Malcolm Turnbull has accused Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp of eroding democracy in the US and Australia by dividing people and undermining institutions with lies and populist rightwing ideology.
The former Australian prime minister told a parliamentary inquiry that Donald Trump’s presidency was to some extent a creation of the media mogul and that the attack on the US Congress in January was a consequence of partisan campaigns led by Murdoch’s Fox News.
“What does Vladimir Putin want to do with his operations in America? He wants to divide America and turn Americans against each other,” said Turnbull, a trenchant critic of Australian-born Murdoch, whom he has known for 45 years.
“That is exactly what Murdoch has done: divided Americans against each other and so undermined their faith in political institutions that a mob of thousands of people, many of them armed, stormed the Capitol.”
Turnbull, who blames News Corp for his ousting as prime minister in a Liberal Party coup in 2018, alleged News Corp outlets were “utterly liberated from the truth”. He also questioned whether Fox News’ relationship with Trump was comparable to state-owned media in an authoritarian country, always apologising and not holding to account its favoured government.
“I’ve hung around billionaire media proprietors for a long time. I have never seen a politician as deferential to a media proprietor as Trump was to Murdoch, ever, in any country,” he said. “Murdoch’s media in the US had a symbiotic relationship with Trump.”
News Corp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Turnbull likened News Corp to a political party with one family of members, who are not accountable to anyone. He alleged their outlets in the US and Australia promoted climate denialism, incited animosity towards minorities, particularly Muslims, and peddled untruths, including that President Joe Biden had stolen the election from Trump.
“If you don’t think that is a threat to American democracy and undermining the strength and capability of our most important ally. Then, you know, you are kidding yourself,” he told MPs.
Turnbull was invited to give evidence to a parliamentary inquiry launched after a petition calling for a probe into Murdoch’s media empire garnered 500,000 signatures.
News Corp executives told the inquiry in February that the company did not engage in “character assassination” or tell its editors what to publish. Both accusations were levied by Kevin Rudd, another former Australian prime minister and author of the petition.
Michael Miller, News Corp Australia chief executive, rejected claims that the company was too dominant in the country or had launched a “misinformation campaign” regarding coverage of deadly bushfires last year which was partly blamed on climate change.
“He [Murdoch] made it clear, we are not climate change deniers. Climate change is real,” said Miller.
News Corp owns a 59 per cent share of the metropolitan and national print media market in Australia and earns 40 per cent of television revenues through its Foxtel pay-TV service, according to a report published on Monday.
“The predominance of News Corp in cross-media settings is unprecedented in liberal democracies,” said the report commissioned by GetUP, an activist group, and conducted by University of Sydney academics.
Turnbull told MPs News Corp’s dominant position enabled the company to pressure Canberra, citing the example of a controversial law that forced Facebook and Google to pay media groups for news on their platforms. “It looked like a shake down,” he said.
“The most powerful political actor in Australia is not the Liberal party or the National party or the Labor party, it is News Corporation,” he added. “And it is utterly unaccountable. It is controlled by an American family and their interests are no longer, if they ever were, coextensive with our own.”