Lessons from the Murdoch saga

By Bryan Walker 02/08/2011

At best, and putting it kindly, there is incongruity in the Murdoch empire’s handling of climate change. Rupert Murdoch professed a few years back that he had become convinced of the seriousness of the issue, as his son James was, and wanted to contribute to its solutions. Yet Fox News endlessly churns out vitriolic denial and bitter attacks on scientists, Wall Street Journal editorials and op-eds are anti-science on climate change, and The Australian runs a war on the science, as well recorded by Tim Lambert at Deltoid. These three alone lend very powerful support to the vested interests which want to see no action on limiting the use of fossil fuels. I was therefore interested to read a blog reflection on the Murdoch saga by Camilla Toulmin director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Toulmin is an economist by training and has worked mainly in Africa. Her latest book Climate Change in Africa was reviewed on Hot Topic. Climate change is one of the big issues IIED focuses on.

The institute works with vulnerable people in developing countries and Toulmin detected in the News Corp drama valuable lessons for IIED’s work to create a greener, fairer world.

’We have long fought for greater democracy and equity in decision-making policy and practice. The Murdoch saga raises three key points that remind us of the need within those efforts to think carefully about the ramifications of concentrated power, the lack of accountability from politicians and business to most citizens, and the importance of integrity and courage to stand up for what we believe in.’

She spells out the three lessons at greater length. They are plain and straightforward, but they identify key elements in the long and difficult battle for a sustainable world. The first lesson is the danger of concentrated power:

’Natural ecosystems are more resilient when they have a large number of different species, rather than being concentrated on a few large animals. Three years ago, we saw that the same is true of business when the collapse of major banks highlighted the vulnerability of our financial systems to bad practice in a few large companies.’

She points to the way the Murdoch dynasty has exerted influence over governments around the world, citing the easy access to 10 Downing Street Rupert Murdoch has enjoyed, with politicians great and small seeking his approval, hoping that his media group will come out in favour of their particular party.

The second lesson is the importance of politicians not being in thrall to powerful business interests:

’… the integrity of our politicians really matters. Often, it seems that governments only listen to the rich and powerful, with politicians most interested in climbing the greasy pole of career advancement. In the Murdoch case, two members of parliament have withstood threats and pushed to bring News Corp to account. It takes real courage to pursue a figure like Rupert Murdoch over the time needed to uncover wrong doing. We need politicians who are willing to take such risks.’

The third lesson is that none should be so powerful as to escape full scrutiny:

’… we need better means to hold companies to account. Murdoch has finally been brought down because it became impossible to ignore the body of evidence showing that the stories in his newspapers relied on illegal activity… While the police had been reluctant to prosecute, more and more people insisted that there was a case to answer. But we should not have to wait for evidence of criminal activity before companies are brought to book. Politicians and businesses must be accountable for the decisions and actions that they take.’

The relevance of these lessons is all too apparent as elements of the corporate world work to frustrate progress on climate change. Equally, given the endless delays, Toulmin might be seen as crying for the moon. But her conclusion is that it’s not as hopeless a matter as we sometimes feel. Something has happened. One of the most powerful media companies in the world has been brought to book. We can surely take some heart from that.

’If we are to construct a greener, fairer society, we need brave politicians and people to hold governments and corporations to account. We need a break-up of concentrated business. And we need to disentangle politics and money. The events of the past few weeks show that progress, though slow, can be made to improve democracy and equity and shift our society onto a more sustainable pathway.