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Murdoch’s Climate Denial Has Australian Politics In Its Grip

Australians want action on climate change, but in the run-up to this weekend's election the Murdoch press has kept politicians quiet on the topic – proof that billionaire media monopolies are a threat to both democracy and the planet.

Rupert Murdoch delivers the 10th annual lecture at the Lowy Institute's black tie event in Sydney, Australia, 31 October 2013. (Cameron Spencer / Getty Images)

It’s been raining in Australia for several months. Pretty much non-stop. Relentless, heavy rain: the kind that beats the ground’s capacity to swallow it, that lifts up stable structures like they’re rubber ducks.

This is extreme weather, something to which the country is no stranger. In the nine months leading up to March 2020, bushfires turned skies a smoky amber, swallowing millions of acres of land, thousands of buildings, and thirty-four people.

There’s an election in a few days–one that, like the one before it, is seen as ‘the climate election’. Scott Morrison is the incumbent prime minister. His climate crimes are many, but let’s just say he took a holiday to Hawaii during the aforementioned bushfires, and brought a lump of coal into parliament in celebration of the polluting industry in 2017. ‘Don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you,’ he said.

Morrison is up against the Labor Party’s Anthony Albanese, whose approach to climate is better, but still uninspiring. As things stand, neither party has a clear enough route even to the arbitrary ‘net zero by 2050’ target that’s been set.

Scientists have analysed the Liberal and Labor environment plans. ‘The Liberal-National Government’s own modelling [in its plan] does not get Australia to net-zero by 2050. It is, in fact, only a little more than half by 2050,’ says one. Labor’s modelling is tighter; its Powering Australia plan is a good start. ‘It balances what is electorally palatable with meeting the 2C limit under Paris.’

As for the voters, they have lived through fire and rain. They’re worried. The vast majority of them support more climate action, and the environment is their top priority in this election. Why, then, are we talking about what’s ‘electorally palatable’? The answer lies somewhere in the middle of an unholy alliance between politicians, fossil fuel executives, and the press.

Denial and Distraction

By press, we’re talking primarily about the portion owned by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch operates an effective monopoly on the Australian media, overseeing two-thirds of major newspapers, plus key radio stations and television channels like Sky News Australia. It’s not the public who decide what is and isn’t ‘electorally palatable’; it’s News Corp.

As the bushfires blazed, #WhereTheBloodyHellAreYou trended on Twitter and protestors chanted ‘ScoMo has got to go’ on the streets. News Corp, however, gave Morrison an easy ride. Headlines that ran in its titles over 2019 and ’20 include ‘Let’s not pollute our minds with carbon fears’ and ‘Inconvenient truth on emissions: radical climate change policy fails to win global consensus’. And from its various outposts–the Australian to the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun–Murdoch’s press influences public opinion in the way that only a monopoly can.

‘The Murdoch press has long been the main source of climate science denial and climate policy donothingism in the Australian media,’ John Quiggin, an economist and professor at the University of Queensland, tells me over email. ‘It has pushed conspiracy-theoretic accounts, in which the scientific community and institutions such as the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO [the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Australian government’s scientific research agency] have, for obscure reasons, pushed false claims about global warming. Strikingly, these claims are presented as being so absurd that innumerate and scientifically illiterate opinion writers can easily refute them.’

Entire studies have been done on News Corps’ general pedalling of climate denial. Every now and then they say they’re leaving it all behind, only for it to reappear, dressed a little differently, soon enough. This time around, however, they have shut up about climate change, leaving reporting on Australia’s response to the biggest issue of our time to be defined by its absence, and encouraging those in the political sphere to shut up about it too.

The reason for this is obvious enough: media execs know now that people believe in and care about climate change, and no longer have a large or sympathetic enough audience for science denial. Instead, they’re hoping to distract the electorate–to draw them into the soap opera of live debates and political gaffes. As ABC noted, ‘If 2019 was the climate change election, 2022 is shaping up to be the don’t-talk-about-climate-change election.’

Making Noise

Some people are willing to punctuate the silence. In this election, these individuals largely exist outside of dominant party lines. There are the Greens, and also a new cohort of so-called ’teal independents’—blue for business, green for environment—standing in the hope of making climate change an election issue. These outliers are, according to Quiggin, talked about in a way that is ‘remorselessly negative’.

Blair Pelese is the managing director of Climate and Capital Media. She also founded Australia and sat as a founding committee member for Human Rights Watch Australia. She’s currently volunteering for teal independent Allegra Spender, and calls me on loud-speaker as she drives to a campaign meeting, in the rain.

‘They go for people; they went for me,’ she says, referring to an attack launched by the Australian on the basis of three retweets related to human rights abuses against Palestinians. ‘They’ve done a lot more ugly, ugly stuff to a lot more people. But they have lawyers check every single word so that it’s all implied and you can’t sue them for defamation. There’s no truth, though… They’ll pull out one or two things and then they’ll twist the hell out of it.

‘Now I’ve joined this strange club of people who’ve been attacked by the Murdoch media,’ she continues. ‘And when I say attacked, I mean: they literally pick you out, create a whole campaign and then throw it at you. The minute it started to happen to me, these other victims started calling and messaging me.’

It’s not unusual to pick up a newspaper and see that so-and-so politician is being criticised again. You wouldn’t necessarily know the reason that politician was being so keenly derided was that they were prepared to acknowledge climate change. But the machinations of Australia’s Murdoch press are a guide to those of the monopoly media more broadly, which click into attack mode when faced with even a moderate challenge to the unfair status quo.

Crucially, there is nothing radical about the teal independents. They’re palatably pro-business, out first and foremost to appeal to Liberal voters frustrated by inaction on climate. If they’re being painted as dangerous subversives, you can only imagine the vitriol awaiting those further to the left of the environmental movement.

Out of Reach

In the 2019 election, Labor was more vocal. Its stronger green policies, and the press furore they attracted, are seen now as one of the reasons it lost. This time it’s playing along, keeping quiet.

‘In my discussion with Labor supporters,’ says Quiggin, ‘a consistent theme is that any positive policy Labor might put forward would be demonised by Murdoch, and that the best option therefore is not to have any policies. This is in large measure a reaction to unexpected defeat in 2019.’

Labor’s policies in 2019 fell victim, for example, to false modelling. The Liberal-National Coalition came up with spurious estimates about the costs and consequences of Labor policies. The Murdoch press shared these uncritically and widely. Scientists and economists quickly came out to explain why the modelling was wrong, but the lies were louder than the truth. Fast-forward to 2022 and, as Quiggin says, ‘It’s hard to make extreme claims about Labor’s policies when they are almost identical to those of the government.’

Maybe Labor will turbocharge its policies if it gets into office, particularly if it forms a coalition with the independents and/or Greens. But the Murdoch brigade will still be there, the spectre of former Labor PM Kevin Rudd, who met his downfall after proposing a tax on mining industry profits, looming large.

There have been attempts to break the Murdoch stronghold. Last year a petition demanding a Royal Commission into the control of the media landscape, launched by Rudd, gathered more than 500,000 signatures. A Senate report backed the call. But Labor’s spokesperson quickly sought to distance the party from the report, because like the Liberals, and warned off by the attacks on independents, Labor are trying to play the Murdoch game.

It’s ordinary people that suffer as a result. Australia remains one of the globe’s most polluting countries per capita: just 0.3 percent of the world’s population is giving off one percent of the world’s emissions–3.6 percent once you factor in the dirty energy it supplies to others. By now, the call for action on the climate should be deafening. Instead, the buzz of climate denial is replaced with silence and the occasional heckle, and the patter of the still-falling rain.