The Australian bushfires have caused a rift in the Murdoch family that could help fix our climate crisis

Donnachadh McCarthy
James Murdoch: Reuters

Since 2007, the Australian press has helped topple four Australian prime minsters who dared to try to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions.

Early on Boxing Day, I was called by LBC radio asking if I would speak about the bushfires sweeping Australia and whether this was a wake-up call to the world to listen to the demands of the Extinction Rebellion protestors. I was already awake and upset, watching these unique rainforests blaze, with millions of animals being burnt alive and thousands of humans trapped on beaches in apocalyptically reddened skies, surrounded by roaring fires.

But my interviewer, Andrew Castle, did not want to speak about the climate crisis. He wanted to discuss how this devastating event was supposedly the fault of the Australian Green Party. I tried to explain the many ways in which the climate crisis was contributing to the drought and extending the bushfire season, and how the fire chiefs responsible for tackling it were demanding climate action. But all he wanted to talk about was a conspiracy popular theory: that Green opposition to forest backfiring had contributed to the catastrophe.

When I came off air, I broke down in crying. If, even in the middle of the Australian devastation, our media are not willing to discuss the need to eliminate fossil fuels, what hope is there for our kids’ futures? And where did this Green Party conspiracy theory come from?

The answer is the Australian press. For years, when people linked the worsening bushfires with rising temperatures and the climate crisis, the media across Australia pumped out misinformation about it being due to the Green Party’s opposition to backfiring, which it has argued creates more fuel for the fires. But the Green Party has never controlled any Australian state government and its website clearly states it supports responsible backfiring.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd was elected Labor prime minister and sought to introduce Australia’s first carbon tax. The Australian media – 70 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – fought it tooth and nail. In 2010, the onslaught against the tax left Rudd sliding disastrously in the polls. An internal coup took place, and Julia Gillard ousted Rudd from the premiership. She stood for election on a promise of not introducing a carbon tax. She failed to gain a majority, but did a deal with the Green Party and managed to get that tax introduced anyway.

The press resumed its onslaught and backed the reactionary climate sceptic Tony Abbott, leader of the conservative Liberal Party, whose poll numbers soared. In 2013, Rudd carried out a counter coup against the unpopular Gillard, but led the Labor Party to defeat by Abbott.

Yet despite his media support, Abbott proved to be too reactionary for Australians. In 2015, Abbott was toppled in a Liberal Party coup by the more moderate Malcolm Turnbull. In 2016, Turnbull won the Australian general election – with the backing of the press. But Turnbull then made the mistake of taking action on climate: in 2017, he proposed a National Energy Guarantee policy that would support renewable energy and reduce coal burning.

In August the following year, the papers went on the warpath against Turnbull over that policy. Within two weeks there was another internal Liberal Party coup, replacing Turnbull with the deeply pro-coal Scott Morrison. In 2019, Morrison won the Australian general election with – can you guess? – the help of the enthusiastic backing of the press.

Morrison was infamous for bringing a lump of coal into the Australian parliament, stating: “This is coal. This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you.” Coal has far higher carbon emissions than oil or natural gas. Australia is the largest exporter of coal in the world with 32 per cent of global exports. The Australian coal industry wants to supply the new coal-fired power stations in India and China. If built, these will guarantee that humanity will lose all hope of avoiding a climate apocalypse.

Already, Australian current coal production of 500 million tons emits 1,440 million tons of CO2 annually. This is equivalent to four times the carbon emissions from the entire UK economy. Yet, the coal corporations want to open more coal mines, including the huge Adani mine.

At the height of the Christmas fires, the Australian press’s front pages were reporting positively on the expanding coal industry, while dismissing the fire chiefs call for urgent climate action. In a Sky News interview in 2014, Rupert Murdoch said about Australia: “We can be the low-cost energy country in the world. We shouldn’t be building windmills and all that rubbish. Climate change has been going on as long as the planet is here.”

Over 10 million hectares of bushland have already been destroyed by these fires – more than three times the size of Belgium. In New South Wales, this summer’s fires have consumed more than the entire previous 15 years’ seasonal outbreaks.

But then two extraordinary developments happened this week, that gave me some hope. First, Emily Townsend, an Australian commercial manager with News Corp, quit her job, sending an explosive email to all staff, later leaked to The Guardian, which stated: “I find it unconscionable to continue working for this company, knowing I am contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies.”

The second positive development was, in a rare public disagreement with their father, a spokesperson for James and Kathryn Murdoch making a public statement to The Daily Beast on Tuesday, stating: “Kathryn and James’s views on climate are well established, and their frustration with some of the News Corp and Fox coverage of the topic is also well known. They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary.”

Media corporations are the crucial linchpin to unlocking the global action needed on the climate emergency. There are about 30 media corporate leaders globally who have the power to save humanity and what is left of nature.

James Murdoch has the credibility to call a global climate summit of these media leaders. Such a summit would literally have more power to engender change than the UN’s climate conference in September. If he could inspire them to step up to the historic existential responsibility with which fate has entrusted them, then maybe, just maybe we might find a precious tiny ray of hope emerging from the smoking embers of the devastated Australian rainforests.

Donnachadh McCarthy is an environmental auditor, campaigner and is the author of ‘The Prostitute State – How Britain’s Democracy was Hijacked

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