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As Australia burns, it's Murdoch versus Murdoch on climate change

How climate change intensifies wildfires

One of Rupert Murdoch sons is blasting the billionaire for how some of his media properties are covering the role of climate change in Australia's deadly bushfires. 

James Murdoch and his wife, Kathryn, said in a statement to the Daily Beast this week that the couple is "disappointed with the ongoing denial" at Australian news outlets controlled by the elder Murdoch regarding the link between global warming and the country's massive wildfires. 

The blazes have killed at least 25 people, left more than 1,000 people homeless and scorched more than 20 million acres — a land mass larger than Maine or North Carolina. Scientists also estimate that more than a billion animals have died.

"Kathryn and James' views on climate are well established and their frustration with some of the News Corp and Fox coverage of the topic is also well known," a spokesperson for the couple told the Daily Beast.

James Murdoch is the latest critic to accuse the Australia-born media mogul of misinforming the public about man-made climate change. The youngest of Rupert's sons, at 47, James was CEO of 21st Century Fox until its sale last year to Disney. He still sits on the board of News Corp and is a director of electric car maker Tesla.

U.S. firefighters lend a hand in Australia as bushfires ravage the country

The family dispute is flaring as Australia faces its worst wildfire season in recorded history. Unusually hot, dry conditions have made it easier for the fires to spread and harder for firefighters to control. The country is in the midst of a three-year drought, with 2019 being the hottest and driest year on record, CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli has reported. 

Average temperatures in Australia have increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, a recent study in Nature concluded. Hotter air temperatures dry out soil and vegetation, increasing the danger of fire and its ability to spread.

The Murdoch family owns News Corp, parent company to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and HarperCollins publishers. In Australia, where the family has the pay-TV channel Sky News Australia, Murdoch-owned papers make up more than 70% of the island continent's newspaper circulation. Critics charge the Australian outlets with sowing doubt about the effects climate change is having on the fires.

For instance, Peter Gleeson, a commentator at News Corp subsidiary Sky News Australia, recently blasted a former fire chief who criticized the Australian government's lack of action on climate change. "He's joined a cult," Gleeson said of the 39-year firefighting veteran. 

Another Sky News Australia commentator, Andrew Bolt, downplayed "Australia's tiny emissions" as a contributor to global warming. (Australia, a major coal exporter, is the world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

A business columnist, Terry McCrann, wrote in the Murdoch-owned Herald Sun that "none of these bushfires were in any way extraordinary compared to ... the last 150 years," contradicting the assessment of Australia's national science agency and the international scientific community. 

In the U.S., Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham, who hosts "The Ingraham Angle," has criticized Hollywood celebrities for linking the fires to climate change and invited contributors on her show to downplay the issue, the Daily Beast reported.
(Fox News spun off from News Corp. in 2013 and is today a publicly traded company, with the Murdochs as controlling shareholders.)

Celebrities donate millions to Australian wildfire relief

The Wall Street Journal has long been criticized for running opinion pieces by climate-change deniers who are funded by fossil fuel companies. A 2018 analysis of more than 300 op-eds the Journal ran on climate change found that just six were scientifically accurate. The newspaper last week published an editorial by James Morrow, opinion editor of The Daily Telegraph in Australia, another Murdoch publication, denying a link between the fires' severity and the use of fossil fuels

A News Corp spokesman declined to comment on the Murdochs' reported spat, but referred to a recent editorial in The Australian defending the paper's coverage.

"In our coverage, The Australian's journalists report facts about how to tackle bushfires and about how to deal with the impact of climate change. Second, we host debates reflecting the political division that exists in Australia about how to address climate change without destroying our economy," the editorial said.

Rupert Murdoch last year told investors that "there are no climate change deniers" at the company, while touting News Corp's own effort to reduce its carbon emissions. 

Still, not all News Corp journalists appear to be on board with the company's stance. A now-former employee of News Corp Australia sent a newsroom-wide email accusing the company of engaging in a "misinformation campaign," the Sydney Morning Herald reported last week.

"I have been severely impacted by the coverage of News Corp publications in relation to the fires, in particular the misinformation campaign that has tried to divert attention away from the real issue which is climate change to rather focus on arson (including misrepresenting facts)," the email said, according to the Herald.

The email was removed from employees' inboxes within an hour, the Herald said.

This story has been updated to clarify the ownership of Fox News and News Corp properties.

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