Rupert Murdoch's Fox News pushed and extolled the presidency of Donald Trump. It must now be brought to account, writes Malcolm Turnbull.
True to their tradition of wielding power without responsibility, the Murdochs, pere et fils, have not commented on the sacking of the Capitol by a mob of Donald Trump supporters. Yet this catastrophe could not have occurred without the hatred, division and madness Murdoch’s media have promoted for years within the United States and beyond.
Murdoch knew Trump very well and did not regard him as a serious or suitable person to be president. But he was persuaded he could win and so threw all of the power of Fox News behind him. Until a few weeks ago Fox News’ relationship with Trump was like that of a state-owned broadcaster in a dictatorship: flattering the great leader, supporting his friends, denouncing his enemies, covering up his failures.
Fox News has promoted and exacerbated America’s deep social and racial divisions, supporting Trump’s exploitation of them at every turn.
When COVID-19 arrived, Fox and Murdoch’s other media outlets were in the forefront denying the reality of the virus, questioning social distancing and mask wearing. In other words denying the epidemiology of the virus just as they have denied the physics of global warming.
And when the election result was clear, Fox was once again in the forefront supporting Trump in his claims of election fraud, undermining Americans’ faith in their electoral system.
America is weaker, sicker and more divided today than it has ever been, probably since the Civil War. America’s adversaries in Beijing and Moscow are delighted, beside themselves with schadenfreude as they see the Confederate flag carried in triumph through the Capitol, congressmen and senators chased through the corridors by a mob sent by the president.
Murdoch did not directly dispatch the mob as Trump did, but his media, more than any other, amplified the narratives of hatred, division and denial that made the mob possible.
I have been with Trump and Murdoch and the power relationship was all too obvious. Trump was deferential, almost obsequious, to Murdoch. In fact when Trump and I first met he wanted Murdoch to join our bilateral discussion. I told him I wouldn’t do that — something Murdoch did not appreciate no doubt.
Russian interference in US politics was designed to foment division between Americans, mostly on racial lines, and to undermine trust in the US electoral system. Those objectives have been achieved, spectacularly, but it’s hard to give the Russians much credit for it. The heavy lifting was done by Americans — Murdoch above all, followed by other right-wing media and of course the craziness on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms favoured by the lunatic right, like Parler and Gab.
Many of Murdoch’s employees, such as Paul Kelly, try to explain the extremism on Fox, Sky News or The Australian as being the consequence of the craziness of social media corrupting traditional mainstream media. (See page 480 of my book A Bigger Picture.)
There is some truth in that, but it does not absolve the owners and editors of mainstream media from responsibility for what they have wrought. Mainstream media has to compete with social media for eyeballs and dollars, but it has enormous reach and credibility that a Facebook post or a Twitter thread does not.
Murdoch’s Australian media has evolved into a version of Fox News. Readers don’t need to be reminded of their consistent climate denialism and the way they cover for their political mates and denounce their opponents.
All of us have to accept responsibility for the consequences of our actions — especially if they were foreseeable. The prerogative of the harlot is how Rudyard Kipling described the press barons’ power without responsibility. Pretty tough on harlots I have always thought.
The Murdochs have said they are simply running a business. So the craziness of Fox News is not propaganda, it’s just giving the market what it wants.
That is no defence. When a drug company poisons its customers, it is no defence to say that the poisoning was unintended — that the directors just wanted to boost their earnings.
The time has come to hold powerful people in the media responsible for the damage they have created or enabled. This doesn’t mean newspapers or broadcasters should be censored, but it does mean that the public and media who report the news accurately and fairly should hold the propagandists to account.
It means businesses that advertise with Murdoch should be asked to explain how they justify supporting platforms that have done so much damage to democracy. It means journalists who do their masters’ bidding should be asked to explain how they justify their complicit collaboration with such destructive political propaganda.
When I made these points to Paul Kelly on Q+A recently he responded with “how dare you?”, indignant that I would seek to hold him to account. Well just as we hold politicians to account, it is about time we hold powerful media voices to account.
Freedom of speech must never mean freedom from responsibility.
For more on how Murdoch helped give us Trump, go here.