© 2023 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rupert Murdoch's turn to face questions in $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox News

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, at right, in London a decade ago on his way to give evidence at a British judicial inquiry. He is accompanied by his son (and now Fox Corp boss) Lachlan Murdoch, at left, and his then-wife Wendi Deng.
LEON NEAL
/
AFP via Getty Images
Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, at right, in London a decade ago on his way to give evidence at a British judicial inquiry. He is accompanied by his son (and now Fox Corp boss) Lachlan Murdoch, at left, and his then-wife Wendi Deng.

Updated January 19, 2023 at 10:00 AM ET

The last time Rupert Murdoch testified about a scandal involving his company, it played out in public. He sought to convey contrition about the monstrous activities that had come to light inside one of his newsrooms while skirting any responsibility for it.

"This is the most humble day in my life," Murdoch testified before the British Parliament in 2011, interrupting the opening statement of his son James — then his heir apparent — to do so.

Others had "let me down," Rupert Murdoch added, intoning, "It's time for them to pay."

In front of MPs and, later, a judicial inquiry, Murdoch mumbled. He said he couldn't hear, playing up his age. (Murdoch was then in his early 80s.) He occasionally went on the attack — only to express regret. He said — again and again and again — that he simply couldn't recall what he had once known of the operations of his beloved London newspapers.

Oh, and Murdoch took a cream pie to the face. (His then third wife, and now third ex-wife, Wendi Deng, fended off the assailant.)

Starting this morning, the now 91-year-old media magnate will again have to face the music over a scandal at one of his most prized news organizations — this time, Fox News.

Dominion Voting Systems filed a $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News and Fox Corp, which is its parent company, after an array of Fox hosts and guests promoted false claims that Dominion threw votes from then-President Donald Trump to Joe Biden in the 2020 elections.

Murdoch is scheduled to sit for questions under oath today and tomorrow at the Fox Studio lot in Los Angeles. He had been scheduled for a deposition last month, but it was put off without public explanation. One consequence of the shift in timing: Dominion's legal team could not draw upon his testimony for motions filed earlier this week under seal seeking to convince the presiding judge to decide the case in its favor before the jury trial even begins.

Attorneys for Dominion have already privately questioned Murdoch's elder son Lachlan, the Fox Corp boss, under oath for hours at a powerful Los Angeles law firm last month. (Lachlan is James' older brother.)

The company is seeking to find proof Rupert and Lachlan knew that the claims of election fraud in the 2020 presidential elections were false and that they encouraged or simply allowed them to be broadcast anyway on Fox News, the family's dominant profit engine.

Fox says it was covering an inherently newsworthy claim from inherently newsworthy sources — a sitting president and his campaign attorneys. The network contends the lawsuit is an affront to free speech.

Dominion accuses Fox of destroying messages from stars Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and others

Dominion's attorneys have accused Fox of destroying evidence from some of its most important figures: Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott, top stars Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, along with other stars, network executives and sources, presumably related to the claims of election fraud.

Dominion has asked the court to issue an order finding "that Fox acted recklessly or with the intent to deprive Dominion of the spoliated information's use in the trial."

The company asked for sanctions against Fox and its attorneys, which would include covering legal fees and directing the jury in the upcoming trial, scheduled for April, that it must presume the evidence would have hurt Fox's defense.

Similarly, Fox has accused senior Dominion executives, including CEO John Poulos, of destroying private electronic messages relevant to the case. The competing claims have not yet been addressed by the court. Neither side would comment publicly on the allegations.

With his father, Lachlan leads the family's media empire, which also includes News Corp., owner of the Wall Street Journal and New York Post. Rupert, however, is the patriarch of the family, and looms above its corporate holdings, with the title of chairman. And now Dominion wants to see what it can secure from the elder Murdoch.

Reporters from both the Journal and Fox repeatedly debunked Trump's claims; editorials in the New York Post and the Journal called on Trump to concede his loss.

Dominion lawyers want to show that the Murdochs had every reason to know they should prevent their stars from promoting such false claims of fraud and yet did not do so — the heart of their claim that the alleged defamation was orchestrated from the top.

The News of the World scandal threatened Murdoch's hold on media empire

Back in 2011, a separate scandal flushed Rupert Murdoch into public view on the other side of the Atlantic. The News of the World, the British Sunday tabloid that had helped to propel Murdoch's global expansion decades ago, had been caught hacking into the voice mails and emails of hundreds of royals, celebrities, politicians, war veterans and more. It all came crashing down when The Guardian revealed a murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl had been among them.

The repercussions were far-reaching. There was a movement to push him out as chief executive over the entire media empire. Several of his former British journalists were sentenced to jail. Murdoch shut the paper down (soon replacing it with a Sunday edition of his Sun tabloid). He split his newspapers from his television properties, and ultimately was compelled to abandon his $15 billion bid for total control of the British satellite TV giant, Sky.

Called before Parliament and a judicial inquiry in 2011 and 2012, however, his years-long pursuit for Sky still hanging in the balance, Murdoch knew he had two jobs: to convey that this press baron was chastened, not arrogant. And to deflect any notion that he had any culpability for what had happened.

He managed to execute the job in a way that cut off his younger son, James, at the knees. The judgment of James, at that time the chairman of the Murdochs' News UK, had been called into question, especially for approving a $1 million settlement to a former executive of a soccer players association whose phone had been hacked into by private investigators for News of the World. James Murdoch had previously said he hadn't read down far enough into an email trail to realize how damning — or illegal — the paper's actions had been.

As Rupert and James sat before a parliamentary committee, the younger man set out to apologize to the victims of illegal phone hacking and to explain how he intended to set the British newspaper group back on an honorable footing.

The father interrupted the son almost instantly, putting his hand on James's arm.

"Before we get to that, I would just like to say one sentence," Rupert Murdoch interjected. "This is the most humble day of my life."

(That line had been scripted for Murdoch ahead of time by his advisers, including senior figures from the PR giants Edelman and Rubenstein Associates, though they had not realized he would interrupt his son to offer it.)

A notoriously hands-on CEO seeks to explain "laxity"

In so doing, Rupert Murdoch made it clear the company remained his, though not the responsibility. "This is not as an excuse, maybe it's an explanation of my laxity," he testified. "The News of the World is less than 1 percent of our company. I employ 53,000 people around the world who are proud and great and ethical and distinguished people."

Blame should fall, he said, on "the people that I trusted to run it, and then maybe the people they trusted."

"I'm the best person to clean this up," he said.

Murdoch was not known for laxity — he was a notoriously involved CEO, especially with his tabloids. Before the committee, and again in questioning during a judicial review, Murdoch downplayed his vaunted political influence, and suggested he simply could not recall details of his interactions with editors and with leading political figures, including prime ministers.

Tabloid blood has coursed through the veins of Fox News since its creation in 1996. And when Murdoch took over running Fox News in 2016 after the firing of its chairman, Roger Ailes, over multiple sexual harassment accusations, the news magnate took great delight in becoming more involved in guiding it.

The Murdochs appointed Scott, a longtime senior executive at the network, as CEO of Fox Media in May 2018.

Now lawyers for Dominion are scheduled to grill Murdoch privately, this time about events leading up to and following the November 2020 elections. He will be asked once more about his interactions with news executives and journalists, this time at Fox News, and politicians, this time, then President Donald Trump and his advisers.

Rupert Murdoch is a decade older. His hearing is far from perfect. But associates say that when it comes to news and politics, the media mogul hasn't lost a step.

Maddy Lauria and Karl Baker contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 10, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
This story originally said Rupert Murdoch would be deposed beginning Monday. His deposition is scheduled to begin Tuesday.
Tags
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.