Rupert Murdoch's media empire in Australia comes under growing scrutiny

SYDNEY – Last month, an Australian Labor MP, Dr Andrew Leigh, marched into Parliament carrying a huge bundle of white paper that marked the results of the largest online petition in the nation’s history.

The petition, initiated by former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, called for a royal commission to inquire into the media empire run by Australian-born tycoon Rupert Murdoch. It said Mr Murdoch’s extensive control of the Australian media was being used to attack political and business opponents, intimidate critics, damage free speech, and “undermine public debate”.

In just a month, the petition attracted 501,876 signatures, including that of another former prime minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, a former Liberal MP who was previously a fierce opponent of Mr Rudd.

Tabling the petition in Parliament, Mr Leigh said: “Diverse sources of reliable, accurate and independent news isn’t a luxury – it’s fundamental to a healthy democracy.”

Both Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull have savagely attacked the Murdoch empire, whose newspapers cover about two-thirds of the nation’s print readers. This leaves Australia with one of the most heavily concentrated media ownership levels in the democratic world.

Mr Murdoch worked as a journalist in Australia before building a global media empire that includes Britain’s The Times and Fox News in the United States.

Mr Rudd has described the Murdoch empire’s impact in Australia as a “cancer on democracy”, saying it has spread climate change denialism and promoted anti-China hysteria.

“Murdoch print media… helps set the agenda and the tone and the framing and the parameters of the national political debate,” he told ABC News earlier this year.

“Is this poisoning our democracy? I believe over time, it is.”

The hefty petition did not lead to a royal commission, but has led to the establishment of a Senate inquiry that is examining Australia’s media diversity.

The inquiry is not specifically targeting Mr Murdoch’s empire but is examining media diversity and reliability. It is also examining the impact of global sites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter on the media sector.

A Greens MP who helped to secure the inquiry, Ms Sarah Hanson-Young, said: “Australians are worried about the health of our media landscape and as a Parliament, we should act.”

News Corp said the company would constructively engage with the inquiry.

The petition and inquiry have led to a growing public focus on Mr Murdoch’s influence over Australian debate. Some commentators have expressed concern about the right-wing slant of commentators on News Corp’s Sky News Australia television channel, likening it to Fox News, which has been a staunch supporter of US President Donald Trump.

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During a heated exchange recently on ABC Television’s Q&A programme, Mr Turnbull said News Corp had damaged Western democracy and had descended into “pure propaganda”.

“The campaign on climate denial is just staggering and has done enormous damage to the world, to the global need to address global warming,” he said.

In response, a veteran Australian political commentator, Mr Paul Kelly, editor-at-large at Mr Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper, said News Corp carried a range of views on climate change.

“We have many publications that are dedicated to promoting the cause of climate change and radical action on climate change,” he said.

Other commentators at News Corp suggested Mr Rudd was a hypocrite, saying he had courted Mr Murdoch during his political ascent.

Mr David Penberthy, a former editor of Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, a mass-circulation News Corp tabloid, said Mr Rudd had been desperate to “ingratiate himself with our company”.

“This push for a royal commission is driven less by facts and more by the shared mental state of Rudd, and his new sidekick Malcolm Turnbull,” he wrote in The Australian newspaper.

“It is psychologically more palatable for them to ascribe their demise not to their own imperiousness, policy failure or inability to consult and listen, but a sinister external conspiracy.”

Responding on Twitter, Mr Rudd wrote: “I will not be intimidated by Murdoch’s bullying one bit.”

The Senate inquiry is due to complete its report by August 2021.

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