While it may not yet have found its way into his nasal cavity, the coronavirus has at least succeeded in momentarily pushing Rupert Murdoch’s death mongering to the sidelines. This is no small achievement.
His media empire was instrumental in peddling lies about weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq in which more than a million people were killed. He has at various times incited hatred towards and violence against Muslims, refugees, Sudanese youth and pretty much anyone not willing to have the Southern Cross tattooed on their face. He has even managed to convince a critical mass of people that the impending destruction of our species due to global warming is not something that should get in the way of the blessed status quo.
So of course, when coronavirus came along, Murdoch’s inclination was to throw his lot in with it, rather than listen to public health experts, hospital workers or epidemiologists. Over his dead body was some uppity virus going to get in the way of making money, digging up coal, cheering on the free market and savaging unions. Along with the rest of the right-wing press, Murdoch’s outlets played down the COVID-19 threat, encouraged scepticism about the science, stoked hostility to the various public health measures and fuelled right-wing conspiracy theories.
“The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours”, mocked Fox News luminary Sean Hannity on 27 February. “And it’s all president Trump’s fault, or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.” Other Fox commentators suggested snake bites pose a greater threat than the virus, while conservative commentator Candace Owens ridiculed social distancing instructions, suggesting they amounted to a “mass global mental breakdown”.
Closer to home, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt sneered at “virus alarmists”, arguing that COVID-19 should give us no greater cause for panic than the flu. He downplayed its death rate and whined repeatedly about the lockdown, insisting on 29 March “Australians can – and must – be back to work within two weeks”.
The Australian for its part has promoted Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) director of policy Gideon Rozner’s campaign against the – so far broadly successful and lifesaving – health measures imposed to stop the virus. The measures could “very well cause far more damage than the health effects of the virus itself” according to Rozner – a dubious contention for which he produces no evidence. “Enough is enough”, he moans, the lockdown “must end”.
Like with global warming, the prospect of thousands of deaths makes no impact on the right’s dogmatic opposition to government intervention. A 3 April Australian editorial discussing the COVID-19 economic response insists: “Society functions best when government steps aside, allowing free enterprise and individuals to flourish”. What also flourishes, according to this model, is deadly infectious disease. But what matters is that governments continue to “open the nation to competition and harness an aspirational ethos: to start businesses, build wealth and be self-reliant”.
Hard evidence simply won’t sway those for whom any criticism of capitalism or challenge to the status quo is just another ruse by gender-bending social justice warriors hell-bent on making us all feel bad about aspiring to be rich and not caring about anyone else. On display is the very lunacy the right accuses the left of: being so blinkered by ideology they have lost touch with common sense, and using every opportunity, no matter how inappropriate, to advance their irrelevant, niche agenda.
That said, the right can’t be accused of being wholly dismissive of the threat posed by the virus. As well as the cure-alls of economic self-reliance and free enterprise, it does have other interesting epidemiological insights to offer. IPA research fellow Dara Macdonald recommends “localism and community spirit” to “see us through” the crisis in place of government intervention. The disease fighting qualities of our glorious national values – which combine “the best British manners, like queuing patiently, with larrikinism” – are our secret weapon inexplicably overlooked by communist public health experts. Or they would be, had they not been frayed by “high levels of migration” and other social ills. “Common sense” – that quality that should be universal but that only exasperated right-wing commentators ever seem to have a proper grasp of – is all that is really needed to contain a pandemic according to almost every right-wing commentator.
Happy though they usually are to amplify Murdoch’s talking points, even a politician as right wing and pedestrian as prime minister Scott Morrison can sense electoral annihilation in mass death and a health system in existential crisis. So, to avoid catastrophe, his government has adopted measures that violate its entire ideological framework.
This turn of events should relegate right-wing ideology, let alone the lunacy spouted by Murdoch, to the margins forever. It has proven itself constitutionally incapable of putting people’s wellbeing before the needs of the market. But this sadly is not how things work. Neoliberalism has proved itself capable of marching on despite many previous profound failures.
Nevertheless, it is a welcome break from routine to see Murdoch relegated to the fringe so far in this crisis. His empire can make and break Australian governments, and frequently sets the agenda of mainstream politics. And he is a powerful force in the Coalition government. As former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recently leaked-then-released biography details, the ties between Murdoch and the right wing of the Coalition are so tight that “even the most cynical Australians would be appalled” if they knew their extent. Influential News Corp figures could, according to Turnbull, “rightly feel they have a hand in running the country”.
The divergence between the hard right and the Coalition government may not last long. As Morrison moves to prioritise the economy over health, and goes on the attack to claw back the large amounts spent on corporate handouts and other emergency measures, Murdoch’s free market economic fundamentalism will come back into its own. But this moment should not be forgotten, as it reveals the sociopathic, anti-human, rotten core of the hard right.