Salvo of suits rock Murdochs

Succession poster

The record $1.2 billion defamation by Fox News to voting machine provider Dominion Voting Systems is just one of several reputationally challenging issues and lawsuits besieging the Murdoch family and its businesses.

The fallout saw Fox sack its highest rating host, Tucker Carlson, and Lachlan Murdoch abandon his David and Goliath legal battle against Australian website, Crikey, which Reputation Eye featured in September. Carlson is also facing a separate action for sexism and harassment from an ex-staffer.

Still in play is a lawsuit from Smartmatic, another machine manufacturer which is seeking $3.9 billion for similar and discredited slurs to those levelled against Dominion - namely that their machines were rigged to shift votes from Trump to Biden and steal the 2020 presidential election.

And over in the UK, Prince Harry has launched a suit arising from the infamous phone hacking scandal by Murdoch publications, threatening to revive the ghosts of that affair.
Legal documents, in this case, suggest his brother Prince William was secretly paid around $2 million to settle his phone hacking claim a decade ago.

The sagas come when fascination with the Murdochs is magnified by the drama Succession, where many key characters and some events are eerily reminiscent of the clan.

Just where the drama ends and the real lives begin has become increasingly blurred, with Lachlan taking issue with his brother James supposedly feeding lines to the hit show, which was among revelations contained in a bombshell article for Vanity Fair. Now it's suggested that one condition of Jerry Hall’s divorce settlement with Rupert Murdoch was to not provide any material to Succession’s writers.

The decision to pay Dominion and drop the Crikey action was a reputation salvage job for the Murdochs, ducking damaging details and cross-examinations in open court. It’s a smart move if you’re likely to lose and fear more revelations - wear the short-term pain hoping for long-term gain, but the ultimate bill for Fox and the Murdochs could be massive.

As part of the lawsuit, Dominion unearthed a trove of internal communications from Fox showing that its chairman Rupert Murdoch and Fox hosts were aware election fraud claims were false and broadcast them anyway.

Rupert had already provided some pre-trial evidence, and it did not go well. In emails, texts, and depositions Murdoch is detailed discussing (or instructing) when Fox News will call the election, what his newspapers should be saying, and editing editorials.

Dominion was going to call the 92-year-old Murdoch last week. He would have followed first witness Tony Fratto, a crisis communications consultant for Dominion who repeatedly contacted Fox to state their claims were false.

Welcoming the record settlement, outside the courthouse Dominion attorney Justin Nelson said the payout represented vindication and accountability. “Truth matters,” he said. “Lies have consequences.”

Soon after, Lachlan Murdoch dropped his case against Crikey over its suggestions that Fox was complicit in stoking deadly Washington protests after Donald Trump’s election defeat.

Lachlan said he didn’t want to contribute to a further marketing opportunity for Crikey, which had ramped up a subscription offer around the case and launched a crowdfunding campaign. The suit arose from a piece mainly focused on the circumstances of the Trump-fuelled Capitol riots around claims his election was stolen.

It included a throwaway line that “the Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators are the unindicted co-conspirators of this continuing crisis”. When Fox and its CEO Lachlan Murdoch objected, Crikey ran an open letter in the New York Times challenging them to sue. “We await your writ so that we can test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom,” it read.

Lachlan initially obliged, but if the Crikey case continued many of the impending allegations to be aired in the Dominion case could have been aired in open court, along with Lachlan being put on the stand - making paying out $1.2 billion to Dominion look a very bad deal.

These issues have a way to play out, with the Smartmatic claim for $3.9 billion in damages looming large, and the allegations against the firm are palpably incorrect. Just as significant is that much of the evidence the Murdoch’s sought suppressed in the Dominion case could be revealed.

A host of other corporates and individuals besmirched on Fox in the post-election chaos must already be signing up lawyers.

A curiosity is how Fox’s ratings survive Carlson’s departure and how much of his massive audience he can take to a new platform. It’s unclear how his followers will view is private messages uncovered in the lead up to the Dominion case. Publicly a Trump advocate, in emails and messages he called him a “destroyer”, a “demonic force” and a “disaster” whose behaviour after losing the election was “disgusting.

Mark Forbes, Director of Icon Reputation

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