The statement issued by James and Kathryn ( probably the most politically liberal of all the extended Murdoch clan) was less a criticism of the family patriarch, Rupert, than a swipe at the climate change stance of James’ big brother. The couple singled out Fox News in the US and News Corp’s Australian media operations, noting they were “particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary”.
The Fox News Channel and the Australian media operations are those most closely associated with Lachlan’s stewardship following the slimming down of the company with the sale of its 21st Century Fox assets to the Disney Corporation. James’ admitted frustration with much of the News Corp and Fox coverage of climate change stems largely from the fact that it was not always so.
People forget that in November 2006, Rupert Murdoch, the man many now accuse of being the great climate change denier, publicly embraced the need for an international treaty to halt the progress of global warming. While noting that he still harboured doubts about the causes and consequences of global warming, he went on the record accepting the notion of climate change.
“The planet deserves the benefit of the doubt,” Murdoch Snr stated while announcing plans to reduce the company’s carbon footprint to zero and become the first North American media company to “commit to science-based targets to limit climate change”. He even donated $US500,000 to the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative.
And for a while, the myriad Murdoch news outlets all seemed to embrace their proprietor’s new thinking. The previously sceptical The Times of London now noted in an editorial: “Too many of us have spent too long in denial over the threat from global warming.” The Daily Telegraph in Sydney and Herald Sun in Melbourne, over the course of the next few months, even ran editorials that affirmed the reality of global warming, praised the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, and criticised the Australian government for being weak on climate issues.
So what happened between then and now when News Corp’s Australian operations are being widely accused of promoting climate change scepticism?
Well, for starters, in 2006 James Murdoch, the liberal-thinking climate change activist, was clearly in the ascendancy as the heir apparent to the Murdoch empire – and most certainly had his father’s ear. Lachlan had walked away in a huff from the family company a year earlier, largely because he felt his father was paying more attention to his lieutenants – Peter Chernin as president of News Corporation and Roger Ailes as chief executive of Fox News – than himself, the supposed “anointed one”, even though he was many years junior to the company’s very experienced executives.
On the other hand, James’ star had risen. He had successfully overseen a turnaround in News Corp’s Asian operation, brought new energy and vision to the then moribund BSkyB satellite service in Britain, and was about to assume the mantle as head of all the company’s UK activities as a precursor to a bigger role in the global empire.
And for a while it seemed that with James seemingly in the driver’s seat to succeed his father, the Murdoch empire indeed had turned “green”. But then it all unravelled in 2011 with the phone-hacking controversy implicating News Corp’s London tabloids. Even though much of the illegal activity occurred prior to James taking over as head of UK operations, inside the family he was widely blamed “for nearly destroying the family company”. His excuse that he didn’t know it was happening was met with the accusation that he should have.
It was Lachlan’s chance to ride to the rescue, provide a steadying hand for his father who had been clearly rocked by the vitriol directed at his empire, and restate his claim to the throne. In March 2014, Rupert announced that Lachlan, the prodigal son, was back inside the family tent in a new, complex power-sharing role with James. But the phone-hacking scandal had clearly knocked the gloss off the younger sibling. Lachlan started to play to his father’s conservative political and economic thinking.
Much to James’ chagrin, Lachlan – who many inside the company see as far more conservative and right wing in his philosophy – began to woo Murdoch Snr away from any semblance of support for climate change initiatives. Partly is was a business decision driven by Lachlan’s belief that the audience for Fox and his Australian media outlets were conservative, right of centre and sceptical about global warming and its causes. Moreover, News Corp owned that audience and was not going to give it up by surrendering to the left on an issue such as climate change. But it also sits well with the innate conservatism of father and eldest son.
For James and Kathryn – committed supporters of action on global warming – it remains galling that things could have been so very different.
If only James had prevailed in the dynastic competition with his eldest brother, the editorial line adopted by the myriad entities that still compromise the Murdoch empire might be very different.
What if Rupert Murdoch’s legacy is not that of being labelled the “great climate change denier” but the man who told the world: “The planet deserves the benefit of the doubt.”
Bruce Dover was a long-term News Corp executive and worked closely with Rupert Murdoch in China from 1992 to 1998. He is the author of Rupert’s Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife.