As Australia burns, speculation is growing that the sheer scale of the disaster might be the push News Corp needs to renounce denialism and change its partisan coverage of climate change.
A number of high-profile journalists have walked out of the company’s newsrooms in disgust – and now Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, has lashed both News Corp and Fox News for promoting climate “denialism”.
One day it’s likely a new generation of Murdochs will take the reins of the mass media corporation. But would that facelift mean the company’s editorial direction will change?
With the Murdoch press the most influential in the nation, it’s undeniable that Australia’s political direction – including the future of climate policies – hinges on the backing of its news outlets.
News Corp Australia controls 58 per cent of Australia’s daily newspaper circulation, the only pay-TV network, Foxtel, which broadcasts Sky News, and the nation’s most-viewed website, news.com.au.
Australia’s climate policies are ranked among the worst in the world, and the bushfire crisis has sparked growing criticism of how Murdoch’s influential news outlets are influencing the debate and pushing misinformation on the link between climate and fires.
But there have been signs this week that the tide is starting to turn against the media empire’s right-wing slant – even from within the company. This could have significant impact on the coverage of climate change issues.
On Thursday morning, the Murdoch-owned NT News – usually garnering attention for its cheeky croc front pages – took a stand, declaring in bold print “now is the time to discuss climate change”. Editorials by Melbourne’s the Herald Sun have not shied away from the topic of climate change this week either.
TOMORROW’S FRONT PAGE pic.twitter.com/XYGV3YXpHy
— The NT News (@TheNTNews) January 15, 2020
It comes after James Murdoch and his wife Kathryn called out the “ongoing denial [of climate change] among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary”.
Climate denial or leadership?
Back in 2007, Rupert Murdoch appeared to be siding with climate science, promising News Corp would be carbon neutral by 2010.
“Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats,” the media magnate announced. “We can’t afford the risk of inaction.”
That promise didn’t last and the company reverted to its old ways.
Even as Australia battles unprecedented bushfires and hazardous air pollution chokes Australian Open tennis players, commentary in some Murdoch-owned mastheads has ridiculed climate concerns as “hysterical”.
On November 24, with bushfires already raging, Australian columnist Chris Kenny wrote: “Hysterical efforts to blame the fires on climate change continue, even though we have always faced this threat and always will.”
Hobart barrister and columnist for The Mercury Greg Barnes took to social media on Wednesday night to defend the paper’s commitment to writing about climate change.
I have I write a weekly column for @themercurycomau and have done since 2002. This Murdoch newspaper has run a climate change column for over a decade by the excellent Peter Boyer. I have expressed views on climate change and never been censored.
— Greg Barns (@BarnsGreg) January 15, 2020
So far the bushfires have claimed 28 lives, wiped out an estimated billion animals, destroyed more than 2000 homes and burnt through more than ten million hectares of land.
UNSW associate professor Dr David McKnight said the News Corp media worldwide, particularly in the United States and Australia, have been “real advocates and outlets of climate denial”.
“It’s a very political media with a lot of columnists and editorial line which up until recently, didn’t accept and did everything to undermine the science on climate change,” Dr McKnight told The New Daily.
Journalism academic Dr Margaret Simons said James’ rebuke was “rare”.
The couple have not hidden their views on climate change. In an interview with The Observer in 2009, he called for urgent action on climate change and labelled most of the policy making in that area “totally gutless”.
But previously his comments have been about policy and the issue in general. Dr Simons noted it wasn’t the first time insiders – current or former – have criticised the company’s editorial direction.
There has still been no reckoning with what is necessary to stop this poisonous, destructive organization and its commitment to anti-journalism. pic.twitter.com/YTVmolSRXp
— Richard Cooke (@rgcooke) November 11, 2019
“During the last 12 months, we’ve had some of the best journalists at The Australian leave … which is not surprising because (climate change) is a defining issue for a generation,” Dr Simons told The New Daily.
Last year, the newspaper’s former social affairs writer Rick Morton went on record, saying the “craziness has been dialled up”. And only last week, a News Corp employee sent a company-wide email criticising the organisation for spreading “climate change denial and lies” through “dangerous reporting”.
But despite the exodus of top journalists and public criticism of the corporation, Dr Simons said “it would be a mistake to think it was reconsidering its direction”.
Sooner or later, the younger Murdochs will seize the reins.with eldest son Lachlan tipped to take over. Rupert has six children from three previous marriages.
“There is a strong ideological corporate culture at News Corp, which can be a real strength, but it means they’re very resistant to change,” Dr Simons said.
“If we assume the family does remain largely in control, that’s the question we address to Lachlan, who is reputed to be more right-wing than his father.”
Dr Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, also said he doubted James’ comments would signal a new era.
“Even though James Murdoch occupies a directorship in the company, the real power in News Corp lies with Rupert and increasingly with Lachlan,” Dr Muller told The New Daily.
“Lachlan is reputedly even more reactionary than Rupert, so anyone who thought generational change at the top of News Corp would make any difference is doomed to be disappointed.”