News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Although he successfully runs one of the largest media empires in the world, Rupert Murdoch has more detractors than fans. His persona and appearance so evoke the archetype of a villain (rich, ruthless) that some James Bond enthusiasts believe he inspired the evil character Elliot Carver, who tries to provoke a war to gain broadcasting rights in China in the film Tomorrow Never Dies. If any Bond film can be said to have an overarching principle (beyond the sexy cars, guns, girls and exploding objects), the message here is this: he who controls the media can influence the fate of the world.
In the United States, Murdoch’s most controversial media network is, of course, Fox News. But his company, News Corp, also owns numerous television stations, the book publisher HarperCollins, and such iconic publications as The Wall Street Journal. The Guardian has called Fox a “major driving force behind global warming denial,” citing a recent study that said Fox viewers were more likely to distrust scientists and disbelieve the evidence that climate change is happening.
But there is a parallel universe in which Murdoch has even more power over information—the faraway country where the media mogul was born, Australia. There, Murdoch controls Australia’s most influential newspapers (accounting for nearly 60 percent of daily newspaper sales), fourteen of the country’s twenty-one metro daily and Sunday newspapers, and 50 percent of the company Foxtel, which holds a near-monopoly on pay television. Murdoch’s News Limited and rival company Fairfax Media (whose largest shareholder is mining magnate and avid climate-denialist Gina Rinehart) together accounted for 86 percent of Aussie newspaper sales as of 2011.
I recently spent three months in Australia, and at the risk of oversimplifying the country’s politics, I will say that the dance between Murdoch media and politicians seemed operatic—or worthy perhaps of a James Bond film.
In many ways, Australia’s politics are far more progressive than ours. The country’s minimum-wage fast-food workers earn more than many entry-level professionals here. Its political leaders are elected via an instant runoff voting system that has allowed third parties (like the Green Party) to survive and sometimes hold an important role in negotiating alliances and power balance in parliament. In 2010, the country got its first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, who accomplished what US federal politicians could not—a carbon pricing system, passed in 2011, to regulate the emissions that cause climate change.
Rupert Murdoch has always been a political agnostic, whose opinions change the moment politics intersect with his profit-earning potential. His personal position on climate change is ambiguous. Several of his media networks consistently bash climate science, while News Corp has gone carbon-neutral. In Australia, between February and July 2011, more than 80 percent of the carbon-policy stories published in News Limited newspapers were negative, says an analysis by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism. Many stories harped on past claims Gillard made—she had said that she would not pass a tax but seek different means for regulating carbon. It was political hair-splitting—technically the policy was not legislated as a tax, and it is supposed to morph into an emissions trading system, like the one Europe has, by 2015. But over and over, Australian media called her a liar (“Ju-liar,” quipped one radio shock jock).