Inside the Murdoch family climate schism

At a conference in Tokyo almost 15 years ago, Rupert Murdoch stood in front of a crowd and publicly declared his dedication to the climate change cause.

It was 2006 and the billionaire News Corp founder decided that while he had previously been sceptical of the global warming debate, it was his organisation’s duty to “take the lead” on the issue.

“Some of the presumptions about extreme weather, whether it be hurricanes or drought, may seem far fetched,” Murdoch said at the Tokyo event. “What is certain is that temperatures have been rising and that we are not entirely sure of the consequences. The planet deserves the benefit of the doubt.”

Rupert Murdoch flanked by sons Lachlan, left, and James.
Rupert Murdoch flanked by sons Lachlan, left, and James. Credit:Doug Peters

The statement would be referenced by business entrepreneurs such as Dick Smith and former Prime Ministers John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull for years to come. In 2014, News-Corp columnist Andrew Bolt wrote about how “warmists” demanded he write to his bosses’ script. Murdoch, who was 75 at the time, certainly did not say it by mistake.


At the time, the mogul was having conversations about his legacy with his younger son James and his wife Kathryn, second eldest daughter Elisabeth and Murdoch’s then wife Wendi Deng, according to sources with insight into the family’s inner workings.  The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retribution.

The group represented the more progressive elements of Murdoch’s family circle at the time and  was pushing climate change as a cause. Eldest son Lachlan was on the outer at the time having temporarily quit the family business a year earlier.

James had just turned UK pay TV provider BSkyB, which was then controlled by News Corp, into a carbon neutral company. A year later Rupert announced plans for all of the companies in his media empire to produce zero net carbon emissions by 2010. They achieved their goal.

“We always seek new ways to reach our global audiences and we address those issues that have the greatest impact on their lives. Global climate change is clearly one of those issues,”  Murdoch said in a memo to staff in May 2007. “It starts with us. On Wednesday in New York, I will launch CoolChange — an important energy initiative at News Corporation.”

In Australia that initiative was known as 1Degree and industry publication Adweek reported some News Corp staff were surprised given Murdoch is better known for backing conservative policies. Indeed, News Corp’s HR department reportedly sent out a second memo to clarify. But all signs  pointed to the Murdochs taking climate change seriously. By 2017, News Corp had reached zero waste in all of its print centres internationally, and had achieved 400 energy savings projects.

Those who worked closely on the 1Degree initiative said News Corp management never knocked back a request on climate change initiatives.”News Corp has been a leader on reducing emissions,” News Corp’s former head of environment, Tony Wilkins, said. “They have been doing this for 20 years. Individual businesses have reduced emissions by as much as 56 per cent.”

Yet few remember those efforts today. As bushfires rip through the country, criticism of News Corp’s climate change coverage in its Australian newspapers has been unrelenting. As the links between climate change and the ferocity of the bushfires played out, a subsidiary debate about the appropriateness of certain articles and opinion pieces in The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun gathered momentum.

Soon everyone from former Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull (who both blame Murdoch for undermining them while in office) to The New York Times were denouncing the Murdoch press.

In an opinion piece in Time magazine Mr Turnbull wrote: “This issue has been hijacked by a toxic, climate change-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media (much of it owned by Murdoch), as well as vested business interests.”

Last week, this masthead revealed a News Corp finance manager Emily Townsend had used one of her last days at work to send an email to all employees accusing her employer of spreading a “misinformation campaign” on climate change that was “dangerous” and “unconscionable”.

The email was widely read throughout the Australian media industry. But it would be quickly overshadowed by an even more extraordinary development.

Days later James and Kathryn Murdoch took aim at what they described as climate denialism at News Corp. “They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among news outlets in Australia, given obvious evidence to the contrary,” a spokesman for the couple said in a statement to US publication Daily Beast. James’ criticism are even more surprising given he is still a director of the family company (Lachlan and Rupert are co-chairman and chief executive officers).

Email from News Corp staff member Emily Townsend regarding climate change.
Email from News Corp staff member Emily Townsend regarding climate change.

Rupert Murdoch told investors the company’s annual meeting last year that “there are no climate change deniers around”. But News Corp has run many pieces that have questioned the legitimacy of widely-accepted climate change science over the past decade.

Columns by Melbourne writer Andrew Bolt and SKY commentator (and Australian Financial Review columnist) Rowan Dean in the tabloids and former ASX chairman Maurice Newman in The Australian have described climate change as a “cult” and “a socialist plot”. In a broadcast on News Corp-owned Sky News Mr Bolt criticised the “constant stream of propaganda” on the ABC about the role of the climate crisis. Many of these articles appeared while Lachlan was effectively running Australian operations. A friend of Tony Abbott, Lachlan is considered even more conservative than his father.

For their part senior News Corp figures privately say they are the subject of a witch hunt.  Responding publicly to Townsend’s all-staff email, News Corp’s local boss, Michael Miller said “News Corp does not deny climate change or the gravity of its threat” while The Australian’s ran an editorial in its Saturday newspaper defending its coverage. The paper argued its coverage had been “wilfully and ineptly misrepresented” by The New York Times and The Guardian.

Certainly, News Corp’s coverage has become more moderate in recent days with the Daily Telegraph editorialising in favour of moving the climate change debate forward on Thursday.

Nevertheless,  the message from James this week has struck a nerve. News Corp now finds itself very much part of the climate change story. On Friday the organisation is preparing for a protest to take place outside its offices, and has increased its security measures in response to social media commentary of recent weeks.

“We’ve been working with local police, but we are not sure how many protestors are planning to attend, so as a precaution the street outside the building will be blocked off,” Nicholas Gray, managing director of The Australian, NSW & Prestige Titles wrote to staff on Thursday.

David Armstrong, an editor-in-chief of The Australian from the 1990s who now lives in Thailand, said James’ public statement would trigger a “new assessment” of News Corp.

“James has always been more forward-thinking on social issues than his father or his brother Lachlan, so I’m sure his and Kathryn’s views are well-known within the family and the senior levels of the company,” Mr Armstrong said.

“But now that they are public, I hope News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller and his editors use James and Kathryn’s statement as an opportunity to reassess their coverage, to ask themselves if it reflects the state of knowledge about – and now the devastating experience of – climate change and its impact on Australia. And then to act on the answers.”

Three former executives of News Corp, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about retribution, said James’ statement was unsurprising, given his views on climate change and his difficult relationship with his brother, Lachlan, are both well known.

“James and Lachlan are ideologically apart and will continue to be,” one of the former executives said. One former executive said James would be looking to intentionally distance himself from the scrutiny his family was over its local coverage.

Many observers believe Rupert has become less interested in climate change since the flurry of announcements in the mid-2000s. It’s not exactly clear what his behind this, or what drove him 15 years ago when he positioned his companies with a more pro-environment stance.

Some with insight into News Corp’s inner workings have suggested that the change in view came after the resignation in 2009 of his right-hand man, Peter Chernin, who had backed his efforts to make News Corp greener. Murdoch’s split with his former wife Wendi is also considered by some to be a factor as well as his closeness Lachlan.

Regardless of motivation, News’ renewed efforts to dedicate time to bushfire relief or sustainability are now met with cynicism. Despite dedicating $2 million to the cause himself and a further $5 million to bushfire relief through the organisation, critics continue to slam Murdoch, his publications and their columnists.

“It’s a complete over-reach on behalf of some of their high profile columnists and broadcasters,” one former executive said, who suggested they should be focusing on mitigating problems.

The ongoing criticism puts News Corp mastheads in a difficult position. Sources have suggested that while some readers may share the views of denialist columnists, businesses including advertising clients of News Corp are now being hurt financially by perceptions the company has not evolved with the times. Two of the former executives expressed concern for News Corp journalists who had been covering the fires for months.

“It must be so dispiriting,” Mr Armstrong added. “Like other journalists telling Australians the stories of this immense natural and national disaster, they deserve thanks and praise. I hope critics can see that the papers’ coverage is a lot more than just the conservative commentaries.”

Former News Corp chief executive Kim Williams would not comment on James’ comments directly, but said false equivalence – the idea of giving equal prevalence to different viewpoints when one is unsubstantiated and another has a strong evidentiary base – was one of the major ethical reporting and editorial challenges for journalism.

“It is a genuinely challenging dilemma for all executive, editorial leaders and working journalists in 21st century media,” Mr Williams said.

However, despite the criticism, few media watchers believe recent flak News Corp has copped will damage the company’s operations in the long run.

As one former executive put it: “When the smoke comes out figuratively and literally, News will still be one of the most powerful organisations in the country.”

And as for the 1Degree website, it hasn’t been updated in two years. News Corp confirmed the initiative is still running and the business still reports on its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and the Global Environmental Initiative. But it never officially replaced Mr Wilkins, who ran the initiative from its inception, when he left in 2017.

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