The $1.17 billion defamation settlement by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corp and Fox News is a lot of money to pay for bad reporting but a salutary lesson in the importance of independent journalism.
The highly anticipated case brought by voting machine company Dominion Voting Systems alleging Fox had endorsed false allegations by former US president Donald Trump that the 2020 presidential election was stolen threatened to draw back the curtain of a media company long resistant to outside scrutiny. The last-minute end to the case came as a surprise on Tuesday when Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis told the court, “the parties have resolved their case”, offering no details. A Dominion lawyer later confirmed the $1.17 billion pay out.
The Australian-American media magnate, as Fox Corp chairman, has averted a lengthy, expensive and embarrassing trial. But then Murdoch has history reverting to business mode when the journalism runs out.
Dominion had sued Fox News and Fox Corp for $2.38 billion for defamation, arguing internal messages and depositions by Fox personnel prove the network knowingly spread falsehoods to lift ratings. Settlement of the case means the allegations will never be tested but it will impact on Fox’s other litigation entanglements.
They include: a $3.56 billion defamation lawsuit by another election technology firm, Smartmatic; two lawsuits from Fox News producer Abby Grossberg claiming Fox’s lawyers pressured her into making a misleading Dominion deposition; and in an unrelated case, Murdoch’s son Lachlan, chief executive of the Fox Corporation, has filed defamation proceedings against Private Media, the publisher of Crikey, and others associated with the Melbourne-based company over a June 29 article that he says falsely named the Murdoch family as “unindicted co-conspirators” of Trump following the deadly 2021 US Capitol riots.
Fox took time to come around in the Dominion case but the writing was on the wall in February when excerpts from an unsealed deposition showed Murdoch being asked whether he was aware some network commentators endorsed false election claims. Said Murdoch: “Yes. They endorsed.” He also wished the network had pushed back harder on conspiracy theories. The complaints referenced instances in which Trump allies, including his former lawyers Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell, appeared on Fox News to advance the false allegations about Dominion. Asked if he could have intervened to stop Giuliani from continuing to spread falsehoods on air, Murdoch responded: “I could have. But I didn’t.”
As a media proprietor, Murdoch is known by Australian journalists for exercising tight control over his empire. Yet, antithetically, he has spoken of wayward staff before when in defence mode: In 2011, he was summonsed to Britain’s House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiring into illegal phone tapping of crime victims and celebrities by British newspapers and told MPs he was unaware hacking was more widespread than originally claimed and he had been misled by staff. “This is the most humble day of my life,” he said.
At 92, Murdoch is running out of the humblest days. The end of the Dominion case may have saved his empire from another grovelling apology and spared him being subjected to potentially withering questioning. But 71 years after Murdoch spread from ownership of his late father’s newspaper, The News in Adelaide, to create the world’s most powerful family owned media empire, Dominion has put a price on the sort of partisan journalism that is now part of Fox’s stock-in-trade.
Such biased journalism surely has contributed to shaping American society’s dire and dismal current circumstances and is a lesson from across the Pacific of independent journalism’s importance in informing the public, holding truth to power and fostering a functioning democracy.
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