Murdoch Under OathHow the $1.6bn Dominion Court Case Isn’t Mogul’s Biggest Legal Problem
Murdoch has his best suit at the dry cleaners for yet another walk up the aisle next week… to the Witness Box. Dan Evans reports on his long history of brushes with the law
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Not for the first time, the wily ringmaster is entangled in the sort of legal media circus his Editors the world over would usually rejoice in. Fox News is in the dock accused of dishonestly undermining an election in the world’s biggest democracy with malicious and false allegations of voter fraud.
The complainant in this story of allegedly ‘never-letting-the-truth-get-in-the-way-of-a-good-story’ is the US company Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion is suing Fox for $1.6bn over broadcasts of false claims by allies of Donald Trump that it rigged voting machines in favour of Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
The cable-news giant says it was just exercising its First Amendment Rights to free speech and that the case is “baseless” and “unsupported” by US defamation law; driven by the greed of Dominion’s “opportunistic private equity owners”.
Dominion says its reputation and business were damaged maliciously by Fox as it wilfully broadcast lies – a fact already accepted by the court – in order to maintain its Trump-supporting core viewership.
As the Dominion legal case puts it: “Fox knew the truth, knew the allegations against Dominion were outlandish and crazy and ludicrous and nuts. Yet it used the power and influence of its platform to promote that false story. Fox knew better.”
Now, after two years of often bruising legal preamble – in which Fox has been told it cannot simply blame its guests for vocalising the stolen election lie – there has been no move to settlement as both sides fortify for war. And on Monday 17 April, Judge “Cool Hand” Eric M. Davis will bring up the curtain on a supercharged trial at the Delaware Superior Court with Fox’s top hosts among a stellar supporting cast of witnesses.
Dominion’s lawyers may be sharpening their lines of questioning for the power suits of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, but most thoughts will be on the company’s Chairman Rupert Murdoch who can be compelled to testify next month and his eldest son Lachlan, 51. For the Murdochs are said to have been part of Fox’s senior editorial leadership responsible for continuing to air the voter fraud calumny long after it had been debunked for “business reasons”.
Dominion says Fox has never retracted the false statements it broadcast about it. Disclosed emails allegedly suggesting Fox CEO Suzanne Scott gave the elder Murdoch 50 “unarguable” examples of high-profile Fox voices feeding the story that the election was stolen when station chiefs knew this to be untrue.
This level of acceptance of the inaccuracy of Fox’s journalism goes to a key plank in the Dominion case – that of proving the “Actual Malice” necessary to overcome the US’s famously robust First Amendment.
In another alleged acknowledgement of Fox’s falsehoods, Murdoch told Scott in the aftermath of the 6 January capitol insurrection incident: “All very well for Sean [Hannity, Fox News host] to tell you he was in despair about Trump but what did he tell his viewers?”
It will also be put to Murdoch that, on watching Trump allies Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell propagate the stolen election narrative on Fox, he allegedly admitted to Scott: “Terrible stuff damaging everybody, [I] fear.”
Judge Davis has already put Fox on notice of his requirement for proceedings to go on without funny business. On 11 April, he signalled his frustration when Murdoch Snr’s full role as an officer of Fox News – as well as of its parent company – belatedly became known to the court, allegedly denying fuller access to his communications.
Davis said: “It’s been represented more than once to me that he’s not an officer of Fox News. I need to feel comfortable that when you represent something to me, it’s the truth.” He said: “I’m not very happy right now,” adding Fox was suffering from a “credibility problem” it will need to address if it is to succeed with the jury.
With the jury selection now having taken place the knottiness of that particular problem – barring a dramatic eleventh-hour settlement of Dominion’s $1.6bn demands – is set to be tested in the full courtroom glare.
More Humble Days Ahead?
At the age of 92, and after 70 years in the news industry – arguably the unruliest business of them all – this is not Keith Rupert Murdoch’s first legal rodeo. KRM (as he is often referred to inside his businesses) and his progeny are well-rehearsed in the art of enduring a sharp public grilling.
In 2011, the mogul cut a diminished figure as he proclaimed the “most humble day of my life” to UK lawmakers while denying he knew his powerful tabloid the News of the World was illegally hacking the phones of story targets, including a missing – it later emerged murdered – schoolgirl called Millie Dowler.
Six years of staunch denials of wrongdoing – and an attempt to hide institutional newsroom criminality behind the activities of one “one rogue reporter” busted eavesdropping on the British Royals in 2006 – had suddenly imploded, leading to the closure of the News of the World after 168 years in print, and allegations of cover up by youngest son James, News International’s then Executive Chairman.
That led in quick time to the formation of the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of the British Press, where successions of former and serving Murdoch journalists denied under oath any involvement in the practice of voicemail interception and the use of unlawful private investigators.
Murdoch told Leveson he didn’t “believe” in using hacking or private detectives to invade the privacy of people in the public eye. It has since emerged his businesses spent millions of pounds on an army of illegal snoopers to target thousands of victims from all walks of life, including victims of terrorism.
The paper’s closure also sparked Operation Weeting – a New Scotland Yard probe leading to criminal charges of phone hacking against some of KRM’s most important British employees.
It also led to Operation Elveden (payments to police), with which News Corp had to act as an assisting suspect in order to stave off the prospect of charges in the US under the federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Those in the hacking dock in London included the still-serving (and acquitted) News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks, and a parade of News of the World journalists led by (the jailed) Andy Coulson, once Murdoch’s brightest editorial star who went on to become Communications chief at 10 Downing Street under David Cameron. Costing more than £100m and taking 138 days to complete, this so-called Old Bailey ‘super-trial’ commanded more column inches than any other in UK legal history.
It was also the pre-cursor to the so-called Mobile Telephone Voicemail Hacking Litigation – a case known obliquely as Various vs NGN – which began shortly afterwards and is still rumbling on today through the Royal Courts of Justice, having already cost Murdoch well over £1bn in compensation and legal fees. And as with the Dominion case, it’s been the disclosure – the legal process of discovery in which relevant material must be handed over by both sides – that’s caused the Murdochs most harm.
Internal communications – in this instance specifically connecting James Murdoch to the decision to erase millions of emails prior to 2010 in an alleged “purge” of material showing years of company wrongdoing – lie at the heart of a case of Concealment and Destruction of evidence the family has been keen to keep out of court.
A string of trial dates at which the detailed allegations of cover-up against News Group Newspapers (NGN) would be heard have been vacated after last-minute settlements to pay off wave after wave of Claimants. That policy of opening the chequebook has allowed NGN to avoid judicial findings on its conduct, which might extend to conclusions pertinent to the accuracy of evidence given by some NGN employees to both the Old Bailey and Leveson.
It has also allowed Murdoch’s existing UK tabloid The Sun to continue to strongly deny any involvement in any criminal newsgathering practices, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary.
However, the ‘take the money’ approach has its limitations. Aside from being very expensive – there are rumours of compensation of more than £1m going to individual victims of hacking and illegal private investigation – it also fuels the disclosure required for the creation of new cases.
At the moment there are some 25,000 estimated potential further legal actions facing NGN, and yet another trial date in spring 2024, in which Prince Harry looks set to be that rare thing; a Claimant with the means and motivation to have his day in court.
Together with the Dominion/Fox lawsuit, these inconvenient and costly matters of law and ethics beg the obvious question: has Rupert Murdoch really already faced “the most humble day” of his professional life – or is there still room in the diary?
Dan Evans is the Founding Editor of Byline Investigates