Most Australians would probably not choose to spend their weekends browsing Parliament’s website.
But a petition calling for a public investigation into Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Australia, published by a former prime minister, sparked so much interest over the weekend that it overcame the website’s cyberdefends and closed access to the document.
The petition, released Friday by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, called on the government to set up a Royal Commission, the country’s highest form of investigation, into Mr Murdoch̵
“Murdoch has become a cancer – an arrogant cancer for our democracy,” Mr Rudd said in a Twitter video on Friday. An investigation, he added, would “increase ownership of media diversity for the future lifeblood of our democratic system.”
The move was a very public attempt to challenge Mr Murdoch, 89, and his global media empire, which contributed to the rise of right-wing politics and helped restructure democratic governments around the world.
In the United States, Mr. Murdoch’s Fox News Channel and the New York Post are leading supporters of President Trump and critics of President Obama and other Democrats. His British newspapers are conservative stubborn, and one of them, the tabloid The Sun, was the leading booster of a successful campaign to leave Britain from the European Union.
But nowhere is his influence greater than in Australia, where News Corp controls about two-thirds of the daily circulation of newspapers, and Mr Murdoch also controls well-known news channels such as Sky News Australia.
Removed prime ministers such as Mr Rudd from the center-left Australian Labor Party have said that News Corp and its huge presence are partly to blame for their downfall. Critics say News Corp sites are undermining efforts to combat climate change, pushing governments to pursue policies on issues such as migration, and using languages and images widely perceived as racist.
The company did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Mr Murdoch said he was skeptical of climate change and his shops had repeatedly denied accusations of racism.
One-centrist former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was also very vocal in his clashes with Mr Murdoch, who he said helped him remove him from power in favor of a politician on the right.
By Monday night, more than 200,000 people had signed Mr Rudd’s petition – although technical problems over the weekend had prevented some users from accessing the site.
The volume of traffic is such that it triggers protections designed to stop bots from manipulating the site, the Australian House of Representatives said, adding that the website reported a 500 percent jump in traffic over the weekend.
The site has since increased its capacity, he said, and the petition will end on November 4th.
Even if support for the petition increases, the government, a coalition of conservative parties, is unlikely to approve the Royal Commission and would not want to oppose Mr Murdoch, media and political analysts say.
Even Anthony Albanese, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, has distanced himself from a petition filed by Mr Rudd, who has long called for an investigation into News Corp’s influence in Australia. Mr Rudd was Prime Minister of Australia from 2007 to 2010 and for several months in 2013 and is currently President of the Asian Political Institute for Society.
But the petition is part of a “deep reservoir of discontent and frustration,” said Timothy Dwyer, an associate professor of media and communications at the University of Sydney, especially among younger, center-left voters who oppose skepticism about climate change. Mr. Murdoch.
David McKnight, an associate professor of media at the University of New South Wales, said Mr Murdoch’s role in Australia underscores the need for more public interest journalism.
“Mr Murdoch has a long history of interfering or trying to change the outcome of the election,” he said, adding that the blurring of opinion and news, as well as the shift of media consumption to online and social media, gave News Corp he added.
Critics cited an interview with the New York Times on Saturday with one of Mr Murdoch’s older children, James Murdoch, who was once considered a potential successor to his father’s business. James Murdoch said he resigned from the board of News Corp because of growing discomfort with the program of Fox News and other retail outlets.
“A contest of ideas should not be used to legitimize misinformation,” he said.
Even without immediate government action, analysts say anger against the elderly Mr Murdoch will continue to boil.
The question is whether the movement to build more media diversity – and in turn to cope with Mr Murdoch’s dominance – will gain more momentum in the future, Mr McKnight said. “People have long memories,” he said.