Kevin Rudd
Kevin Rudd (Image: AAP/Glenn Hunt)

A petition launched by former prime minister Kevin Rudd calling for a royal commission into the Murdoch media empire was tabled in parliament Monday with a historic 501,876 signatures.

It’s the most signed e-petition in Australian history, overtaking a 2019 petition calling for the government to declare a climate emergency which gained 404,538 signatures.

So many people logged on to the parliamentary website hosting the petition that it triggered the site’s cyber defences, flagging genuine users as bots.

But what effect — if any — will it have?

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A lesson from history

University of Sydney senior lecturer in socio-legal studies Dr Karen O’Brien told Crikey Australia has a long history of petitioning for change.

“Petitions are an ancient tradition which can have an influence, historically made by the powerless to the powerful,” she says.

Some of the first Australian petitions were presented in NSW in the early 1800s. A notable petition in Australia’s history includes the 1972 Larrakia petition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights, paving the way for future legislation.

“We can take some lead from Indigenous people who managed to organise themselves among very difficult circumstances,” O’Brien says.

We’re not the only country to take action against Murdoch media either. In Liverpool in the UK there’s been a longstanding boycott against Murdoch-owned newspaper The Sun following the paper’s coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which stadium overcrowding led to 96 people being crushed to death. The paper ran false accusations that Liverpool fans caused the crush, beat up assisting police officers and pickpocketed the dead.

An inquest cleared fans of wrongdoing and major retailers including Tesco stopped selling the paper.

“There’s a similar power here … There’s certainly enough potential here to do something similar,” O’Brien says.

Why is this petition different?

Lecturer in internet communications at Curtin University Dr Sky Croeser told Crikey timing of the petition had been a key factor in its success.

“We’re at an interesting political movement with the US election, the rise of the right-wing in both the US and Australia … combined with the ongoing inaction on climate change,” she says.

She added the previous climate petition, along with the support from former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Rudd, had helped boost the petition’s notoriety.

“People are becoming aware the blame has been put on social media, but the mainstream media is just as much at fault,” she says.

But a petition alone isn’t going to achieve anything: “It’s contributed to the conversation, and petitions are useful now as the jumping-off point for a broader campaign.”

We’ve reached a tipping point

GetUp’s national director Paul Oosting told Crikey the petition had served as a tipping point.

“The encouraging thing right now is people are taking action in a range of ways,” he says.

Activists for global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion have protested against Murdoch media’s climate coverage, dumping manure outside New Corp’s Brisbane and Sydney offices. In 2013 a Brisbane cafe banned News Corp newspapers.

More recently, #BoycottWoolworths started trending after the supermarket chain partnered with News Corp to recognise people who “stepped up to help in 2020″, including those involved in the bushfire response.

Murdoch media was criticised for running misleading stories blaming arsonists for the bushfires and ignoring the effect of climate change.

GetUp is analysing 10,000 News Corp articles to look at its coverage of climate change and its effect on policy.

“Petitions are a really good indication that those in power are out of step with the public. It’s a very strong signal,” Oosting says.

But the only people who can put a royal commission in place are those who more often than not benefit from News Corp’s coverage — the Coalition government.

“Scott Morrison may seek to ignore moves for a royal commission … but he would be doing it at his own peril,” he says.

“People have had enough.”