The grim news is that Rupert’s heir, Lachlan, is a less intelligent and harder right force in News Corp. The death of the old man can’t save us.
Rupert Murdoch may turn out to be one of the single most destructive figures in media history.
His impact is clearly seen in Australia where his media empire’s influence is most undiluted. Even former Prime Ministers here are speaking out with two recent leaders describing his corporation’s influence as a “cancer” on, and “an absolute threat to,” democracy.
Australians, however, may not understand how far Murdoch is willing to allow his influence to drag the Overton Window. The New York Times last week revealed the results of a months-long study of Tucker Carlson’s influence, including trawling through every transcript of his top-rating show on Murdoch’s Fox News.
Two disturbing points emerge. One is that Carlson is constantly inculcating white supremacist talking points and similar fringe beliefs into a powerful sector of the “conservative” coalition. The second is that he does so with the support of the Murdochs.
After Trump’s election loss in 2020, and the invasion of the Capitol by his rioters, the supportive media faced a choice. Fox decided to chase ratings into the unhinged world of MAGA media, losing its few reputable journalists and silencing any who questioned Trump’s worldview. Carlson, however, did not begin radicalising his older white audience then; he had been doing so for years.
Carlson’s use of the white supremacist trope “the Great Replacement” drew outrage in April 2021. It is the idea that a Jewish cabal is orchestrating an influx of people of colour and different faiths into the west’s nations to replace the white Christian civilisation that is, supposedly, at the heart of everything great about humankind. The Great Replacement is at the core of manifestos of mass shooters and pervades the groups that cultivate them. The founder of the US’s most notorious neo-nazi website described Carlson as a “one-man HOLOCAUST”.
It was not new: Carlson has used the concept of the Democrats consciously working to replace white Americans (whom he encodes as “legacy” Americans) to win elections approximately 400 times since the show began in 2016. He creates, in his lengthy monologues and interviews with fellow travellers, the sense that everything done by “the authorities” is intended to harm his audience. Pandemic restrictions and vaccinations, climate action and diversity programs: all are existential threats to “legacy” Americans. His is the kind of rhetoric that foments genocides.
And the Times report points out that Australian News Corp print editors watch the show “religiously” believing it “provides clues to Mr Murdoch’s own views.”
This is not unreasonable. Carlson no longer speaks to the chief executive at Fox, nor has to answer to its “media relations department” which has traditionally kept “talent in line;” he answers directly to the Murdochs. After he described immigration as making America “poor and dirtier” in 2018, Lachlan reportedly reassured him that the uproar would not cost him.
The fact that Australian editors are watching Fox for guidance as to Rupert’s views suggests that he no longer regularly phones his editors around the world for lengthy discussions about the direction coverage must take. It’s disturbing to think that Fox, for so long a concentration of the worst of Murdoch empire “journalism,” is now considered his voice by our nation’s leading editors.
The flavour of Fox’s “brown menace” fear-mongering is very familiar to Australian News Corp observers. It is booming cannon blasts that synchronise with Andrew Bolt’s constant drumbeat of fear and disdain for difference. It was largely Murdoch’s papers’ fomenting a panic about refugees arriving by boat that turned Australian’s initial concern into terror. This allowed a decade of torment to be executed.
So a fear of the dilution of white nationhood appears to be one of the beliefs that can be safely attributed to Rupert Murdoch. He said, after all, that, “For better or for worse, our company is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values.” He is also firmly committed to the neoliberal project, and has been a mentor of politicians who free him to make money and build power with the least constraint and taxation.
Murdoch has decades of history as a kingmaker. His ability to drum up support for or destroy a leader’s popularity is thoroughly recorded. He arguably kept Maggie Thatcher’s minority government alive. Tony Blair courted his support. Hillary Clinton could not have launched a presidential campaign without Bill Clinton choosing to woo Murdoch and his editors, thus stopping the barrage of hate from the organisation.
This power over the decades has caused leaders in Australia, Britain and the US to pander to him. And his support was crucial. It has been argued that George Bush’s invasion of Iraq wouldn’t have been possible without wholehearted boosterism by Murdoch’s 150 outlets across the nations. Even more disastrous, his scepticism about climate action has enabled fossil fuel-enmeshed governments to delay action until it is potentially too late. The creation of a hard right base has challenged the media empire itself as well as constraining politicians. Forays into reversing the momentum it has created have been met with fury by an indoctrinated consumer base. Australian mastheads abandoned an attempt to convey more accurate climate reporting, and Fox gave up its initial opposition to Trump, rather than take the punishment.
In return, his primary goal of magnifying his own power and profit has been granted him by the leaders who fear him or desire his support. Media ownership laws were stripped back in Australia, and only the coincidence of the spate of citizenship crises in Canberra prevented it happening in time for him to turn a floundering Channel 10 into his free-to-air Fox News conduit.
He loathed the rollout of the NBN and one of Australia’s chief media executives confirmed that it was Murdoch’s intervention that caused the nobbling of the project. He interfered to protect his cable service, not realising that soon he would need broadband for streaming.
A series of columns this week has dwelt on the damage that Murdoch’s empire is inflicting on the Australian ability to conduct an election: without reliable information, voting becomes farcical. Journalism luminary Denis Muller describes the corporation as going rogue. It has abandoned any commitment to proper journalism, instead playing the role of “a truth-distorting propagandist for one side.” This matters more because it is not only Murdoch’s outlets playing this role.
Other journalists framed how the crisis is amplified. Chris Warren charts how slavishly the ABC has followed News Corp talking points and framing. David Hardaker revealed why, describing an old ABC colleague saying: “They’re not sure if the Liberals might get in and they’re terrified of a night of the long knives.”
Fairfax has become part of Channel 9, and Peter Costello’s influence on both is evident. One of the worst examples this week was the filmed inability of voters to choose Anthony Albanese over Scott Morrison in the viewer poll for the debacle of a leaders’ debate. Kerry Stokes has been quoted by the embattled Ben Roberts-Smith as happy to keep a costly media empire for the political power it grants him: “Politicians are scared of guys that own media networks.”
He has not brought us to this series of existential crises single-handed, but has been a pivotal figure in each of them around the world. His media empire role in preventing climate action, enabling the Iraq invasion, promoting the breakdown in trust in science and fact has been hideously destructive. His part in mainstreaming ethnonationalism has been powerful. All of these have helped cause the democratic recession we are experiencing.
Politicians and senior media executives have lived in terror of Rupert Murdoch. The grim news is that his heir, Lachlan, is a less intelligent and harder right force in News Corp. The death of the old man can’t save us, especially if their man Carlson replaces Trump in the presidential contest ahead.