The year 2023 will be remembered as the media year that Logan Roy died and Rupert Murdoch retired. Yes, the real-life right-wing media mogul announced Thursday morning his decision to retire from the Fox and News Corp. boards, leaving his even more right-wing son Lachlan as the sole guy in charge of the Murdoch family’s global media empire.
It’s difficult to sum up Murdoch’s unremittingly toxic and pernicious record.
But while Roy’s fictional death in “Succession” merely deprived us all of one of the best characters in television history, the 92-year-old Murdoch’s retirement leaves behind a very real wake of destruction. It’s difficult to sum up Murdoch’s unremittingly toxic and pernicious record, to encapsulate the sheer power of Murdoch to do damage to our politics, our media, our world. Three of the most destructive events of my lifetime — the Iraq War, the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump and his big lie — simply could not have happened without Rupert Murdoch.
The Iraq War
In the months before the Iraq War, Murdoch’s vast media organization agitated for invasion. The Guardian examined 175 Murdoch-owned papers in the run-up to war and coincidentally — completely coincidentally! — all of them supported the invasion.
Here in the states, Fox beat the drum so loudly for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that even in 2015, 12 years after the invasion, a survey found that more than half of Fox’s viewers thought WMDs were discovered in Iraq.
But it wasn’t just Murdoch’s media empire, it was his own personal touch on world leaders.
In the final days before the invasion, British Prime Minister Tony Blair still had not publicly committed to taking part in the invasion, at least not on the timeline the U.S. wanted.
On the night of March 11, 2003, according to the diary of top aide Alastair Campbell, Blair “took a call from Murdoch who was pressing on timings, saying how News International would support us, etc. Both TB and I felt it was prompted by Washington, and another example of their over-crude diplomacy.”
News Corp. called it “rubbish” to suggest Murdoch was lobbying for war on behalf of U.S. Republicans. Whatever his motivations, it’s clear that Murdoch helped make that war happen.
News Corp. later called it “rubbish” to suggest Murdoch was lobbying for war on behalf of U.S. Republicans. Whatever his motivations, it’s clear that Murdoch helped make that war happen. As even the right-wing former editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, once said, “I’m not sure that the Blair government — or Tony Blair — would have been able to take the British people to war if it hadn’t been for the implacable support provided by the Murdoch papers. There’s no doubt that came from Mr. Murdoch himself.”
Then there is Brexit. Since that pivotal vote in 2016, the U.K. has seen no less than four prime ministers resign and utter havoc unleashed on the British economy, all of it undermining the European Union at a time when domestic far-right populists are on the rise and Putin’s expansionist Russia is at the doorstep.
And yet Brexit almost didn’t happen. The pro-Brexit side won the 2016 referendum by less than 4 percentage points, with 51.9% of citizens voting to leave and 48.1% voting to remain.
So how is it that the British public could make such a self-sabotaging decision by such narrow margins?
You have to start with the hard-right tabloid newspaper The Sun, the most widely read print newspaper in the U.K.
The Sun did far more than throw out some cheeky pro-Brexit headlines. Its parent company, News Group Newspapers, actually registered itself with the U.K.’s electoral commission as an official “leave E.U.” campaign group, after spending more than 96,000 euros on The Sun’s “BeLEAVE in Britain” posters.
That’s right. Murdoch’s news organization doubled down as a pro-Brexit lobbying group. As one does, when they are pursuing the most basic standards of journalistic integrity.
Now you could say that The Sun is just a newspaper. How much impact could it really have on public opinion?
How is it that the British public could make such a self-sabotaging decision by such narrow margins? You have to start with the hard-right tabloid newspaper The Sun, the most widely read print newspaper in the U.K.
Well, look at the city of Liverpool, where many residents have basically boycotted The Sun since 1989, because the paper wrongly blamed local fans for an incident at a football match.
Researchers found that residents there were 10% less eurosceptic than the rest of the U.K. It also found that Liverpool residents’ views of the E.U. improved significantly as a result of the boycott.
Of course, correlation does not mean causation. The Sun was not the only tabloid to be overwhelmingly pro-Brexit at the time, but it’s impossible to deny that The Sun had a clear impact on British opinion in what was a razor-thin margin with devastating consequences for the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.
Donald Trump and the Big Lie
Worst of all may be Murdoch’s central role in the rise of Donald J. Trump and the Big Lie. The fact is, Fox laid the groundwork for Trump’s presidential victory in 2016. Fox built a conservative audience enraged and agitated by “birther” conspiracies and anti-immigrant sentiment. Fox primed millions of viewers to care about ridiculous nonissues that Donald Trump would successfully exploit during his campaign.
Not to mention that, starting in 2011, Fox literally gave then private citizen and businessman Donald Trump free air time every week with the recurring segment “Mondays with Trump.”
Fox contributed to the myth of Trump long before he became candidate Trump. After he took the Republican nomination, Fox essentially became his propaganda arm, and once he took the White House, it morphed into state TV.
Then came 2020, when Trump lost his re-election bid and declared victory anyway. Fox and Murdoch had a moment of opportunity to break with Trump. They had the chance to say, “You lost. We’re done with you. Now, let’s move on.”
But they didn’t. Even while bashing Trump in private, Fox hosts and guests still pushed the big lie on their shows, which is why, eventually, Fox had to settle a lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems for $785.5M.
As revealed in the Dominion filings, Rupert Murdoch himself, in private, was calling out Trump’s lies, going so far as to call Trump’s election narrative “a myth.”
So if Murdoch thought his hosts were going too far with their support of the Big Lie, why did Murdoch’s network continue to push pro-Trump content to its audience? Not because he respected Trump or believed the big lie — he didn’t — but because he believes in ratings.
In his Dominion deposition, Murdoch told lawyers, “Nobody wants Trump as an enemy,” because, as Murdoch said, “if [Trump] says, ‘don’t watch Fox News,’ maybe some don’t.”
A real profile in courage, there.
Iraq, Brexit, Trump and the Big Lie, all pushed by Murdoch in the service not of principle or even ideology but for the sake of power and money. In fact, at one point during the Dominion lawsuit, when asked why he was platforming conspiracy theorists, Rupert Murdoch agreed with the Dominion lawyers that his approach was “not red or blue, it is green.”