The media mogul’s legacy of blaming the powerful for the ills of society
Rupert Murdoch, the founder and chairman emeritus of Fox and News Corp, has announced that he is handing over control of his media empire to his eldest son, Lachlan. The news has sparked a wave of retrospection on the impact of Murdoch’s decades-long influence on politics, culture and public opinion around the world.
One of the most striking aspects of Murdoch’s legacy is his relentless attack on the so-called “elite”, a vague and shifting term that he has used to denounce anyone who challenges his worldview or interests. Murdoch has portrayed himself as a truth-telling outsider, a champion of the common people against the corrupt and arrogant establishment.
But this anti-elite rhetoric is not only hypocritical, coming from a multibillionaire corporate tycoon who has hobnobbed with presidents and kings, but also toxic, as it has paved the way for the rise of populist demagogues, conspiracy theorists and extremists who exploit the same narrative to sow division and distrust in society.
The Murdoch stamp of approval on Brexit and Trump
Murdoch’s hatred for the elite has been evident since his youth, when he rebelled against his father’s liberal views and his Oxford education. He has built his media empire on appealing to the lowest common denominator, sensationalizing and simplifying complex issues, and promoting conservative and nationalist agendas.
The twin populist right victories of 2016 – Brexit and Trump – both carried the Murdoch stamp of approval, but the impact has been even wider. Murdoch’s media outlets have been instrumental in spreading misinformation, disinformation and propaganda on topics ranging from climate change to immigration to Covid-19, undermining scientific consensus, democratic norms and human rights.
Murdoch has also been a key enabler of the rise of the “alt-right”, a loosely defined movement of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists who use online platforms to spread hate speech, violence and conspiracy theories. Murdoch’s Fox News has given airtime and legitimacy to many of these figures, such as Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones, as well as to former president Donald Trump, who has embraced and amplified their messages.
The paradox of the anti-elite elite
Murdoch is not the only one who has exploited the anti-elite rhetoric to advance his own interests. Many of his allies and admirers, such as Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro, have also presented themselves as outsiders who speak for the people, while in fact belonging to the privileged and powerful elite themselves.
This paradox of the anti-elite elite reveals the emptiness and cynicism of the narrative, which is based on creating a false dichotomy between “us” and “them”, and scapegoating a convenient enemy for the problems of society. The anti-elite rhetoric is not a genuine expression of populism, but a manipulation of popular discontent and resentment for political gain.
The anti-elite rhetoric also obscures the real sources of inequality and injustice in the world, which are often rooted in the economic and social systems that benefit the likes of Murdoch and his cronies. By diverting attention and blame away from these structural issues, the anti-elite rhetoric serves to maintain the status quo and prevent meaningful change.
The backlash and the challenge ahead
Murdoch’s anti-elite rhetoric has not gone unchallenged, however. There has been a growing backlash against his media empire, especially in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011, which exposed the unethical and illegal practices of some of his newspapers. Murdoch has faced legal battles, public protests, regulatory scrutiny and boycott campaigns, as well as criticism from former employees, politicians, celebrities and even some of his own family members.
Moreover, Murdoch’s media empire is facing increasing competition and disruption from new and diverse sources of information and entertainment, especially online and on social media. Murdoch’s attempt to adapt to the digital age has been met with mixed results, as he has struggled to balance his ideological agenda with his commercial interests.
The challenge ahead for the media and the public is to counter the harmful effects of Murdoch’s anti-elite rhetoric, and to foster a more informed, nuanced and constructive discourse on the issues that matter. This requires not only holding Murdoch and his media outlets accountable, but also supporting independent, credible and diverse journalism, as well as promoting media literacy, critical thinking and civic engagement among the audience.