Canberra, Australia – The skies were dark red with smoke over much of southeastern Australia on January 1, 2020, yet News Corp’s The Australian published photographs of New Year’s Day picnics on its front page.
Even as the papers went to print, tens of thousands of people were being evacuated as massive fire fronts approached regional towns across Victoria and New South Wales (NSW).
On television and social media, the public’s outrage was palpable.
Affected residents and volunteer bush firefighters in Cobargo, NSW, refused to shake Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s hand, furious about the lack of bushfire preparation by the Australian government. Online, individuals rallied to raise funds for the Rural Fire Service.
By mid-January, the Black Summer bushfires had burned more than 24 million hectares (59.3 million acres) of land, destroyed more than 3,000 homes, and killed 26 people and more than three billion animals.
For Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia, meanwhile, it was business as usual.
As the fires raged, News Corp’s The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and Courier Mail newspapers, along with its Sky News television channel, continued to cast doubt on the reality of climate change.
All summer, News Corp’s massive misinformation campaign defended fossil fuel interests, accused arsonists of being the major cause of the fires – a false claim echoed by legislators of the governing Liberal-National coalition – and repeatedly attacked individuals who advocated urgent action on climate change.
Murdoch’s British and American news assets, notably Fox News in the United States, frequently take similar positions. Major inquiries about the company’s ethics have been held in the past, including the Leveson inquiry into the British press in 2011-12 following the phone-hacking scandal involving the Murdoch paper News of the World.
New research from independent Australian activist group GetUp explores how News Corp Australia pushes its anti-climate change agenda.
The report, launched on Thursday, shows that between April 2019 and March 2020, News Corp’s four newspapers published 8,612 news and commentary pieces on climate change.
GetUp found that 45 percent of these items either rejected or cast doubt on climate science. Commentary pieces from opinion writers such as Andrew Bolt were the most sceptical, with 65 percent of commentary doubting or outright denying climate change.
Interestingly, News Corp reporters were not found to be actively promoting sceptical views on climate change, with 89 percent of news and features accepting scientific findings.
Criticism of News Corp’s climate denial has increased substantially since Black Summer.
The company’s continued refusal to acknowledge climate change as a man-made threat has sparked anger among many Australians, most of whom support action on climate change. Some 64 percent agree Australia should have a national target for net-zero emissions by 2050.
Not that you would know this by reading News Corp publications, experts argued.
“No one else is publishing work like News Corp,” journalism professor Susan Forde told Al Jazeera in January this year. “They argue that it’s under the guise of ‘we’re the only ones who are balancing the reporting.’”
Even former prime ministers have had enough of News Corp’s domination of Australian media.
Former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd initiated an online petition in October calling for a royal commission into media diversity. It quickly became Australia’s largest-ever online petition and third-largest petition overall, gaining more than 500,000 signatures including that of former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“[News Corp’s] power is routinely used to attack opponents in business and politics by blending editorial opinion with news reporting,” the petition stated. “These facts chill free speech and undermine public debate.”
Australians have watched with growing anger at what the Murdoch media monopoly is doing to our country. A cancer on democracy.
Today I am launching a national petition to establish a #MurdochRoyalCommission.
— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) October 9, 2020
Rudd has previously described News Corp as “a cancer on democracy”.
News Corp publications make up 60 percent of Australia’s newspaper sales. In addition to the national broadsheet The Australian and tabloids in most cities, News Corp owns the major newspapers in the Northern Territory and Tasmania.
It also owns one of Australia’s largest news websites, news.com.au, and the 24-hour television channel Sky News. Sky News’ YouTube channel has more than one million subscribers, second only to the national broadcaster ABC News.
Approximately 6.6 million Australians read a News Corp newspaper in May 2020 according to data from Roy Morgan. Circulation is falling, however, particularly among the company’s tabloids. Readership of The Daily Telegraph fell from 444,000 to 394,000 between September 2019 and September 2020, while The Courier Mail’s readership plummeted from 293,000 to just 239,000.
Despite their decreasing sway over the average Australian, News Corp’s newspapers remain highly influential on politicians. The company has a close relationship with the Liberal-National coalition, who have been in government at the federal level since 2013.
“News Corp has no influence with the public but an acute influence with politicians,” former News Corp executive Kim Williams has previously said.
Pressure from all sides
University of Canberra governance expert Chris Wallace says it is rare to see politicians like Rudd standing up to the Murdoch family.
“No politician has individually stood up to them,” she said. “Rupert Murdoch has been able to divide and rule politics across Anglophone countries, and it’s culminated in him effectively underwriting the Trump regime and taking Western democracies to a dire place.”
When politicians do stand up to News Corp, they often pay a significant personal and political price.
“If you don’t play Murdoch’s game policy-wise, you can expect to see the transaction costs in the form of hostile coverage,” Wallace explained, pointing to former opposition leader Bill Shorten as one example. Shorten resigned as leader after Labor unexpectedly lost the 2019 federal election.
Labor politician Andrew Leigh agreed that Rudd’s move against News Corp was unusual. Leigh tabled Rudd’s petition in Parliament and said the public enthusiasm for the petition is unprecedented.
“I’ve never seen a petition like this, especially with two former PMs from both Liberal and Labor parties,” Leigh told Al Jazeera.
The Senate accepted Leigh’s proposal and will now hold a Senate inquiry into media ownership and bias in Australia.
Leigh said he tabled the petition because “media diversity is fundamental to a strong democracy. I can’t identify any great democracies with lousy media.”
For Leigh, Australian media needs to have a plurality of voices, not just to ensure that governments are held to account, but to support communities to take action on important issues such as climate change.
“We know that places where the local newspaper dies, there tends to be less community trust and local problems are more likely to persist,” he said. “Climate change is a big collective action problem where we need to work together … but the progress on climate has been stymied by a well-funded denialist movement.”
One-sided coverage of climate change
The views expressed in News Corps publications remain largely one-dimensional, emphasising conservative voices who tirade against progressive policies on everything from climate change and migration to transgender individuals and the anti-bullying “safe schools” programme.
In fact, GetUp’s research shows that more than half the news produced by News Corp’s four largest newspapers had no source or just one source. Contrasting views are unusual, with many news and feature articles featuring only political sources (47 percent of the total) or business sources (18 percent).
Just four percent of sources interviewed by News Corp publications between April 2019 and March 2020 were scientists.
Of science and environment stories, 32 percent featured political sources, while just 13 percent featured scientists, reinforcing the deeply politicised nature of News Corp’s reticence towards scientific findings.
Rodney Tiffen, emeritus professor of governance and politics at the University of Sydney, said the time is right to take action on News Corp.
“In the early 1990s, News Corp was at least somewhat sensitive to both sides of Australian politics,” noted Tiffen. “But over the last quarter century, there has been a long and deep decline, which we could dub the Foxification of News Corp.”
News Corp’s power and readership was now declining, Tiffin said, with “people starting to remember more and more of News Corp’s one-sided coverage of events like the Black Summer fires”.
He added: “The situation was just waiting for a catalyst like Rudd.”