Most Australians probably wouldn’t choose to spend their weekends browsing Parliament’s website.
But a petition calling for a public inquiry into Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Australia, published by a former prime minister, generated so much interest over the weekend that it overwhelmed the website’s cyber defenses and blocked the access to the document.
The petition – released on Friday by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – asks the government to establish a royal commission, the country’s highest form of inquiry, into Murdoch̵
“Murdoch has become a cancer – an arrogant cancer for our democracy,” Rudd said a Twitter video on Fridays. An investigation, he added, “would maximize 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 reshape democratic governments around the world.
In the United States, the Fox News Channel and Murdoch’s New York Post have been prime supporters of President Trump and critics of President Obama and other Democrats. Its British newspapers are conservative supporters and one of them, the tabloid The Sun, was one of the main supporters of the successful campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.
But nowhere is its influence greater than in Australia, where News Corp controls two-thirds of the daily newspaper circulation and Mr. Murdoch also controls major news channels such as Sky News Australia.
Ousted prime ministers such as Mr Rudd of Australia’s center-left Labor Party said News Corp and its oversized presence were partly responsible for their downfalls. And, critics say, News Corp’s outlets have undermined efforts to combat climate change, pushed governments to hardline policies on issues like migration, and used languages and images widely viewed as racist.
The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Murdoch said he was a climate change skeptic and his media outlets have repeatedly denied allegations of racism.
A former center-right prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has also spoken very openly about his clashes with Murdoch, who he says has helped him oust power in favor of a more right-wing politician.
On Monday night, over 200,000 people had signed Mr. Rudd’s petition, although technical problems over the weekend prevented some users from accessing the site.
The volume of traffic was such as to activate defenses designed to prevent bots from manipulating the site, the Australian House of Representatives said, adding that the website saw a 500% increase in traffic over the weekend.
The site has since increased its capacity, he said, and the petition will close on November 4.
Even as support for the petition increases, the government, a coalition of conservative parties, is unlikely to approve a royal commission and would not want to antagonize Murdoch, media and political analysts say.
Anthony Albanese, the head of the opposition Labor Party, also distanced himself from the petition presented by Mr Rudd, who has long called for an investigation into News Corp’s influence in Australia. Mr. Rudd served as Australian Prime Minister from 2007 to 2010 and for a few months in 2013 and is currently President of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
But the petition drew on “a deep reservoir of discontent and frustration,” said Timothy Dwyer, associate professor of media and communications at the University of Sydney, particularly among young center-left voters who oppose skepticism about change. that has been a feature of Mr. Murdoch’s media.
David McKnight, associate professor of media at the University of New South Wales, said Mr. Murdoch’s role in Australia highlighted the need for more public interest journalism.
“Mr. Murdoch has a long history of interference or attempts to change the outcome in the election,” he said. Blurring of opinion and news and the shift in media consumption to online and social media have given News Corp more weight, he added.
Critics pointed to The New York Times interview, published Saturday, with one of Mr. Murdoch’s adult sons, James Murdoch, who was once seen as a potential successor to run his father’s business. James Murdoch said he stepped down from News Corp’s board of directors due to growing unease over the agenda of Fox News and other outlets.
“A contest of ideas shouldn’t be used to legitimize disinformation,” he said.
Even without immediate government action, analysts say anger against Elder Murdoch will continue to simmer.
The question is whether a movement to build greater media diversity – and, in turn, tackle Murdoch’s dominance – will gain more momentum in the future, McKnight said. “People have a long memory,” he said.