Kathryn Murdoch Steps Out of the Family Shadow to Fight Climate Change

Sep 26, 2019 by

The New York Times

You know her last name, and her father-in-law, Rupert, the conservative media mogul. Now, she hopes to remove partisan obstacles to climate progress that her family’s empire helped build.

“I’m not saying I have all the answers — I don’t,” said Kathryn Murdoch. “But what I know and what I feel very strongly is that sitting around not doing anything is the wrong answer.”
Credit Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Kathryn Murdoch is sitting with a reporter in her offices in the West Village, talking about climate change and democracy.

This, in itself, is unheard-of. She is a Murdoch, a member of the billionaire family that controls influential news organizations on three continents, and Murdochs rarely talk to the outside press. Ms. Murdoch is married to James Murdoch, the younger son of Rupert Murdoch.

Ms. Murdoch and her husband, however, are stepping out of their family’s shadow. He had once risen to dominance in the companies, only to lose a closely watched power struggle to his brother, Lachlan. As he neared the height of his influence — in the empire, and with his father — James was running the British satellite television service Sky while nudging the company into green initiatives. In 2006, he even invited Al Gore to speak at a Fox corporate retreat in Pebble Beach, Calif.

But Lachlan, whose politics are more in line with those of his father, saw his star rise as James’ fell. This year, after Fox sold assets to Disney, including 21st Century Fox, for $71.3 billion, James left the company, with his portion of the proceeds coming to a reported $2 billion.

Now James and Kathryn Murdoch are claiming their independence from the more conservative arm of the family.

James Murdoch recently spoke with The New Yorker for a brief article in which he acknowledged that “There are views I really disagree with on Fox,” referring to Fox News, the channel that was his father’s brainchild and which is known for its lineup of popular conservative hosts. And, in a series of interviews with The New York Times beginning in May, Ms. Murdoch has stepped out further, in order to bring attention to the fight against climate change. That means countering the efforts of those who block progress by stoking partisan rancor or by attempting to muddy the scientific consensus that climate change is happening now, and it is driven by human activity.

The Murdoch empire and Fox News have long had a substantial role in that muddying and stoking.

So this could be awkward. But to Ms. Murdoch, it is all part of her moment to go public on some 13 years of behind-the-scenes climate activism. “I’m very comfortable staying in the background and continuing to work quietly,” she said, but “I’ve decided doing that means I’m not working hard enough, I’m not doing everything in my power to do.”

Ms. Murdoch said that she actually got the inspiration to take on climate change from that Al Gore talk at the Fox retreat in 2006. The former vice president presented a version of the slide show that had just been turned into the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

In particular, the urgency of the climate crisis jolted her. “I decided to switch everything I was doing,” she said. “I wanted to be able to look my children in the eye and say ‘I did everything I could.’”


Now, working with the nonpartisan group Unite America, she is connecting like-minded organizations that are trying to overhaul the democratic process of voting to make it less likely to reward partisanship. She is also raising funds to ensure that the network will be effective.

She and her husband have already invested millions in their work toward these ends, and are “anchor funders” in the larger plan, she said, with an ultimate goal that she characterized as being in the “nine figures.” (While she declined to be more specific, the lowest nine-figure number is $100 million.)

“I’m not saying I have all the answers — I don’t,” she said, “But what I know and what I feel very strongly is that sitting around not doing anything is the wrong answer.”

From left, Lachlan, Rupert and James Murdoch in London in 2015, at a celebration of the elder Murdoch’s marriage to Jerry Hall.
Credit John Phillips/Getty Images

Ms. Murdoch’s public comments confirm what many who closely watch the intricacies and intrigues of the Murdoch empire have long believed: that she is more progressive than many other members of the family. (She calls herself a “radical centrist.”)

Her approach is bipartisan, but it is also clear that one party has been more resistant to action. “There hasn’t been a Republican answer on climate change,” Ms. Murdoch said. “There’s just been denial and walking away from the problem. There needs to be one.”

To those who defend climate science and warn of the risks that global warming poses, her emergence and use of her fortune and network of powerful friends and her famous name — which she describes as a “double-edged sword” — is welcome. “Murdoch media are notorious amongst climate scientists for their constant stream of misinformation on climate change,” said Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “I can see how a thinking person who marries into that family might feel an urge to counter at least a little bit of the damage they do.”

Fox News did not respond to requests for comment.

Her early climate work included taking a position in 2008 with the newly formed Clinton Climate Initiative, part of the Clinton Foundation established by the former president. As for her family connections, “I was certainly aware that the other Murdochs are conservative,” the founder of the climate initiative, Ira Magaziner, said, but “it didn’t matter.” At the time, he noted, many Republicans, including Mitt Romney, had spoken about the need to deal with climate change.

Over the years, she has worked with organizations whose approaches to environmental action align with her own. She joined the board of the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that often collaborates with industry on climate issues. In 2014 she and her husband created the Quadrivium Foundation (the word means “crossroads”) to fund their programs. One of those is SciLine, an independent nonprofit service that connects reporters with scientists and provides fact sheets on topics in the news like a primer in August on hurricanes and climate change.

She decided, however, that spreading scientific knowledge might not be enough. People already understand that the planet is warming and that humans are the cause. The deeper problem, she said, is that the government of the United States isn’t doing anything about it.

She took a deep dive into possible solutions to partisan deadlock and reviewed the players in the diffuse field known as democracy reform: Small groups that push for changes in the electoral system.

Some of the avenues her groups are pursuing include ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of their preference. Proponents of this method argue that it reduces the tendency of primaries to reward candidates who work mainly to energize their base, and favors candidates who have the broadest appeal. She is also interested in initiatives to restrict gerrymandering and increase access to voting through proposals like automatic registration, as well as open primaries, in which voters do not need to declare their party affiliation.

Charles Wheelan, founder of Unite America, said that because of Ms. Murdoch’s surname, “it’s fair to say that in some quarters our relationship raises a few eyebrows.” But he also calls her “an important ambassador” to the wealthy and powerful, someone who can tell them, as a peer: “Look, if you really want to make the world better for your grandchildren, fix politics.”

Sounding a note of skepticism, Richard H. Pildes, a professor at New York University Law School and an expert on constitutional law and democracy, said that democracy reform efforts were laudable but a long shot. They “might have effects at the margins,” he said, but “these reforms are not likely to fundamentally transform our politics from this hyper-polarized era we’ve been in for nearly 40 years.”


Ms. Murdoch and James Murdoch at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in July 2015.
Credit Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ms. Murdoch said that one reason such groups may not have had much of an effect so far is a lack of funds. Potential donors, she said, are enthusiastic. She has already held dinners in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, with more planned in Washington and Boston. “Everyone is so panicked about the situation and wants to help, but doesn’t know what to do.”

It is possible that her husband’s career at Fox is not over. Some who watch the company closely speculate that James could attempt a return after his father’s death. The brothers have traded places before: Lachlan left the company in 2005 after his father sided with other executives he had clashed with.

As a family member, James is a beneficiary of the trust that holds controlling stock, which cannot be sold to outsiders. Last year, James tried to sell the stock to Lachlan in order to make a full break, but Lachlan declined.

A Fox News under James Murdoch could still be conservative, but would almost certainly be less intransigent on issues like climate change. At a crucial moment, in 2016, when Roger Ailes was pushed out of the company over his treatment of women, James favored a more traditional news executive, the CBS president David Rhodes, for the job. Instead, his father took the helm for a time, and the network moved more solidly into a position of supporting Donald Trump.

When asked what might have been had her husband controlled the company then, Ms. Murdoch declined to speculate, simply saying, “I think James has shown himself to be a very different leader from his father.”

Her focus is not on such hypotheticals, but on a present challenge. She said she still had “a lot of hope” that we are capable of solving the climate crisis. “But we don’t yet have the political will.”

John Schwartz is part of the climate team. Since joining The Times in 2000, he has covered science, law, technology, the space program and more, and has written for almost every section. @jswatz  Facebook

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