DAVID FOLKENFLIK This is On the Media, I'm David Folkenflik, sitting in this week for Brooke Gladstone. Fox News is in the fight of its legal life right now, born out of a moment of crisis.
NEWS REPORT Dominion Voting is now suing Fox for defamation over the cable channel's, which they describe as, bogus allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election. [END CLIP]
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Dominion wants $1.6 billion in damages for false claims that it helped rig the 2020 elections for President Biden. Those claims appeared frequently on Fox News out of the mouths of some of the channel's biggest stars like Jeanine Pirro.
JEANINE PIRRO Dominion. It started in Venezuela with Cuban money and started with the assistance of…[END CLIP]
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Maria Bartiromo.
MARIA BARTIROMO They have businesses in Venezuela, Caracas, they have businesses in Cuba. And there are also links to China. [END CLIP]
DAVID FOLKENFLIK And the now former FOX host Lou Dobbs.
LOU DOBBS This election, a lot of strange things happened there and many of them highly suspicious. For example, Dominion software. [END CLIP]
DAVID FOLKENFLIK All untrue. And Dominion says it's been defamed. Its staffers have received death threats and it's badly affected business prospects. Fox News, unsurprisingly, disagrees.
NEWS REPORT We just got a statement from Fox saying that Fox News Media is proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism and will vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit in court. [END CLIP]
DAVID FOLKENFLIK During the trial, much has been revealed about how things operated behind the scenes. At Fox, for example, executives tried to stop Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs from booking Trump attorney Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani on their shows because they were pushing election lies. And just this week, Dominion's attorneys revealed that Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott warned colleagues that, quote, We can't give the crazies an inch. Even so, Fox subsequently broadcast a lot of incendiary claims. Dominion's legal team draws a direct line from the heated rhetoric of Fox hosts to the January 6th, 2021 protests that became a violent siege of the U.S. Capitol. And that forms the basis of an entirely different defamation suit filed roughly 10,000 miles away on the other side of the planet, not against the Murdochs, but by a Murdoch.
NEWS REPORT Media boss, Lachlan Murdoch has launched defamation proceedings against the publishers of news website Crikey….
NEWS REPORT Murdoch's lawyers claim Crikey wrongly suggested the Fox News boss was involved in the plot with Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election result. [END CLIP]
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Lachlan Cartwright is the editor at large of The Daily Beast, where he covers power, crime, celebrity and justice. And he says that with these two suits, we're getting a peek into the future of the Fox empire.
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT Crikey, which is sort of a scrappy Australian independent news and politics and opinion website, published an article on June 29th. In that piece, the writer Bernard Keane labeled the Murdochs as the unindicted co conspirators of the deadly US Capitol riots. And that really triggered Lachlan Murdoch. He sent a number of legal letters via his solicitor in Australia. The article was actually pulled down from the website and they were discussing an apology and Crikey then decided to put the article back up and basically challenged Lachlan to sue them. They took out an advertisement in the New York Times and in the Canberra Times, a newspaper in Australia. And the next day Lachlan filed quite an extraordinary suit. You know, he's incredibly thin-skinned. His father would never bring a matter like this.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK For many Americans, this will be the first time they're hearing the word Crikey. You're an Aussie. What does the word crikey mean?
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT I mean, you think of Steve Irwin, and you think of sort of the surprise of saying the word crikey.
STEVE IRWIN Oof, Oh, crikey. [END CLIP]
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT Yeah. It's a very Aussie lingo. And the site itself was born out of a bloke by the name of Stephen Mayne, who always had the Murdochs in his crosshairs.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Well, but he was a Murdoch guy, right? Like he had been an editor and then became a burr under the saddle.
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT He turned, and he really did pioneer this kind of, you know, scrappy, independent journalism in Australia, bearing in mind that most of the Aussie media market is controlled by the Murdochs.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Like something like 70% of major newspapers, right?
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT Correct. So around there, 70%, you know. There's only really two newspaper cities which are Sydney and Melbourne. Every other city only has one newspaper and is controlled by the Murdochs.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Aside from the insight this provides into the Murdochs, the differences between generations, this case also is one of the first major tests of some new laws involving libel in Australia. Libel laws there, unlike in the U.S., tend to favor the plaintiff, and that is the people who are suing media outlets. Back in August, Crikey's editor-in-chief Peter Fray told me that he wants to use this as a test case. What does he mean by that?
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT The laws changed last July, and it introduced a public interest offense. So publications can now make the case that all articles that are being called into question were in the public interest. And this is a major part of Crikey's defense — that it was in the public interest to have this discussion about Fox and the Murdoch's involvement in the events of January 6. Now, you've got to remember this public interest defense really was brought in to help protect investigative journalism. This article was an opinion piece. So Murdoch will have a bit more of a leg to stand on. But he also needs to prove that there was serious harm. I think the other thing to bear in mind is that not many people had seen this article until the lawsuit. So there's an element of the Streisand effect here as well.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Well, I mean, Crikey, put the story back up right? And started drawing a lot more attention to it and then surrounded it with a series of sort of public-minded commentary to draw more attention to it, very much wanting the public to read.
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT Also, to drum up subscriptions to their publication. I've heard that they've added about 5,000 subs to the publication since this lawsuit.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Folks working for Lachlan in both Australia and the U.S. have said to me, enough is enough. You know, like these guys go after him and, you know, just beat up on him like a punching bag. There's no reason for him to sit by. He's certainly not looking to profit from it. I believe in previous cases where there was some money paid by Crikey for harm under the even more restrictive libel and defamation laws at the time that, you know, he gave it to charity, he's not looking to get wealthy from it. They took down some stories and he's happy with that as an outcome. But in this case, if they're going to be showing such bravado around it, you know, forget it. Like, is he supposed to just take it? What do you say to that?
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT This isn't an oil magnate or a pharmaceutical billionaire. This is someone who owns and operates a media organization, actually a vast international media organization, and is about to inherit it when his father passes to the big newsroom in the sky, it appears. But I think one of the triggering things for him is the fact that this is all playing out as he is in the country. He moved the family back because of his children and some blowback that they were getting about what had been broadcast on Fox. And so I think that's an important factor here — that he doesn't want to keep hearing this stuff and it being written about.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Here in the U.S. there are cases going on. One is starting to really proceed in Delaware of defamation against Fox involving Dominion Voting Systems. I mean, one of the most mind bending elements is that lawyers and spokespeople for Fox are even now invoking freedom of speech principles.
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT Well, I think it's quite ironic, isn't it? That you have these matters playing out pretty much the same time. You know, Lachlan will potentially take the stand and if he does, some of those matters may be raised. This is why, in this instance, he may win the battle but lose the war because matters that are going to affect the Dominion trial may come out in the Aussie trial.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK What have you learned from people familiar with Lachlan's thinking about what he sees as Crikey's preoccupation with him and his family?
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT He's always had issues with Crikey. I think there's been a number of apologies over the years and a correction. He feels that Crikey is a bad actor, I think in much the way that Peter Till felt that Gawker was a bad actor, and he feels that Crikey is a bully and that the publication unfairly targets him and his family. And I think this has been building for some time.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Peter Thiel of course, major Silicon Valley investor, ensured that, as it turned out, that Gawker was sued out of existence. Do you think that he'd be happy to see Crikey meet a similar fate?
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT I think that an outcome here where Crikey never wrote about Lachlan Murdoch ever again would be a good outcome for him. I know that he's in touch with other prominent Australians who have had issues with Crikey in the past, similar to how Peter Thiel was in touch with other prominent people in Silicon Valley who had issues with Gawker. So I think that, you know, if he was to take Crikey out, that would be a good outcome for him. But I think the Australian ecosystem, the Australian media landscape would be all the poorer for that. And then adding another layer of irony here is the fact that this could actually raise the bar for defendants and improve the prospects for plaintiffs. And who is the major media organization in Australia that could be sued? Well, it's News Corp.. It's the Murdoch newspapers.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Lachlan, thanks so much.
LACHLAN CARTWRIGHT Cheers, mate.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Lachlan Cartwright is the editor-at-large of The Daily Beast and a regular contributor to the publication's media newsletter Confider.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.