Murdoch Goes Green, and His Empire Follows

Rupert Murdoch, traditionally no friend to the science of climate change, has begun to change his tune, will NewsCorp?

It was like the sun rising in the west. For over a decade, Rupert Murdoch had disputed the science of climate change. Then, at a Tokyo press conference last week, the conservative media mogul announced that he is now in favor of an international treaty to halt the progress of global warming. Immediately, pundits began to wonder what effect his conversion would have within News Corporation, his vast media empire.

Now, Murdoch is unpopular with many different people for many different reasons. Just last week, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann gave him the “Worst Person in the World” award. It was for another comment that Murdoch had made in Japan, about the United States’ 2,839 deaths in Iraq being “quite minute.” But most of the enmity for Murdoch comes from his well-documented reputation as an agenda pusher who breaks journalistic sacraments. In an article from October 16, former New York City mayor Ed Koch told the New Yorker’s John Cassidy that upon receiving news of an intended endorsement from the New York Post in 1977, he told Murdoch, “Rupert, you’ve just elected me.” Critics often accuse the News Corp. chairman of throwing his weight around like that. They accuse his editors of promoting his conservative political and economic agendas. It is no mystery - angry liberals do not even sue as much they used to.

So it was strange, and certainly conspicuous, when Murdoch began, not to turn exactly, but to bear left on a few issues. Cassidy’s 8,000-word feature was centered on a fundraiser that Murdoch held for Hillary Clinton at News Corp.’s Manhattan offices, which house the Post and Fox News. Both organizations had spent the better part of the 1990s lambasting the Clinton administration, and had opposed Hillary’s run for the Senate in 2000. Cassidy also reports that Murdoch has donated over half a million dollars to the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative, and that he has declared his intention to make News Corp. a “carbon neutral” company. In Australia, the company’s native turf, The Sydney Morning Herald wrote that, “The significance of Murdoch’s views is that, unlike almost all modern media proprietors, his views are the company’s views. If he is concerned about global warming, then newspapers in the U.S., Britain and Australia are, too.” Three days later, Murdoch’s announcement of his support for an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol delivered more grist for the mill.

His statements were brief and cautious. He reaffirmed many of his uncertainties about the causes and consequences of global warming, but said, “The planet deserves the benefit of the doubt.” He also said that any new climate treaty would have to include the U.S., which has not ratified Kyoto, and China and India, which are exempt. The announcement got little play in the U.S., however. Most of the debate and speculation was confined to the UK and Australia. In both places, there was some evidence that News Corp. publications were following the boss’s lead. The most egregious example is The Sun in London. While it is heartening to see a once skeptical newspaper change its color, it has launched into a borderline obnoxious campaign for the environment. For a week-long series on eco-friendly living that began September 11, its Web site flew a garish banner that urged readers to “Go green for with The Sun.” An editorial pronounced, “Too many of us have spent too long in denial over the threat from global warming.” The Times of London, another News Corp. paper, has remained more aloof to Murdoch’s changing opinions. The editors have always taken a moderate position on climate change, arguing for renewable energy sources over carbon taxes or trading schemes. But when Sir Nicholas Stern delivered his review on the Economics of Climate Change to the British government on October 30, it called for exactly those measures, and the Times’ editors supported it whole-heartedly. Interestingly, their editorial finished with the exact same phrase that Murdoch used last week: “the planet deserves the benefit of the doubt.” Down under, during the last two months, the Daily Telegraph in Sydney has published at least five editorials that variously affirm the reality of global warming, praise the Stern report, and criticize the Australian government for being weak on climate issues. Such opinions were completely absent from its pages in past years.

Does the timing of these shifting opinions represent the tinkering of Murdoch’s less-than-invisible hand? He and News Corp. have vociferously denied such allegations to all reporters who have dared to ask. At any rate, it is not clear what the editorial repercussions of Murdoch’s new mindset will be. “There does appear to have been at least some shift in how climate change is being covered in Murdoch-owned publications, but it is not uniform,” wrote Matthew Ricketson in The Age, a Melbourne-based daily this is not owned by News Corp. In the same op-ed he refers to Murdoch’s reputation as the “Dark Lord of Media.” But indeed, some pundits say that the chairman’s recent change of heart is revealing positive things about Australian media. On November 9, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Media Report hosted environmental advocate Denise Boyd. Referring to disparate reactions among News Corp. publications to the boss’s leftward shift, she said, “Perhaps that’s a good thing, perhaps there is more editorial independence in the Australian press than we think there is.” Certainly, not all editors will mindlessly follow their leader.

On November 9, an article in the Melbourne-based Herald-Sun raised some eyebrows with the headline, “Act Now or it’s Catastrophe - Experts.” It surveyed 10 of the country’s leading climate scientists for their opinions about the consequences of unabated global warming. But one week earlier, even before Murdoch’s comments in Tokyo, the paper’s conservative columnist Andrew Bolt was defending his right to disagree with that consensus. An avowed climate-change skeptic, he wrote on November 1, “Now, critics who once scoffed that I merely wrote on Murdoch’s alleged orders are demanding to know why this time I have not.” It was one of the most fascinating pieces of writing to come out of the recent fray. Referring to the Stern review and making good use of sarcasm, he implores, “God help me. Even now I have that self-destructive urge to point out something odd about the report that generated many of these latest headlines.” Fortunately for Bolt and News Corp.’s many other right-wing journalists, such comments, though they are now contrary to the boss’s position, are unlikely to end any careers.

In the U.S., it is unclear how far the New York Post and Fox News will follow Murdoch if he continues listing left. As Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, if Murdoch decided to support Hillary’s Clinton’s bid for reelection to the Senate, “he would meet resistance from his editors, starting with Col Allan.” Allan, the Post’s truculent editor, ended up voting with Murdoch and the paper’s editorial-page editor to endorse Clinton, who kept her seat in last week’s election. He told The Sydney Morning Herald that Murdoch invites his staff to freely express their opinions, “but at the end of the day, he’s the one paying the bills, he makes the call. I don’t have a beef with that.” But that does not mean the Post has abandoned its conservative perspective, or that it will refrain from inveighing against Clinton should she disappoint in office. As for Fox News, Cassidy wrote, “It is virtually inconceivable that Murdoch would risk alienating the conservative viewers who enable the channel to make an annual profit of hundreds of millions of dollars, but there are steps he could take…” Cassidy reports that The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, on the other hand, “has a written guarantee of editorial independence.” But all such threats assume that Murdoch will continue his leftward migration.

Even if he does, liberals might not be willing to receive him. On the Huffington Post, David Horton writes, “He has spent the last ten years catapulting the propaganda of climate change denial so effectively that if you had to choose one person who is most responsible for the failure of governments, particularly the American and Australian governments, to act over the last critical ten years, Rupert Murdoch is your man.”

Regardless of such lingering animosities, however, he might be the man to undo long-rooted skepticism. Mere days after Murdoch’s pro-treaty announcement in Tokyo, Australian Prime Minister John Howard declared that he too had changed his opinion. After years of standing closely by the Bush administration, playing down the threat of greenhouse gas emissions, and refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the PM now favors an international carbon trading system. A causal link between Murdoch’s change of heart and Howard’s new position is, of course, impossible to establish. But few could call it improbable. In media and in politics, the world will simply have to wait and see what the consequence of Murdoch’s mood swing will be, and whether or not it amounts to a genuine new direction for News Corp.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.