Two weeks ago, Kevin Rudd, formerly Prime Minister of Australia, launched a petition for a Royal Commission – Australia’s highest-level inquiry – into alleged abuse of the media monopoly that Rupert Murdoch holds in the country. Murdoch and his holding company, News Corp, currently owns 70% of all print media in Australia.
Rudd held nothing back in the claims that he made against Murdoch on Twitter, labelling him a ‘cancer on our democracy’ whose only purpose is ‘defending his ideological interests’. Rudd also alluded to News Corp’s history of ‘viciously’ supporting the Liberal National Party in the last 18 elections through ‘bullying’ tactics. This will not be breaking news to Australians, as Murdoch’s papers have always been known for their neoliberal agenda. The papers have developed a reputation for conducting relentless campaigns against any form of economic stimulus during the global financial crisis, as well as having a firm stance on climate change denial.
Therefore, this begs the question, if Murdoch’s monopoly is so detested in Australian politics, why has there been no prior action? The answer to this is very much tied with the core issue itself. Murdoch’s far-reaching platform seems to be an ominous threat to anyone who considers speaking out publicly, creating a culture of fear that has made it hard for politicians to stand against him. There is already evidence of the silencing power exerted by this monopoly, with the former centre-right prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, publicly accusing Mr Murdoch of helping drive him from power in 2018.
Nevertheless, Rudd’s petition has been met with optimistic approval from Australians, reaching over 370,000 signatures, well in advance of the closing date of 5th November. Support for the petition has been so great that it has triggered defences designed to stop bots from manipulating the site due to abnormally high traffic. The campaign has tapped into a ‘deep reservoir of discontent and frustration’, according to Timothy Dwyer, an associate professor of media and communications at the University of Sydney. It has particularly resonated with the centre-left, who oppose the climate change scepticism that is an integral feature of Murdoch’s media outlets.
However, political and media analysts have doubts about whether the Royal Commission will go ahead, as the current Conservative coalition is unlikely to antagonise Rupert Murdoch and his media empire. At the same time, the leader of the opposition, Anthony Albanese, has also distanced himself from the petition. Unlike in the UK, where parliament is obliged to respond to a petition that gets over 100,000 signatures, the Australian government has no such duty to respond, so there is no certainty that the case will be presented to the Australian parliament. Still, Rudd’s call for an inquiry has sparked a national conversation and this may be the catalyst that enables a future government to act.