Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News has been quietly gaining reach and traction across regional Australia, pushing a divisive “far-right echo chamber” of false or misleading information which would soon be broadcast free-to-air “all day, every day”, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned yesterday.
“In the United States, Murdoch has used Fox News to slowly divorce a large chunk of the electorate from reality”, fomenting violence and radicalism which exploded at the United States Capitol in Washington on 6 January, Mr Rudd told a sold-out online journalism forum.
“The joke about Sky News used to be that nobody watched it. The reality is that millions are now watching.
“So if you think the Fox News phenomenon couldn’t happen in Australia, think again. It’s actually happening right now.”
Mr Rudd last night quoted Rupert Murdoch’s own 1972 AN Smith lecture to make his case, citing the media mogul’s declaration that “a press free from attack is a complacent, lazy press, and that can only lead in a short time to careless authoritarian government”.
Viewers of Sky News were presented with a world in which “the Black Lives Matter movement is not a protest at all, it’s a de facto terrorist organisation,” said Mr Rudd. Where the young BLM activist shot in London in May was characterised as “a latter day Osama Bin Laden”. And where the COVID-19 pandemic was a “weapon of mass destruction orchestrated by a combination of Bill Gates and the CIA”.
“The latest digital news report by the Reuters Institute in the University of Canberra finds that Sky News audiences self-identify as more right-wing than Fox News viewers in the United States. Think about that.”
The consequences were already taking shape in Australia, Mr Rudd argued. He described a culture of “Murdoch-induced fear” that has gripped journalists and politicians, and sowed disinformation into public debate. Politicians who supported Mr Murdoch’s ideology were rewarded under a “protection racket”, he said, while journalists or politicians in opposition are silenced by fear their reputations would be pulled apart.
Unchecked, Mr Rudd cautioned, the vast Murdoch media enterprise had the power to change politics in Australia forever.
News Corporation’s daily papers account for 70 per cent of print circulation, among them the two biggest newspapers in every state east of the Nullarbor. The empire included two national newswires and Australia’s number one news website, the country’s only 24-hour commercial current affairs channel and its biggest current affairs YouTube channel, Mr Rudd said.
“To me the question isn’t whether we have a royal commission, it is whether we have one now, while there’s still time to reverse the trend of mass consolidation of ownership and rising disinformation, or whether we have one down the track – after we’ve had an extremist outbreak in Australia like the January 6 insurrection in the United States,” he said.
Other media players endured aggressive attack in this landscape, Mr Rudd said. The ABC was being undermined by a “conservative shakedown”, and the Australian Associated Press Newswire service had been targeted in an apparent strategy to drive it out of business.
News Corp had a “virtual 100 per cent monopoly” in Queensland – “the state which decides almost all, if not all, federal elections”. The organisation had “captured the Liberal and National Party base”.
“Liberal MP Ted O’Brien has said it was as though his local members were having branch meetings with (Sky’s) Peta Credlin and Alan Jones every night.”
The organisation’s influence did not end there, he said. While many have written off newspapers as a dying branch of media, the reality was that the journalism produced by these newsrooms set the agenda and fed other media platforms. Mr Murdoch understood this, Mr Rudd said.
“The topics they focus on and how they characterise those debates are the starting point for the media in the rest of the country.”
This was why, in the grip of the climate crisis, Australia was “trapped in a phoney debate about whether Australia should go carbon neutral by mid century”, while the rest of the world “is having a debate about how we should build a path to reach that outcome”.
Mr Murdoch’s “key weapon” was the blending of news reporting with editorial opinion. “The fact that the great toothless tiger the Australian Press Council tolerates and therefore, in effect, encourages it, is I believe a genuine national disgrace,” Mr Rudd said.
Then there was the selection or omission of stories. When Murdoch’s son James resigned from News Corp in moral opposition to its stance on climate change, the Murdoch media in Australia didn’t report it, Mr Rudd said.
Selective and slanted coverage was impacting the health of Australia’s democratic discourse, muddying “sophisticated and factual reporting” on the critical issues such as climate change, the rise of China, and the economy.
“The real problem for Australia is the Murdoch media strategy of placing a blindfold over the eyes of the Australian people at a time when we face increasingly existential challenges for our nation’s future.”
Responding to online audience questions, Mr Rudd said the issues would not be resolved when Rupert Murdoch, 90, departed the helm. His son and heir Lachlan was a supporter of former US President Donald Trump and “known to be further to the right than his father”.
It was imperative to ready for “a bloody big fight”, or face another “50 years of political standover tactics from Murdoch number two”.
The Centre for Advancing Journalism – publisher of The Citizen – is the host of the AN Smith lecture. A recording of former PM Kevin Rudds’s oration will be available to view online shortly – follow this link.