THOUGHTS
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THOUGHTS

The Murdoch Cancer on Democracy is Metastasising

A record $1B loss won’t slow down News Corp’s ruthless subversion of liberal democracies.

News Corp, the media empire owned by mogul Rupert Murdoch, posted a historic $1 billion quarterly loss last week. News that naturally was relished by longstanding Murdoch detractors, myself included. While this billion dollar hit no doubt caused some consternation in News Corp’s upper echelons, there is no indication it will slow down this media juggernaut’s ruthless subversion of the liberal democracies where its claws are most deeply embedded.

For the uninitiated, News Corp owns arguably the most influential news outlets in the US, the UK and Australia. This includes Fox News in the US, The Sun and The Times in the UK, and roughly 70% of print media in Australia including the only nationally distributed daily newspaper, The Australian.

It is nothing new that Murdoch’s outlets spruik a definitively conservative ideology through its opinion journalism and biased coverage, or lack thereof, on various topics. What is new, however, is the degree to which Murdoch now appears to disregard the risk to his media empire of engaging in hyper-partisanship and spreading outright lies and conspiracy theories.

This should not come as a surprise though, as what we are witnessing is the culmination of a decades-long endeavour to create an alternative reality within which viewers and readers of News Corp’s outlets can reside. Murdoch is engaged in a grand experiment, to explore the limitations of a tilt towards conservative propagandising in a western news media landscape in which, until recently, success roughly correlated with a sense of journalistic integrity and an attempt to report the facts.

The coming together of Murdoch and Roger Ailes in 1996 to create Fox News was a pivotal moment in this respect. Fox News was to be at the vanguard of this experiment; the vessel with which to sail into uncharted waters.

For Ailes, Fox News’s founding CEO, the creation of Fox News was the fulfilment of a lifelong goal first formulated during his time as a media consultant to Richard Nixon. In 1970, Ailes penned a 15-page memo titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on the News” calling for a partisan, pro-Republican news operation aimed at sidelining the “censorship” of the liberal mainstream media. Ailes opined that television had emerged as the most powerful news source primarily because “people are lazy” and want their thinking done for them.

Alongside the reporting of facts, Fox News would purvey content embodying “truthiness”, a term coined by comedian Stephen Colbert to describe the notion of something seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, reason, or factual evidence. As long as there were just enough facts blended in with content manufactured to soothe conservative sensibilities or provoke conservative outrage, Fox News could stamp itself as the “trusted” conservative news network.

The primacy of opinion journalism at Fox News has been a key plank in this strategy. High profile personalities like Bill O’Reilly in previous years, or the current line-up of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, are given primetime slots to host their own talk shows with a mandate to disseminate alternative facts and truthiness on a nightly basis.

Take for example Bill O’Reilly’s claim in 2011 that the poverty rate in the US had not budged since 1965 despite trillions in government spending, while the actual poverty rate had fallen 3 percentage points over this time. Or take Tucker Carlson’s assertion in 2014 that far more children died the previous year drowning in their bathtub than were killed accidentally by guns despite the statistics stating the opposite was true. Another example is Sean Hannity’s claim in 2013 that 8.3 million fewer Americans were employed at that time than there were four years prior, despite the actual number being more than 95% lower than that.

These are not small lies, they are the kind of lies that, over time, can fundamentally skew a person’s worldview.

That these examples all occurred prior to 2015 is noteworthy, as the lies and misinformation of this nature delivered on a daily basis over the first twenty years of Fox News’s existence was the manure that fertilised the ground for Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign to grow out of. Trump’s campaign was a turning point for the network, as all of a sudden they were playing catch-up with a man who’s flagrant disregard for the truth was truly unprecedented.

As it became clear that Trump would win, Murdoch decided to hitch the Fox News wagon to his presidency. This was the perfect opportunity to extend the frontier of his experiment to test the limits of the credulity of the Fox News viewership. The Trump era has been punctuated at Fox News by a doubling down on the propagation of grand and insidious conspiracy theories and blatant lies.

Sean Hannity now incessantly rails against the “deep state” plot to remove Donald Trump, Jeanine Pirro openly promotes the white supremacist “great replacement” theory, all the while Tucker Carlson proclaims that white supremacy is a “hoax”. While these outrageous lies and conspiracies are a threat to social cohesion and act to inflame already high levels of polarisation in the US, the greatest threat Fox News poses is that to democracy itself.

Nowhere was this more on display than during Fox News’s coverage of Donald Trump’s impeachment proceedings. This is Murdoch’s pièce de résistance to date, and would no doubt have left Roger Ailes smiling in his grave and Nixon’s ghost ruing the fact he lacked such an effective political shield during Watergate.

While CNN and MSNBC showed Trump’s senate trial live in primetime, Fox News aired segments on Hunter Biden’s drug habits, all the while justifying their lack of coverage of the trial by stating there were no new witnesses or evidence being presented. Neglected was the fact that Republicans were doing everything they could to prevent the appearance of what would have been a star witness.

John Bolton was Trump’s national security adviser when Trump illegally asked Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden in return for releasing $391 million in military aid. He has firsthand information detailing the crime, a fact that came to light as the manuscript of Bolton’s upcoming book was leaked during Trump’s senate trial. Bolton expressed his willingness to testify if he was called, but Fox News’s obfuscation and insistence that the impeachment proceedings were a hoax gave senate Republicans the political cover they needed to vote against calling witnesses and then to acquit Trump on both articles of impeachment.

This unprecedented level of anti-democratic partisanship exhibited by Fox News through Trump’s impeachment proceedings not only didn’t put off regular viewers, it has provided a ratings bonanza. The primetime shows of Hannity, Carlson and Laura Ingraham had their best January ratings in history, giving Murdoch the green light to extend the frontier of his assault on truth and US democracy.

Intercontinental Metastasis

The interim results of Murdoch’s grand experiment in the US have already begun to be leveraged in Murdoch’s other anglophone strongholds, Australia and the UK.

Incessant negative coverage by Murdoch owned press of former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government culminated in a successful leadership spill in 2018. Turnbull, who despite being the leader of Australia’s conservative party, was, according to Turnbull himself, not conservative enough for Murdoch.

Two weeks before the leadership spill in August of 2018, Murdoch flew into Australia for the first time that year. After meeting with his editors, one of Murdoch’s Sunday papers declared that Malcolm was a “dead man walking”. The following week he was deposed as leader.

After knifing two leaders in three years, it was widely expected the conservative party would lose the 2019 election and polling suggested this would be the case right up until election day. However, the Murdoch media had been firing on all cylinders since the day of the leadership spill with relentless negative coverage of the Labor party and its leader, Bill Shorten, and sycophantic fawning over Morrison. Lo and behold, an election miracle: Scott Morrison managed to cling to power against all odds. Shorten landed the blame for this shock loss squarely at the feet of Murdoch and his media outlets.

Since this miraculous election victory, the Morrison government has been beset by numerous scandals involving senior ministers, while Morrison himself decided to abdicate his responsibilities during the worst bushfire crisis in history to vacation in Hawaii. Despite all of this, after a brief stint behind in the polls, the government is back in an election winning position. Scandals that previously would have sunk a PM can now be treated with contempt, because Morrison knows that Murdoch will mop up his mess.

This drift of the Australian Murdoch media towards hyper-partisanship was recently articulated by Kevin Rudd, another former Australian Prime Minister. Rudd recounts how during his 2007 election campaign the Murdoch media coverage of the two major political parties was roughly split 50–50. During the 2010 and 2013 elections it was more like 80–20. By the 2016 election this had shifted to 90–10, and in 2019, it was 100–0, “when all pretence of being a news organisation was finally given up”.

During these years, Murdoch has been sure to extract his return on investment. Remember that $1 billion first quarter loss I mentioned at the outset? That was primarily thanks to an enormous write down in the value of Murdoch’s Australian cable TV business Foxtel. This is the same cable TV business that Murdoch sought to protect when, according to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, he enacted a “vicious campaign” against Rudd’s planned National Broadband Network (NBN) leading up to the 2013 election.

Murdoch was rightly concerned that a lightning fast broadband network would incentivise people to switch from cable to much cheaper streaming services. That is exactly what is happening now with the proliferation of the numerous streaming platforms popping up in recent years, and hence the eye-watering write down of Foxtel last quarter.

When Rudd lost the 2013 election, his successor, Tony Abbott pressed ahead with a much slower “fibre to the node” version of the NBN, which at a final cost of $51 billion is almost 50% higher than the expected cost of Rudd’s initial, faster, “fibre to the premise” model. In effect, Australia paid overs for a sub-par broadband network so that Murdoch could prop up his doomed cable TV business for a few extra years. As an Australian, this makes me fume to this day when I think about.

But this is the kind of very real price that the countries whose political systems are increasingly beholden to Murdoch’s media leverage are paying and will continue to pay. As Murdoch continues to double down on aligning his media empire with the conservative side of politics, this also becomes an existential threat to left-leaning political parties.

It warrants noting that in the UK, Murdoch’s media outlets are widely credited with heavily contributing to the shock Brexit referendum result in 2016. One of the most significant geopolitical developments of the century so far, this was a huge win for Murdoch, who now doesn’t need to worry about pesky EU bureaucrats limiting his sphere of UK political influence.

News Corp also helped rehash Boris Johnson’s image from the elite, cosmopolitan, liberal mayor of London, to the nationalist, tough on crime and immigration, champion of the working class, and ultimately successful, candidate for PM. With Boris likely in power for the next decade and the EU out of the picture, the future looks bright for Murdoch’s political peddling aspirations.

There are a couple of key takeaways here as Murdoch pushes ever deeper into uncharted waters with Fox News in the US. The first, is that as he continues to spread lies and conspiracies to hijack the US political system to an unprecedented degree, all the while managing to increase viewership, Australia and the UK can expect to see a ratcheting up of these same tactics within their own borders.

The second, more ominous learning, is that Murdoch has by now played his hand: as he continues to double down on Trump he’s revealed his willingness to prop up a leader who shows nothing but contempt for democratic norms and exhibits increasingly autocratic tendencies. Are there any serious political observers out there that believe critical democratic institutions in the US won’t face an all out assault under a second Trump term?

Fox News has become a propaganda tool for a wannabe dictator, and if Murdoch is successful in ensuring Trump’s re-election, he will be tasked with fending off scrutiny while Trump goes about dismantling US democracy. The stakes in November couldn’t be higher.

Note from the editor: The views expressed by any Thoughts writer on political issues are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Thoughts as a publication.

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Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson

Economist, Climate and Energy Policy Analyst. Pondering the path to a socio-ecological transformation.

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