Dial M for Murdoch
It’s not news that Rupert Murdoch controls large swathes of the Australian media landscape. The Murdoch controlled media giant News Corp Australia accounts for around 57% of the daily newspaper market and claims a daily reach of one million people. This includes high circulation tabloid papers in Sydney and Melbourne, the only major daily in Brisbane, and Murdoch’s ‘national flagship’ broadsheet, the Australian. New Zealand researchers found ‘only five countries have one owner with more than 50% ownership of the daily newspaper market, and that Australia was one of them’. Countries with higher concentrations include deeply authoritarian states with predominantly state-owned press, including China and Egypt.
News Corp also has controlling ownership of Foxtel, the monopoly pay TV provider in Australia, and Sky News which is carried by Foxtel. News Corp’s newspapers are regularly cited on free to air television and Sky News clips are frequently replayed, as well as being popular on social media. The Reuters Institute University of Oxford Digital Report 2019 also found that Murdoch’s online operation, News.com.au, was Australia’s most used news website, ahead of ABC News Online.
Rupert Murdoch has used his dominant position in the Australian media market to promote denial of human caused climate change and its effects on the catastrophic 2019-20 bushfires. These mega-fires put Australia on the humanitarian crisis world map with mass evacuations by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) off the beaches of south eastern Australia in the largest civil emergency since the Second World War.
Against this backdrop, the Australian indulged in a breathtaking moment of political publishing on 11 January 2020, calling for ‘cool heads’ to prevail while claiming:
‘social media is driving a campaign of outrage in which an alleged right-wing conspiracy of climate denialism is framed as the key obstacle on the path to a better future. For all the clicks, this represents few people and no constructive ideas. We should not allow noise to deafen us to this opportunity for a serious conversation’
This discourse intends to make taboo any questioning of market totalitarian ideologies of economic profit above all else; and to paint anyone and everyone who advocates for urgent action on climate change as irrational and unwilling to engage in dialogue. By this profoundly dehumanising logic, she who dissents from the interests of global corporations and national elites forfeits her right to a voice about her future.
At the same time, the Australian opined that recovery from the 2019-20 fire season will ‘require open debate, factual reporting and robust commentary’, and talked about ‘unfettered, credible journalism’ and ‘facts and bringing to light a wide range of informed viewpoints’. But less than a week earlier, during the height of the bushfire emergency on the New South Wales south coast, they published a hatchet job on ABC TV written by a former employee which managed to criticise almost every aspect of its programming and operations, while cleverly extolling the virtues of ABC’s radio service in the fire crisis.
The ABC provides free, quality and unbiased news and information, and its online news service is in direct competition with Murdoch’s News.com.au. His international competitors in the hearts and minds business also came under fire for having the temerity to accuse the Australian of climate denial. A New York Times article hit on the essence of Murdoch’s malign influence: ‘It’s that echoing between officialdom and Murdoch media that has many people so concerned’. Indeed, in early December Scott Morrison was widely criticised for taking a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) jet to attend drinks in Sydney with heir apparent Lachlan Murdoch while the inadequacy of national aerial firefighting capability had become a significant issue in the politicking around the fires.
News Corp’s role in the spread of lies about the causes of bushfires is unavoidably clear from the hot-headed ranting of Miranda Devine or the mealy mouthed mischief mongered by Andrew Bolt. In November 2019, before the tragic extent of this fire season became evident, Devine claimed in the Courier Mail that ‘it is not climate change that turns fires into unstoppable lethal infernos’. Even as ‘a hippy in Nimbin knows’, she proudly proclaimed, it is ‘green ideology that blocks removal of fuel loads’.
A week later, Rupert Murdoch assured shareholders at the company’s annual general meeting that there were ‘no climate change deniers around’ News Corp. Yet by mid-January there was open dissent from within the Murdoch camp, with Rupert’s other son James criticising News Corp’s Australian arm in respect to ‘ongoing denial … given obvious evidence to the contrary’.
News Corp papers and Sky News have also given print space and airtime to the views of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association, a break-off group representing an undisclosed number of NSW rural firefighters and with links to the NSW Shooters and Fishers Party. These views have included the conservative splinter organisation’s advocacy for increased hazard reduction as part of a broader strategy referred to as ‘land management’.
It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that the editors of Murdoch’s flagship didn’t miss the opportunity in their 11 January effort to push both the hazard reduction and arson barrows, while simultaneously defending their own record:
‘Bushfire experts have also pointed to the interrelated build-up of very dry forest fuel loads. We have reported this accurately, just as we have covered the well-attested role of arson in igniting fires, a risk that deserves more attention in times of climate change’
Following this came a fantastic piece by Miranda Devine in 15 January’s Daily Telegraph covering more terrain at higher speed than a Star Wars movie on steroids. Devine rushed to the defence of Scott Morrison and his widely and deeply criticised response to the fires burning millions of hectares across Australia, along the way casually disparagingly those who seek a low carbon economy to prevent the worst impacts of critical climate change as ‘carbonistas’ and ‘zealots’. Deploying a now routine post-conservative tactic, she accuses climate change advocates and activists of exactly what she is doing, that is creating a ‘cynical diversion’. Devine claims that the real culprit behind the catastrophic fire season is ‘the criminal negligence of governments’. According to her Devine wisdom, the crime is that they ‘tried to buy green votes by locking up vast tracts of land as national parks’ while failing to ‘spend the money to control ground fuel and maintain fire trails’.
As shown in the first part of this series on ‘Hazard reduction’ as a Trojan Horse in Australia’s bushfire response, climate change has caused significantly hotter weather which has limited the potential amount of prescribed burning. Not the Greens’ policies. Not Labor’s policies. Moreover, this same extreme weather was driving fire behaviour that meant that prescribed burns often had little if any effect in slowing the progress of the mega-fires. We also saw that Scott Morrison and previous Liberal Party prime ministers had turned down a number of proposals and appeals over a number of years for enhanced aerial firefighting capability.
Nor did these facts stop Andrew Bolt from holding forth at the vanguard of Murdoch’s media shock force on 27 January with a rallying call for climate change denialists, unexpectedly claiming that ‘warming is good for us’. Cherry picking to his heart’s content, Bolt quoted selectively from a single scientist’s inconsistent views on the relation between climate change and drought, predictably ignoring the bigger picture that climatic systems are increasingly unstable and will cause more extreme weather related disasters. Bolt then gave us his best attempt at a straight-faced rhetorical question:
‘would it be far cheaper and infinitely more effective to finally do all the fuel reduction burns needed to keep down the fuel loads in our forests?’
In an unnerving echo of Charles Dickens’ ironic cure of the guillotine for a headache, one may well wonder if Bolt wasn’t asking if it might not just be easier to burn all the forest to stop the bushfires once and for all.
The perils of playing with fire
Amid their own claims of factual and unbiased coverage, the Murdoch media empire has in fact promoted two factors as the primary causes of bushfires, forest fuel loads and arson, pushing the real culprits of climate change and vegetation destruction into the background. Despite the media coverage, arson has not been the cause of most of the fire in terms of area burnt, damage to property or lives lost, and Victoria Police explicitly denied the Australian’s claim that the ‘national arson toll’ had reached 183 incidents.
This, however, was not before federal Liberal National Party backbencher George Christensen tried to make this a national security issue on Facebook on 10 January:
‘the cause of the fires is certainly man-made, it’s just not man-made climate change. It’s man-made arson that, to me, almost borders on terrorism. And it’s man-made stupidity by politicians who support laws that stop backburning and decent fire breaks’
While this appears as an unsubtle tactic to manipulate people by spreading fear and appealing to the political mythology of conservative prowess in maintaining law and order, it also attempts to securitise the bushfires by likening their causes to terrorism, implying that secretive and extraordinary processes are required to deal with this threat to our way of life.
A fact check from RMIT University and ABC explains that arson is an extremely difficult crime to detect. While several of the February 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria were initially attributed to arson, with one exception this turned to be incorrect. In fact, seven of the eight fires causing the terrible death toll started from the electricity distribution network. If Australia’s police forces assess a need for enhanced anti-arson capabilities, it would be expected they would seek additional resourcing from their respective governments. There is an effective process for this already, and it’s not clear that Murdoch’s papers or the ‘Member for Manila’, Mr Christensen Esq., are doing anything to assist. The reality is that arson and fuel loads have always been with us, and we have developed relatively effective ways of managing them.
What is new, though, are the climate change created weather conditions that resulted in fires razing of over 11 million hectares of land, killing 33 people and over one billion mammals, birds and reptiles, and destroying thousands of properties. This is ultimately caused by unsustainable industrial growth driven by fossil fuels at the expense of the liveability of our planet and the wellbeing of billions of vulnerable and disadvantaged people around the globe.
Dr Timothy Graham from the Queensland University of Technology provides an analytical perspective on this issue:
‘The conspiracy theories going around (including arson as the main cause of the fires) reflect an increased distrust in scientific expertise, scepticism of the media, and rejection of liberal democratic authority. These are all major factors in the global fight against disinformation, and based on my preliminary analysis it appears that Australia has for better or worse entered that battlefield, at least for now’
An even stronger conclusion on ‘hazard reduction’ is drawn by former Victorian Environment Minister John Thwaites, who argues that while prescribed burns are an important part of the firefighting toolkit, ‘They should not be used as a weapon in the culture wars’. Thwaites points to the media’s role in propagating this narrative:
‘For years, elements of the media have promoted the idea that “greenies” and environmentalists have prevented fuel reduction burning. This particularly suits those with an agenda to deny climate change as it simultaneously advances the culture war against environmentalists and draws attention away from the need to take action on climate change’
The culture wars angle starts to seem more than plausible when we consider this quote from an anonymous Liberal Party insider reported by the ABC’s Laura Tingle:
‘If anything, this Government is more ideologically driven than Abbott. They want to win the culture wars… They believe the Left has been winning the war for the last 20 years and are determined to turn the tables. Morrison will just be craftier about the way he goes about it’
And in case doubts existed about Rupert Murdoch’s alignment, the Australian’s 11 January editorial claimed that ‘Scott Morrison has a recent electoral mandate and reservoir of goodwill to draw upon’. It also described his denialism and inaction as ‘missteps’, awkwardly apologising for his ‘lack of empathy and ordinary human touch’ as ‘uncharacteristic’, and suggesting this arose from ‘anxiety about Coalition divisions over climate change action’. It is rather difficult though, irrespective of one’s political persuasion, to paste over the chasms in Morrison’s response to the bushfire crisis. Crafty it was not.
Even though misinformation has predominantly and perniciously flowed from the Liberal and National parties and their supporters in the right wing media, Murdoch’s messengers tasked Morrison with ‘restoring public confidence and countering misinformation’. Without any apparent concern for the optics of dictating political strategy to the prime minister via national print media, they counselled Morrison that this was to be achieved by (falsely, as the case would be) ‘reminding people that Australia’s record on climate change action is good’.
This is essentially gaslighting. Accused of their misdeeds, or pre-emptively, they simply and casually claim that they are doing the right thing, and that it’s their opponents that are doing the opposite, which is in fact what they themselves are doing. This is reminiscent of the children’s game, ‘I know you are, but what am I?’
A case in point is the Liberal Party’s Craig Kelly attacking a highly qualified and experienced British meteorologist as ‘ignorant’ because she called him a ‘climate denier’. To which Laura Tobin responded: ‘it couldn’t be further from the truth, because I am so qualified and the reality is that it’s the complete opposite’.
Added to this, they also baldly and baselessly insist their opponents are being irrational, and even uncivil, by calling attention to the reality of the situation. Deputy Prime Minister and National Party leader Michael McCormack ramped up this type of rhetoric with his malicious remarks in November 2019 about ‘disgraceful, disgusting’ and ‘raving inner-city lunatics’.
The workings of this kind of manipulation of truth and reality is often difficult to grasp, as it seems so incredibly implausible to most people that politicians could actually be that cynical and calculating. But they are. And the evidence is abundant.
This post-conservative political behaviour is enabled and supported by the media in something of a symbiotic relationship. News Corp itself has a strong track record in denying the science of climate change. According to research reported by the Guardian in 2012, over three quarters of sampled articles in the Herald-Sun and the Daily Telegraph either ‘rejected’ or ‘questioned’ the ‘established science of climate change’. This contrasted with 85% of articles from Fairfax newspapers embracing the scientific consensus. Another finding was that peer reviewed science only accounted for a small portion of newspaper coverage on this issue, with a strong preference instead for commentary by writers without any scientific background. Andrew Bolt’s columns were singled out as being particularly problematic.
Indeed, Bolt epitomises this fundamentally corrosive feature of climate change denialism in Australia. Of his old enemies, the ‘warmists’, he makes the bizarre accusation that: ‘Reason is their enemy, and only fear is their friend’. Ironically, of course, it would be near impossible to find a more accurate description of the strategic approach of the Murdoch media and the Liberal and National parties in their disinformation campaigns.
All that glitters is not golden
Social control, however, doesn’t stop at media manipulation and political warfare. The downhill slide of democracy in Australia has led to chilling developments since the early 2000s, including involvement in the illegal war in Iraq and the indefinite detention and torture of asylum seekers.
There has also been a nation-wide trend in the criminalisation of speaking and acting against socially and environmentally destructive economic practices which are rapidly eroding the well-being and even viability of many communities. In a 2016 report titled Safeguarding Democracy, the Human Rights Law Centre observed that:
‘Federal and state governments have stepped up efforts to avoid scrutiny, reduce transparency and limit accountability in order to expand government power, advantage political elites and advance the interests of business’
Australia’s democracy rating has dropped from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ in Civicus Monitor’s Global Report 2019, ‘partially due to increased restrictions on the freedom of expression and government surveillance’. A significant factor in this assessment was government policy and police actions affecting journalists and their work.
In early June 2019, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) – now under Peter Dutton’s security mega-department of Home Affairs instead of the realm’s highest law officer, the Attorney-General – raided the ABC’s offices in Sydney relating to journalists’ investigations into possible killings of civilians in Afghanistan by Australian military personnel. The warrant allowed the AFP to ‘add, copy, delete or alter’ data on the ABC’s computers. The day before, the AFP had raided News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home in relation to a separate story about a potential expansion of the Australian Signals Directorate’s (ASD) ability to spy domestically on Australians. This allegedly would have given the Defence Minister the power to authorise digital surveillance on citizens without needing either a warrant or the Attorney-General’s approval.
These raids sent a strong message. And the effect was even more pronounced coming as it did on the back of a raft of legislative changes in 2018, including foreign interference and data encryption laws, with serious implications for journalists’ ability to operate free from state coercion.
But this has also had a broader effect on public debate. During the height of this summer’s bushfires veteran journalist Laura Tingle observed:
‘[a] bizarre situation continuing where a few belligerent types in politics — and very noisy ones in the media — seem to set the limits of our conversation’
This echoed earlier conversations about Morrison’s outspoken preference for quiet, or as some saw it silent, Australians.
In October 2019, protests in Melbourne at the International Mining and Resource Conference (IMARC) against the destructive mining practices of global corporate capitalism saw Victoria Police criticised for their crowd control tactics, and some police members were implicated in unethical behaviour including online activity. However, it was Scott Morrison’s response that was perhaps even more concerning.
In a speech to the Queensland Resources Council, Morrison labelled street protesters ‘anarchists’ and called progressivism a threat to the livelihoods and liberties of Australians. In threatening to crack down on ‘secondary boycotts’ in the mining and resource sectors, which have been effective in delaying the Adani mega-coal mine in Queensland, for example, he also called for ‘quiet shareholders’ to be listened to. His performance drew wide criticism, inviting due scorn from Guardian Australia’s political editor, Katharine Murphy, who called it ‘sinister’ and ‘threatening’.
These words would also have been apt for NSW Police’s handling of the peaceful protests outside the prime minister’s Sydney residence, Kirribilli House, before Christmas, while its ex officio inhabitant Scott Morrison was doing whatever he was doing in Hawaii. The Riot Squad was called in and arrested 10 people, including one minor. Among those arrested for failing to comply with a ‘move on order’ was Greens state MP David Shoebridge. Izzy Raj-Seppings, a thirteen year old, was peacefully protesting there along with her father, other school students and supporters on 19 December 2019 because she was ‘tired of watching… all of our futures, burn before our very eyes’. Faced with threat of arrest by Sydney’s finest, Izzy and her father complied with a move on order.
This incident speaks volumes about what is happening in Australia right now. Children should not be living in fear of global catastrophe. But they are. And when riot police are used to exclude children from public spaces to stop them expressing existential concerns for their futures, what will they be willing to do to the rest of us?
Once Scott Morrison returned to his job, possible motives for his vacation quickly started to suggest themselves. The destruction and loss of life on the NSW south coast in early January 2020 was particularly devastating, and on a different level from what had been experienced elsewhere earlier in the fire season. The small community of Cobargo was hit hard, and the visceral anger of residents was plastered across a range of media sources.
This became a public relations debacle for Morrison when he attempted to forcibly shake a woman’s hand for a photo op, before turning his back on her while she was asking for help, and then giving a repeat performance with a volunteer firefighter. This degrading display was readily juxtaposed with the Morrison government reportedly spending $190,000 on ‘empathy consultants’. Reports also emerged of intimidation of local residents by riot police in the wake of this unwelcome and unhappy visit.
Bound by Botany Bay
August 2019, in addition to heralding the start of the hyper-catastrophic 2019-20 fire season, also marked 40 years since the world’s first direct forest action at Terania Creek in northern NSW. This led to its protection by the Wran Labor government in 1982, catalysing the environmental protection movement in Australia. Forming part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage area, this season’s fires burnt significant parts of these remnant forests for the first time in tens of millions of years.
Police interference in the human, civil and political rights of citizens and residents to peacefully demonstrate in the interests of the community has also been a salient feature of the state’s response to direct environmental action since Terania Creek. In recent years, governments across Australia have been active in introducing measures which, if not directly curtailing the right to protest, do so in practice.
Even thought governments’ efforts at enacting direct statutory restrictions on protest have had mixed success to date, the trend is clear. For example, move-on powers aimed at criminalising protesters in Victoria were repealed by the current Labor government in 2015. While in Western Australia, the Labor’s election in 2017 averted proposed anti-protest laws there, although trespass laws have since been strengthened. However, although the High Court in 2017 struck down Tasmania’s anti-protest laws introduced in 2015, the Liberal Party government is looking to redraft and reintroduce similar laws. And in Queensland new laws will allow police to search protesters, with the primary justification being to detect and confiscate ‘lock-on’ devices.
In NSW, the current string of Liberal-National Coalition governments has been busy building on the raft of pro-security and surveillance measures implemented in the post-9/11/2001 context. This has included laws introducing a range of additional powers providing for more police control over public spaces; broadening the scope of offences; and significantly increasing some penalties. In 2013, the Barry O’Farrell government introduced a number of new police powers that have the ‘ability to undermine the foundational notion of “innocent until proven guilty”’, according to the Redfern Legal Centre.
In 2016, further changes were introduced in response to protests against coal and unconventional gas extraction, including blockading the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle and coal mines in the Hunter Valley, and the successful protection of valuable farmland and communities at Bentley in northern NSW from coal seam gas (CSG). These actions were met by criminalisation of lock-on devices and additional offences and higher penalties for interfering with mines or entering agricultural properties.
The Liberal National Coalition has also overseen increased use of police tactics aimed at intimidating members of the public, including strip searches. Most public order and riot squads in Australia, including NSW, now also have sonic cannons, or long range acoustic devices (LRADs), as well as semi-automatic firearms.
In the northwest of NSW, eastern Australia’s largest remaining temperate woodland, the Pilliga, is being industrialised with leaky CSG wells fracked across the country. If Blake’s dark satanic mills were ever to exist, then here they are poisoning the farms and forests of eastern Australia. This was also the scene of shameless neoliberal appropriation of the state security apparatus, replete with gas company Santos’ branding on police cars.
A 2015 report by the NSW Parliamentary Research Service highlights the lack of an express, statutory right to assembly, in contrast to some other Australian jurisdictions. NSW Police already enjoyed a broad range of legislative provisions under which they could control protest actions prior to the 2016 changes: ‘In NSW the limits imposed on the right to assembly by the criminal law are extensive’. Following in the wake of these changes, additional laws criminalised homelessness in Sydney’s central business district, which were specifically designed to clear out homeless people and associated activism from Martin Place in the heart of the city.
Denial of citizens’ right to peaceful assembly and protest has an ominous precedent in Australian political history. Street protests were banned in Queensland from September 1977 under the extreme right wing government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a situation that lasted almost two years and led to the arrest of more than 2,000 people.
NSW government regulations effective from July 2018 under the Crown Land Management Act 2016 provide the NSW Police Force with ‘incredibly wide powers to disperse or ban protests, rallies, and virtually any public gathering across approximately this half of all land across the state’, says the NSW Council for Civil liberties. This means that police, local council employees, and potentially other government employees or designated persons, can prohibit someone from ‘Taking part in a gathering, meeting or assembly’ on any crown land in NSW. This covers most public places comprising 42% of the state, including:
‘town squares and local parks, state heritage sites, buildings, community halls, nature reserves, coastal lands, waterway corridors, sporting grounds, racetracks, showgrounds, caravan parks, camping areas, travelling stock routes, rest areas, walking tracks, commons, community and government infrastructure and facilities’
This law also allows the government to amend regulations to increase fines to a maximum $11,000 for ‘interfering’ with a mining operation.
As a method of punishment, fines disproportionately affect people on lower incomes, and thus can have a strong deterrent effect on many people who are concerned about society and the environment and who are considering taking personal and legal risks to protest against destructive business and government activity. In November 2019, the the NSW parliament passed the Right to Farm Act, among other things increasing the maximum fine for ‘aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands’ to $22,000, and adding a three-year prison term for people who ‘hinder’ a business in the course of trespassing.
Public space is essential for citizens and residents to engage in free political communication. Shutting down public places is not just about preventing specific protest actions from affecting legitimate business and other public activity. It is also fundamentally about excluding dissenting voices from the public sphere. By controlling our movement, they can control our communication.
The criminalisation of dissent is a profoundly insidious form of ‘lawfare’ that has the potential to block off avenues of meaningful political resistance to the wholesale corporatisation of the remaining public sphere in NSW and elsewhere in Australia. These assaults on our right to political protest have come thick and fast despite recognition in common law, state legislation and human rights charters, and international law of the ‘fundamental importance of right to assembly’.
In combination with a mainstream and social media landscape dominated by billionaire businesspeople, state and federal governments are controlling the channels of political action available to the public. It is impossible for communities to compete for media space with behemoths like News Corp and Facebook. And the NSW Liberal Party’s suite of anti-protest measures curtails people’s ability to personally express their political views in a public space, cutting off recourse to the act of physical demonstration as a last resort of political communication.
This may also be a worrying precursor to the further privatisation of public land. Once people are shut out of public space, and their voices are prevented from reaching relevant audiences, it is an easy step to sell off the land in question under the cover of secrecy. If the ‘hazard reduction’ lobby gets its way, substantial areas of the remaining forest in southeast Australia will literally be slashed, burned and opened up in various ways.
The current situation in NSW has all the ingredients of a once-in-a-generation land grab. Another wave of expropriation of the commons, handing control over to private interests concerned only with bank accounts and balance sheets, and not with the health and sustainability of people, communities and the environment.
Australia remains, in its political formation and national psyche, a colonial enterprise. At the same time as many white Australians, with the support of conservative media and politicians, insist the day of British invasion of Aboriginal Australia must remain a national holiday, politicians at state and federal levels are lining up to bend over backwards to hand over Australia’s natural resources to the most powerful bidder at the lowest price. (And if you bend your ear, you can almost hear the refrain: ‘Would you like some subsidies with that, sir?’)
Part 1 of this series looked at false claims surrounding the causes of the 2019-20 megafires and climate denialism in Australian politics. Part 3 will explore implications for the future of the forests of south east Australia.
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