How Rex Murphy destroyed his once-respectable legacy

Editorial | Stephen Whitworth

The May 9 death of Rex Murphy at the age of 77 is a chance to reflect on the legacies of controversial media personalities. Murphy, a charismatic Canadian pundit whose verbose articulation of the issues of the day once illuminated CBC news broadcasts, should have been a lock for a respected spot in Canadian media history.

Add in his capacity for a kind word here and an unexpected and witty bit of self-deprecation there, and Rex’s posthumous beatification should have been assured.

Should have been.

Sadly, after decades of mean and nonsensical attacks on proponents of climate action, along with at least one egregious denial of racism and frequent dishonest and frankly petty characterizations of those he disagreed with, that’s off the table. Murphy’s now-irreparably tarnished legacy will instead stand as a cautionary tale for other pundits on the consequences of peddling propaganda and misinformation.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Rex Murphy was once a bona fide Canadian icon. The Newfoundlander possessed a magnificent vocabulary which he unfurled in his signature playful, poetic manner during his long-running roles as a CBC news commentator and host of Cross Country Check-Up. He could be a bit cranky, but that was part of his charm. Even though that Rex Murphy leaned small-C conservative, he seemed like someone you could have a fun conversation with, as this April, 1998 Prairie Dog interview shows.

Unfortunately, his columns and commentary became increasingly nasty. He attacked scientists, environmentalists and others sounding the climate change alarm. And when he wasn’t misrepresenting climate science with evasive, meandering, anti-intellectual polemics, Murphy stroked Canada’s oilpatch egos in lucrative speaking gigs.

It was Murphy’s championing of and profiting from this lying, fact-attacking and civilization-threatening industry that led to Paul Dechene naming him one of the 2000–2009 decade’s “Top B-List Evildoers” in the Dec. 31, 2009 Prairie Dog and Planet S: “Canada is an international environment pariah and Rex, with his fustian philippics, keeps CBC listeners and Globe and Mail readers complacent and confused,” wrote Dechene.

The facts didn’t seem to matter to latter-day Murphy and I’m not sure he ever confronted the reality of global warming head on. How could he? Scientists working in the field have now achieved virtually 100 per cent consensus that our planet is rapidly warming thanks to human impact. The glaciers are melting, extreme weather events are increasing and planetary heat records are being set both yearly and monthly (the current heat-streak is at 10 months and counting). Disputing these facts is like pointing at a cloudy sky and insisting it’s clear blue.

Human-caused climate change is as real as theories like gravity and evolution (which, unsurprisingly, is another target for demented conservatives). Rex Murphy didn’t care.

Instead, Murphy levelled personal attacks against activists and climate-conscious politicians. He dismissed Green leader Elizabeth May as “the leader of a one-member (elected) party named after a colour” who “feels she has the right or the competence to rearrange the order of the economy and re-engineer the lives of so many”. He mocked author and activist Naomi Klein as “the universal queen bee of protest politics.” He ridiculed U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ 2019 Green New Deal, saying “the greatest economy in the world” world be “transfigured and to a certainty, devastated”.

(Murphy, of course, ignored the economic destruction unmitigated climate change will bring. That might have interfered with his lucrative speaking gigs.)

By the way, these mean-spirited character assassinations all come from one 2019 piece the National Post recently re-published as one of Murphy’s “best columns of all time”. I’ll leave it to others to comment on the fact that Rex’s targets here are three powerful, accomplished and important women.

Oh, and there’s also a Trudeau-bashing column where Murphy called Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg a “young grim, glaring messiah”.

Lying All The Way To The Bank

In the  end, Rex Murphy spent the last 20 years of his career sowing climate misinformation. He was clearly intelligent with the capacity to learn climate facts but he chose not to.

Murphy debased the public discourse he claimed to value. Reading his columns, you see him consistently side-step actual debate to focus on insults. There’s a place for cheeky ad hominem attacks — in my book, anyway — but they must accompany a commitment to the facts of whatever’s being debated. Rex’s insult-driven rhetoric floated away from truth like a sour sewer fog drifts over a sidewalk: disconnected and bad smelling. Hold your breath, or better yet, avoid.

It’s sad to say, but Canada is better off without Rex Murphy.

What a legacy. What a waste.