Rupert Murdoch has been accused of doing “enormous damage to the democratic world” by a former Australian prime minister, as senior political figures in his country of birth greet news of the mogul stepping down as chair of his media empire with scepticism.
Malcolm Turnbull, a former Liberal prime minister and advocate for a royal commission into the Murdoch media empire, said the media mogul had created an “anger-tainment ecosystem” that had left the US “angrier and more divided than it’s been at any time since the civil war”.
The treasurer, Jim Chalmers, described Murdoch as a “controversial but influential” figure, while other senior political figures have noted that his decision to step down as chair of Fox and News Corp – but serve as “chairman emeritus” – will still allow him a “big role” in his media empire.
Turnbull, who served as prime minister from 2015 to 2018, is a longstanding critic of Murdoch and blames News Corp’s promotion of climate denialism in part for his party’s decision to remove him as leader.
On Friday Turnbull said that Murdoch left a “hell of a legacy”, arguing that without Fox and News Corp, Britain probably would not have exited the European Union and Donald Trump would not have been president.
“He’s built a vast global media empire, and no doubt the business pages will give him credit for that,” Turnbull told ABC News Breakfast.
But Turnbull argued the media empire “sought to enrage Americans, divide Americans, and divide them against each other, and it has knowingly – and Murdoch had a personal hand in this … it has knowingly spread lies, most consequentially the one … where Donald Trump claimed to have won the 2020 election.
“And, of course, that created the environment which made the January 6 insurrection possible.”
In April, Fox and the voting equipment company Dominion reached a US$787.5m settlement in a defamation lawsuit, ending a dispute over whether the network and its parent company knowingly broadcast false and outlandish allegations that Dominion was involved in a plot to steal the 2020 election.
Turnbull said Murdoch’s companies “will continue in much the same vein” without him as chair. “They have become more propaganda than news.”
Sky News, like Fox, has been commercially successful because it “kept people engaged – in other words, watching their platform, their channel – by riling them up, by creating division and anger and resentment, and, you know, stoking that”, he said.
“But the problem there is, while it might be good for Fox’s ratings or Sky News’ ratings, is it leaves you with a society that is incredibly divided, that’s increasingly polarised, that struggles to work together to meet common challenges, and so is therefore weaker.”
‘End of an era’
Chalmers told ABC’s News Breakfast that “obviously Rupert Murdoch has been an incredibly influential figure on the global media landscape, and I think lots of people will see this rightly today as an end of an era”.
Asked if Murdoch had treated the Labor party unfairly at times, Chalmers demurred: “I try not to go into whether or not I feel stories or coverage have been fair.
“The body of work is there for all to see. He has been in lots of ways a controversial figure, but an influential figure too, and this is an end of an era at News.”
Murdoch, who inherited his father’s interests in an Adelaide newspaper in 1952 and developed a global media empire spanning Australia, the UK and US, is a controversial figure in Australia due to his contribution to the concentration of the media market and it’s Sky News service being a central source for climate science misinformation.
News Corp’s the Australian newspaper editorialised in favour of Labor leader Kevin Rudd before his 2007 election victory and the tabloid the Daily Telegraph once urged its readers to “Save Our Albo” [Anthony Albanese] when the now prime minister was faced with a challenge by the Greens in his seat of Grayndler.
But more often than not, the News Corp media empire has editorialised against Labor, creating a difficult relationship with the party, which came to power in May 2022 after nine years in opposition.
The education minister, Jason Clare, said that Murdoch “will still play a very big role in the media going forward”.
“Whether he’s chairman or not, it appears that he will still play a very big role at Fox and at News,” he told Channel Seven’s Sunrise.
The social services minister, Amanda Rishworth, said she was “surprised” by the announcement.
“Obviously he’s been a key element of News Corp for such a long time,” she told ABC Radio.
“Ultimately, he’s built a significant empire and changed the face of international journalism. It is a significant day and one I’m sure there’ll be a lot of reflections made.”
The deputy Liberal leader, Sussan Ley, said: “He’s keeping an eye on what’s going on, that’s for sure.
“But I think that somebody who’s working and busy and engaged at 92 is a great message for all older Australians actually.
“We used to step away and think we had to not be involved in the workplace or the workforce after 65, as I was growing up.”