Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch

After News Corp Australia’s brazen climate denialism during its coverage of Australia’s bushfire crisis, the drumbeat of protest against the behaviour of the Murdoch empire is getting louder with each passing month.

There were organised lie-ins outside the News Corp Surry Hills headquarters in January. Today, there will be another of these in the Sydney CBD, coinciding with an Extinction Rebellion rally in Melbourne protesting against the company’s climate change coverage.

Whilst a smattering of advertisers have taken a break from Sky News, one thing we haven’t seen so far is major advertisers pulling the plug on the broader News Corp empire.

After some sustained attacks by The Australian, GetUp countered late last month with a push for Woolworths to pull its News Corp advertising in order to stop “funding climate denial”.

It wasn’t reported anywhere at the time, but a similar debate rolled out at the Woolworths AGM last November as chairman Gordon Cairns talked up both his own commitment to climate action and the sustainability policies of the supermarket giant.

During the meeting I asked why Woolworths continued to advertise so heavily with News Corp and why it tolerated having Lachlan Murdoch’s long-time fixer Siobhan McKenna on the board when she is head of Sky News, the spiritual home of climate denialism in Australia.

At first Cairns claimed I was “losing it” but later on in proceedings when supporting McKenna’s re-election to the board he said:

Siobhan’s position on Woolworths’ position on climate change is entirely consistent with Woolworths’ position on climate change, which she 100% endorses. She doesn’t agree, nor do I … with everything that’s on Sky or on Foxtel. But as you would appreciate, you wouldn’t deny the freedom of speech.

The full exchanges about News Corp, Siobhan McKenna and climate change are available on pages 43, 44 and 62 of this 89-page transcript of the 2019 Woolworths AGM.

After launched a hard-hitting series on the impact of climate change this week, even Media Watch posed the question as to whether a change of policy could be in the wind at News Corp.

Rupert Murdoch turned 89 on March 11 and I doubt anything much will seriously change until he ceases being CEO of the public companies at the heart of the family empire, a position he has now held for a staggering 66 years.

The Australian’s conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen is very much alive to the prospect of major corporates being pressured into pulling their News Corp ads, lecturing companies to stick with financial matters and ignore social issues.

Albrechtsen complained in her February 26 column that activist CEOs are stealing from their shareholders by taking an interest in issues like climate change and same-sex marriage. (Ironically, there is no greater political activist as CEO than her boss Rupert Murdoch.)

Imagine what Albrechtsen would say if the CEO of Coles or Woolworths announced it was no longer advertising in any News Corp outlets because of the company’s consistent climate denialism.

As the advertising boycott against 2GB over various Alan Jones atrocities demonstrated, campaigners such as Sleeping Giants are able to have a significant influence when they persuade advertisers to pull their support.

One piece of inoculation News Corp has against this is the presence of some of its key executives on the boards of major advertisers.

Not only is Lachlan’s favourite executive on the Woolworths board but former Foxtel CEO and current News Corp nominee to the REA board, Richard Freudenstein, last year joined the Coles board when it was spun off by Wesfarmers.

Promoting associates or supporters into parliament is another favourite influencing technique of the Murdochs.

For instance, Fairfax’s CBD column reported in February that the new Liberal member for Peter Costello’s old seat of Higgins, Dr Katie Allen, just happens to be godmother to one of Siobhan McKenna’s children.

A far less subtle piece of political influencing was the inaugural page-13 gossip column lunch featured in the Herald Sun on February 21, which demonstrated News Corp’s pulling power, attracting former Victorian premiers John Brumby, Denis Napthine and Jeff Kennett, businessman Anthony Pratt, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Toll Holdings founder Paul Little, Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp and a raft of others.

City of Melbourne claims to be a world leader on climate issues, so I asked Capp at a recent committee meeting why she attended the lunch when News Corp is Australia’s leading climate denialist organisation, has shocking governance and regularly slams local government.

You can listen to the full exchange starting two hours and 10 minute into the audio archive, but the lord mayor played it straight, saying: “I do acknowledge the Herald Sun, who aren’t always nice to me, are an important stakeholder in our city.”

There are some former politicians, most notably Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, who haven’t held back attacking the Murdoch press after leaving politics. But it’s a rare politician who takes them on when in office, and an equally rare corporate leader who takes a stand.

We’ve never seen a major retail advertiser pull advertising from News Corp over a social issue such as climate change, but it’s about time someone stepped up and tested their mettle.

Stephen Mayne is the founder of Crikey and a shareholder activist.