In high public office, both men lived and died at the word of the world’s most influential media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. But now two former Australian prime ministers are at the vanguard of a campaign to redress the balance of power. It is a movement that Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, the respective former Labor and Liberal leaders of Australia, hope will go on to undermine all of Murdoch’s international enterprises.
The two former PMs were once rivals but are to appear as joint star witnesses at an upcoming Australian parliamentary inquiry into Murdoch’s dominance of the Australian political debate. Both are to argue that News Corp Australia has become the propaganda arm of the rightwing Liberal government.
Some have hailed the inquiry as the beginning of a worldwide calling-to-account for the 89-year-old Murdoch, the Australian-born powerbroker who has also shaped British politics for the past 40 years, with his stable of right-leaning newspaper titles, and who has until recently promoted and supported Donald Trump’s presidency in America through his US television channel, Fox News.
“This could be an uncomfortable moment for Murdoch,” said David Hardaker, the veteran Australian investigative reporter and broadcaster. “We have two ex-prime ministers working together, and that hasn’t happened before. This is already leading to a senate inquiry that could be something similar to the Leveson inquiry [into the press] in Britain.
“Rudd wanted a royal commission, but that was never going to happen because the government would have to approve it and there is a kind of revolving door between Murdoch’s businesses and the Australian government at the moment, with media advisers and consultants going in and out.”
For Hardaker, the crucial element is the mobilisation of tech industry leaders, already poised to invest in green energy and infrastructure: “That is the locus. It is a big power base with lots of money, but it is blocked by the conservatives and by Murdoch’s denial of climate change, despite his recent apparent acceptance that it actually exists.”
This summer, James Murdoch, one of Rupert’s two sons, resigned from the board of News Corp citing “disagreements” over editorial content, several months after he had criticised the company’s coverage of the Australian bushfires.
“The campaign on climate denial is just staggering and has done enormous damage to the world, to the global need to address global warming,” Turnbull said in an appearance on the ABC that went viral. “I mean, it is so horrifically biased, and such propaganda that Rupert’s own son James can’t stomach it.”
Rudd and Turnbull were both targeted by the Murdoch press when in power and maintain that they were unable to respond due to his near-monopoly of print and broadcast platforms. Australia was ranked third in the world for media concentration in 2011, behind only the state-owned media of China and Egypt.
Murdoch owns a major newspaper in each state, except for Western Australia. Queensland is dominated by one major Murdoch title, the Courier Mail. “This is a one-newspaper state, not just a one-newspaper town,” Rudd said. “And anyone who thinks that’s fair in terms of every side of politics having a fair go has got rocks in their head.”
The flagship of the operation is a national broadsheet, the Australian, which has moved further to the right in recent years and is hostile towards measures to combat the climate crisis. Turnbull says News Corp acts like a political party, working closely with rightwing politicians to influence policy and elections.
Murdoch also owns Sky News Australia, a rightwing channel modelled on Fox News, and a host of local and regional papers and websites. Although the company was forced to close dozens of its smaller newspapers this year, it has adopted a digital-first strategy, opening new local news websites and growing its digital subscriptions base to 613,300 from 493,200 in 2019.
As a result, some anti-Murdoch commentators are not convinced that attacks from two political grandees will even dent the overwhelming financial interests of the Murdoch empire in Australia, let alone anywhere else.
“In the same way the Leveson inquiry publicly discomfited and briefly broke News Corp’s momentum, the senate inquiry will have some passing impact but nothing enduring or substantial,” said the acclaimed Australian journalist and writer, Dr Chris Wallace, author of How to Win an Election.
Last month, Rudd launched a petition for a royal commission into the need for a strong, diverse media, dubbing Murdoch “an arrogant cancer on our democracy”. The petition was signed by more than 500,000 people, including Turnbull, who has condemned the Murdoch print monopoly.
Wallace believes that Rudd and Turnbull are attempting to exact an expensive revenge for “the Murdoch media’s blatant politicking”. “They have nothing to lose now they’re out of active politics, so it’s square-up time. The petition is their tool to give the Murdochs a taste of their own medicine. There’s personal motivation in it, of course, but anyone who has ever been bullied by a Murdoch media outlet – and that’s a lot of people – is enjoying it tremendously.”