Investigating Murdoch media and its impact on climate change policy

A few months I was asked by the major German magazine, Stern, to investigate the role of the Murdoch press in Australia and its impact on climate change policies. It was a global story with other journalists digging into the same question in the UK and US.

This week the four-page feature was published and it’s a fascinating though often grim ride into the reality of the Murdoch empire.

The story is headlined: “The most dangerous family in the world”.

The story is in German, though I submitted my work in English, and I spent weeks talking to a large number of people including former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, climate scientist Joelle Gergis and climate expert Ketan Joshi. Many other interviewees were cut by the Stern editors.

The following translation of the Australian section is via Google Translate:

The climate change denier

The climate scientist Joëlle Gergis is an international luminary. She teaches at the Australian National University and is lead author of a highly acclaimed UN report on climate change published in 2021. In her native Australia, however, Gergis was dragged through the mud for years. She had to be insulted in hate mail as a “chick” and a “brain-dead idiot,” and insulting caricatures of her circulated online.

The harassment began after she argued in a 2012 research article that Australia had never experienced warming in the past millennium like it had in the last 30 years. Murdoch’s newspaper The Australian responded with a series of negative articles on climate research that targeted Gergis’ work. And so the wave of hate started.

“It was a very difficult time,” Gergis tells stern on the phone from the Australian capital Canberra. “But in the end I decided to continue my work. I keep going, even though some days it can be hard to bear the fears and personal stress that this work brings.”

Australia is one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. And the Murdoch empire is the biggest player. Campaigns like the one against Gergis are a home game for the Murdochs here. They control around 65 percent of newspaper circulation nationwide; in some large cities such as Brisbane and Adelaide there is only one large newspaper – from Murdoch. They also own the conservative cable television channel Sky News Australia and the pay TV channel Foxtel, which reach an audience of millions exactly where the consequences of climate change are felt more strongly than in most other places in the world: in the Australian outback.

Despite this, or perhaps because of this, the Australian Murdoch press has systematically downplayed the effects of climate change. Even as devastating bushfires raged across eastern Australia in 2019 and early 2020. Dozens of people and three billion wild animals fell victim to the inferno.

“Typically, News Corp mimics the tone of the PR and marketing departments of fossil fuel companies and lobbying groups. Depending on the mood in the industry, it fluctuates between denial, greenwashing and anti-policy fear-mongering,” says Australian research consultant Ketan Joshi. Australia, you have to know, is the second largest coal exporter in the world.

Australia’s former prime minister Malcom Turnbull felt the power of the Murdochs more directly than almost anyone else. When he tried to bring Australia’s emissions into line with the Paris Climate Convention in 2018, they launched an attack. Lachlan Murdoch gathered a small group of his Sky employees for an evening drink at his $16 million Sydney mansion and asked the entire team: “Do you think Malcolm will survive this?”

What followed seemed like a concerted campaign. A Sky presenter called on Turnbull’s party to rebel against the prime minister. Days later, a Murdoch newspaper reported that the rebellion was underway. “The Australian” declared Turnbull a “dead man walking”. A few days later, the prime minister fell over an internal party vote of no confidence. To this day, the Murdoch family denies having anything to do with Turnbull’s downfall.

Today, Turnbull, a millionaire businessman himself, is the head of a growing citizens’ movement demanding that the Murdoch empire be held accountable for its disinformation campaign.

He says to Stern: “There is no one in the English-speaking world who has had a greater negative influence on climate protection than Rupert Murdoch.”

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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