What next for Fox and Rupert Murdoch after £632 million defamation settlement?
ITV News US Correspondent Dan Rivers reports from Delaware after Fox reached a £632 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems.
I wonder if Rupert Murdoch woke up this morning breathing a sigh of relief or rather regretting a very, very expensive settlement.
At the eleventh hour, Fox News settled its long running case with Dominion voting systems, for an eye-popping $787.5 million (£632 million).
That’s half what Dominion was seeking in damages for repeated on air defamation by Fox News anchors and contributors.
But still, it is one of the largest ever pay-outs in a defamation case in the US. That record may not stand for long though, as another voting machine company is filing a similar case for even more.
Smartmatic is pursuing $2.7 billion (about £2.2bn) for similar trashing of their reputation by Fox News, as it falsely reported on the supposedly rigged 2020 US election.
Repeated investigations found no irregularities, yet Fox continued to air the claims, often unchallenged, as it sought to shore up its sliding ratings.
It’s important to state that very rarely does the amount sought in damages equate to the amount awarded by a court. But now Smartmatic has a useful comparison if it pushes for a settlement.
Tuesday's Dominion settlement could put a floor on what Smartmatic may hope to receive if it settles with Fox - it will now likely expect a $787.5m figure at the bare minimum.
There is also the possibility that - after Dominion settled for half of the amount they were pursuing - Smartmatic may also push for half, which would amount to $1.35 billion (about £1.1 billion) using the same formula.
These sound like epic sums, and for mere mortals they are. But for Murdoch’s Fox Corp, this is still affordable.
Fox recorded a quarterly revenue of $4.61bn (£3.7bn) last year, up 4% on the previous quarter. For the year, Fox’s revenues were $14bn (£11.2bn). So a settlement of less than a billion is not a business killer.
Some think this result was actually good for Murdoch, sparing him more excruciating evidence in court and the embarrassment of personally being cross-examined by Dominion’s lawyers.
Pre-trial depositions running to some 800 pages did lay out fascinating details about Murdoch’s daily involvement in the editorial decisions at Fox News. It also showed how many Fox anchors and managers appeared to know the outlandish election rigging claims being made on air were false.
It showed how there was plenty on internal hand-wringing at the channel, with anchors like Tucker Carlson claiming after the election on air: “We don’t know how many votes were stolen on Tuesday night, we don’t know anything about the software that was rigged…we don’t know.”
The next day, in light of falling Fox ratings, Murdoch messaged the CEO of Fox News Suzanne Scott saying “We are getting creamed by CNN”.
That illuminated the dilemma Fox faced: tell the truth that Donald Trump lost, and risk losing more of its core viewers. Or continue to propagate the lie that the election was stolen.
Fox chose the latter.
It decided to give Fox viewers what they wanted to hear, even though they knew it wasn’t true. It was a cynical strategy to shore up ratings and head off challenges from even more extreme right wing channels like NewsMax or News Nation.
Sidney Powell was a contributor who was put on air week after week to push the stolen election lie. The Texan lawyer made increasingly lurid allegations, claiming Dominion’s systems were created in Venezuela by Hugo Chávez, and were now being used to interfere with the US election result, part of a plot by communists in Cuba and China to flip votes from Republicans to Democrats.
The deposition documents show how even Trump thought Powell sounded “crazy”. Murdoch also described her claims as “terrible stuff”, but Fox continued to allow Powell on air.
It was great TV for Fox, even though it was dangerous nonsense. It fuelled a lie which kept Fox viewers glued to their set. Fox anchor Tucker Carlson told a colleague Sidney Powell “is lying” Sean Hannity texted a colleague saying Powell was a “f*cking lunatic”. Yet week after week she was invited back to air her crazy conspiracy theory rubbish.
The repeated lies had real world consequences. On January 6, a crowd riled up after weeks of the “stolen election” narrative, stormed the US Capitol. The foundation of US democracy was under attack and part of what supercharged this attempted insurrection was the false belief that the 2020 election had been an establishment stitch up.
Fundamentally there was a financial imperative for perpetuating the lie. It was about Fox ratings. It was about cash.
As Murdoch said: “It’s not red or blue, it’s green.”
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