhaps sometimes less is more when it comes to conservative anchors and columnists.
Rupert Murdoch turns 89 in a couple of months. In self-confessed “retirement” his shadow nevertheless still looms large over the remains of his empire although his eldest son now has day-to-day operational control of the business. I once wrote of Murdoch Snr that he was the most impressive man I’d ever met, and also the most pragmatic i.e. never get in the way of Rupert and a dollar bill! In that regard, Lachlan is most certainly a chip off the old block and we can expect that Foxification of the Murdoch media in Australia to continue unabated. It’s a survival tactic, not an ideological crusade.
To quote Michael Corleone in the Godfather 1 as he justifies the killing of a couple of formerly loyal henchmen; “It’s not personal, it strictly business”.
Bruce Dover was in charge of News Corp’s business development in China from 1992 to 1998. He established a media consultancy in Australia in 2003 before being appointed Chief Executive of ABC TV’s Australia Network in 2007. He wrote the book ‘Rupert’s Adventures in China’ in 2008