By Liam Barrett
In an interview for the Guardian last week, MSNBC broadcaster Mehdi Hasan launched a broadside against Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Fox is less of a news channel, Hasan said, than “a propaganda arm of the Republican Party.” Hasan accused Murdoch of overseeing the “degradation of our democracy and media.” His criticisms mirror a general distrust of the mainstream media, according to recent polling, as repellent shock jocks and obvious groupthink dominate the airwaves and newspapers.
Right-wing zealotry promoted by the likes of Fox News host Tucker Carlson continues to dominate the Murdoch media sphere, particularly since Carlson was recently granted access to copious amounts of footage of the January 6 insurrection by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The McCarthy-Carlson bond is a prime example of the corruption of Western media systems, with politicians rewarding their favorite news anchors and vice versa. As faith in news institutions plummets, the need for a fair and free press has never been so vital.
Fox News is currently embroiled in an defamation lawsuit for knowingly spreading falsehoods regarding the 2020 election. The plaintiff Dominion Voting Systems is accusing the network of having defamed its integrity and harmed its reputation when it gave a platform to baseless claims of electoral fraud, many of them promoted by election-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. Fox News anchors Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham knew that the claims were false, but their persistent propaganda to the contrary nevertheless succeeded in convincing around 60 percent of Republicans that the 2020 election results were illegitimate.
In communication between Fox News hosts and Murdoch himself, the latter described lies surrounding the election as “really crazy stuff” and “damaging.” Carlson, for his part, compared Trump to a “demonic force.” In other words, Murdoch and his hosts privately disavowed what they were putting out in the world. Their lack of credibility has never been so apparent, revealing Fox News model as a cynical hate-for-profit machine that intentionally spreads lies and stokes divisions to retain viewers and preserve ratings.
Over in the UK, media watchdogs have their own axe to grind with Murdoch. The mogul’s News Corp, an organization that owns the Sun and the Times, is complicit in the scapegoating of desperate migrants. Britain’s refugee crisis has exposed the Conservative government’s moral bankruptcy, as its ministers double down on using far-right rhetoric to placate a predominantly right-wing media. As politicians throw red meat to the sharks, people fleeing famine and war are increasingly becoming targets of far-right hatred. Mounting hostilities came to a head recently when far-right demonstrators protested outside a hotel that houses asylum seekers on the outskirts of the city of Liverpool.
Murdoch’s Sun argues that sending migrants back across the Channel is a matter of defending Britain’s national and economic security (“All must be fed and housed from the public purse” complained one article about the arrival of migrants by boat), but the racism is not hard to detect between the lines. This is the same paper, after all, that is currently under investigation for a particularly nasty column targeting biracial duchess Meghan Markle.
Murdoch’s press empire has also taken a special interest in gay and transgender issues — mocking and vilifying trans people, policing LGBTQ content in books, and so on. Back across the pond, Carlson has taken up Murdoch’s anti-queer crusade, likening teachers acknowledging same-sex relationships to pedophilic “grooming” and promoting Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. If you’ve noticed an uptick in contentious gay- and trans-related culture war discourse, Carlson and company are the ones driving the wedge — and they’re doing it on behalf of Murdoch and his bottom line.
Murdoch has vast influence over the Western media, holding sway over significant titles like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Sun, the Times, and the New York Post. If independent outlets question Murdoch’s motives, they might have to spend a fortune on exorbitant lawyer fees in order to fend off retaliation from him and his family. For just one example, Rupert’s son Lachlan Murdoch is suing anti-corruption Australian news site Crikeyfor calling Murdoch an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the January 6 insurrection. In addition to being protected by powerful political allies with whom they curry favor, the Murdoch family is also protected by nearly $22 billion.
Murdoch poses a threat to democracy in the United States and the United Kingdom. But ultimately he’s a symptom of an industry-wide problem. Disgraced CBS chairman Leslie Moonves was infamously quoted as saying that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” demonstrating to the public that the media system is less interested in holding power to account than prioritizing profit margins from advertisements.
Corporate media, particularly Murdoch’s empire, is continuing to fan the flames of hate and division across the West, whether that’s through migrant bashing, election denial, or anti-LGBTQ hysteria. The result is mass confusion and polarization, with dire consequences for democracy. Until society addresses its Murdoch complex, Hasan’s dream of a media market that supports good faith debate seems a long way off.
- Liam Barrett is a politics and culture writer based in London.