James Murdoch's next job should be uniting the world's media in taking action over the climate crisis

The climate column: With the UN warning that humanity faces an existential crisis unless it starts cutting emissions radically by the end of 2020, it's time media barons used their influence for the good of the planet

James Murdoch is critical of Murdoch press

Could James Murdoch help save the world from climate catastrophe? One of the most important documentaries ever about the climate emergency has just been screened by the BBC. But it was not another exposé of the damage done to humanity and nature by carbon emissions. It was instead about the Murdoch media dynasty.

The series surgically exposed the enormous political power wielded by the Rupert Murdoch empire in the UK, US and Australia. It focused on three aspects of how the Murdochs’ used that power.

Firstly, as king-makers helping right-wing politicians win presidencies and prime minister-ships. Trump, Johnson, Blair, Cameron, Morrison and Abbott all courted the Murdochs and received their blessing and with it the full-throated backing of their media empire.

Secondly, it showed how the Murdochs used their UK media dominance to endlessly propagandise for Brexit for over 30 years and how they and the far-right politician Nigel Farage forged a partnership that helped ensure Brexit succeeded. This was done with a devastating multimillion pound flood of xenophobia and misinformation about the EU’s democratic processes.

But it was the revelation that the most powerful media baron in the world opposes climate action that makes the series so important. It featured an interview with Rupert Murdoch where he said: “We should approach climate change with great scepticism. Climate change has been going on as long as the planet has been here. There will always be a little bit of it.”

Murdoch wrongly stated that if at the worst we have a 3C rise in temperature over the coming century, then at most only 1C will have been caused by human activities. Then in true Trumpian style, he goes on to say, “If there is a six-inch rise in sea-levels, we cannot stop it. We just have to stop building vast houses on seashores.”

The Murdoch empire has never backed a political leader in any countries that supported urgent climate and ecological action. Their Fox News, Wall Street Journal and US tabloids led the charge opposing action, which led to the Republican Party switching from supporting market-based mechanisms for climate action under John McCain, to vociferously opposing climate science under Trump. This led the US to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and thereby undermining the global momentum behind it.

In Australia, the Murdoch’s 70 per cent stranglehold on its newspaper industry meant climate scepticism was pumped out for decades, despite Australia being one of the most vulnerable countries to the initial climate shock-waves.

This has been demonstrated by the recent devastating droughts, heat waves and rainforest fires. A recent report outlined how over 3 billion animals were burnt or harmed in this winter’s Australian bush fires. This has pushed many of the country’s unique and rich diversity of animal species to the edge of extinction.

The Murdoch papers have played a key role in the toppling of three Australian prime ministers – Kevin Rudd (twice!), Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull – who dared to take action on the crises, whether from the centre-right or centre-left parties. In the UK, the Murdoch-backed Johnson-led Tories had by far the weakest general election manifesto provisions on climate of all the major parties.

The Murdochs’ Sun newspaper led the campaign to try to force fracking through against widespread local opposition. While the Murdoch-owned Times newspaper was attacked by a group of leading UK scientists decrying its distorted and poor quality climate coverage. Murdoch’s climate scepticism is also echoed in the UK’s other off-shore media billionaire owned papers The Mail and Telegraph.

The final programme in the BBC Murdoch series coincided with a major split in the Murdoch dynasty. James Murdoch, under whose leadership Sky News had a positive line on climate action, announced he was quitting the News Corp board, citing editorial differences.

This followed the unprecedented public condemnation by him and his wife Kathryn of the climate scepticism being promoted by the family’s Fox News, Wall Street Journal and their vast media empire in Australia.

These outlets are under the management of his brother Lachlan, who has been described by one former News Corp executive as being to the right of any politician in Australia. James’s resignation means that Lachlan, the eldest son, is now the only remaining sibling at a senior level in the corporation.

But Murdoch’s News Corp is not alone in refusing to support urgent action on the climate and ecological emergencies among the world’s newspaper, advertising and broadcasting empires. Indeed, nearly all of them promote high-carbon lifestyles as the desirable social norm, whether large cars or foreign holidays.

With the UN warning that humanity faces an existential crisis unless it starts cutting emissions radically by the end of 2020, what can be done if we need the global media barons on board to ensure public support for the necessary political actions?

Maybe the departure of James Murdoch, having failed to persuade the family firm to drop its genocidal climate scepticism, might be a blessing for the movement? He has the global profile to take a lead, with other climate action supporting media billionaires like Bloomberg and Jeff Bezos, to launch a global media summit on the climate emergency at next year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow.

It is time for the world’s most powerful media owners and editors to assemble and agree a global media climate and ecological emergency media charter. This would outline how they can step up to the most important task ever entrusted to them – the protection of humanity and what is left of nature from possible extinction. Such a meeting could be held under the auspices of the UN High Level Climate Action Champions, the UK’s Nigel Topping and Chile’s Gonzalo Muňoz.

It should be a top priority for the global climate movement to pressure the world’s media leaders to attend such an event and to sign up their corporations to its proposed charter.

The BBC Murdoch documentary showed how such a meeting would have more power to save the world than all the previous 25 COP conferences put together. It must happen.

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