Rupert Murdoch has fuelled polarisation of society, Barack Obama says

<span>Photograph: Michelle Haywood/AAP</span>
Photograph: Michelle Haywood/AAP

The former US president Barack Obama has suggested that Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has led to greater polarisation in western societies through news coverage designed to “make people angry and resentful”.

Speaking to a capacity crowd of about 9,000 people at Sydney’s Aware Super Theatre on Tuesday night, Obama mixed childhood memories of transiting through Australia as a child with pointed observations about the current political discourse and the rise of China.

Asked by Australia’s former foreign minister and moderator, Julie Bishop, about the history of bipartisanship in the US political system, Obama reflected on the largely Anglo-American male makeup of senators and representatives at the time he was elected to the US Senate in 2004, and on the divisions that have persisted since.

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“Here’s the good news about the US, though. We’re not quite as polarised as we seem. 60 to 65% of the country, let’s call it 70%, does occupy a reality-based world,” Obama said to laughter. “And that’s true within the Republicans.

“There’s one other factor that’s led to this polarisation. This is global, this is not unique to the United States, and that is the shifts in the media and the story that is told to people. And there’s a guy you may be familiar with, first name Rupert, who was responsible for a lot of this …

“But really he perfected what is a broader trend, which is the advent of cable [television], talk radio and then social media. The dissolution of the monopoly of a few arbiters of the news and journalistic standards that came out of the post-world war two era.”

Obama lamented a rise in people only consuming media they felt they were ideologically aligned with – including on the progressive side.

“It’s now a wild west and a splintering of media. And if all you’re doing is, in America it’s Fox News, here I guess it’s Sky, whatever it is, if all you’re doing is watching one source of news, and by the way, in America, you’re seeing that progressives say, well we’re going to have our own news and our own perspective.

I think China feels as if it does not have to operate under the same constraints that it did while I was president

“You no longer have a joint conversation and a shared story. And the economics of the media, the clicks, are now based on how do I attract your attention? Well, the easiest way to attract attention without having to have a lot of imagination, thought, or interesting things to say, is just to make people angry and resentful and to make them feel as if somebody’s trying to mess with them and take what’s rightfully theirs.

“And if you throw in some good old-fashioned racism and xenophobia and sexism and homophobia, all of that, because now we’re in the realm of identity politics. And it’s very difficult to compromise around identity politics.”

Obama expressed concern this trend will be worsened by the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence and its ability to mimic public figures. He said only his wife was able to discern if a deepfake audio recording purporting to be him was actually him.

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Tuesday’s event was run by the speaking tour organiser Growth Faculty. Tickets were priced from $200 up to almost $900 for premium seats.

Asked about his greatest regret, Obama raised the lack of action on gun control in the US despite continued mass shootings.

He said China had taken advantage of a vacuum in international rules that emerged after he left office. While in office, he made a concerted effort to spent time with “countries in the [south-east Asia] region that didn’t want to have to choose between the US and China, but didn’t want to be bullied by China”.

Obama said China’s President Xi Jinping had since “decided that to consolidate power inside of China, he would engage in a much more nationalistic strategy and crack down on some of the liberties that had begun to emerge inside of China”.

“Externally, frankly, with my successor coming in, I think he saw an opportunity, because the US president didn’t seem to care that much about the rules-based international system,” he said.

“What I would say today is that we do have a significantly strained relationship. I think China feels as if it does not have to operate under the same constraints that it did while I was president.

“Those tensions, I don’t think, are going to go away anytime soon.”

He was also critical of the actions of Vladimir Putin and “the broader contest that is taking place around the world between … an ancient way of conceiving of power that is essentially determined by violence and coercion and might-makes-right and is about domination and subordination and taking what you can, and a more modern notion of nation states respecting each other regardless of size and rule of law.”

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“For most of human history, you have the bigger club, you beat the other guy over the head and you take what you want. And that operated for a long time, everywhere, in Europe and in Asia and in Africa and the middle East and Latin America.

“What Ukraine represents, I think, is in some ways the exhaustion, the futility of the old ways of doing business in this modern world. Because there are too many people who have seen what freedom tastes like and understand what genuine democracy can mean.

“I don’t want people to think that if Putin fails, that we’ve won, because I think that what Putin represents, the trends that his politics and authoritarianism and dissembling and lying and cruelty and manipulation and repression, what he represents is bubbling up everywhere, including in my own country. And we have to watch out for that.”