Wild fantasies are Napolitano’s bread and butter. He regularly appears on Fox to fulminate over the alleged crimes of progressives. He has used his Fox platform to champion 9/11 trutherism, suggest that Osama bin Laden wasn’t really dead, and blame President Abraham Lincoln for having “set about on the most murderous war in American history” over slavery.
Those incidents did not inspire Fox to examine Napolitano’s reporting, publicly declare that the network could not substantiate it, and pull the former judge from the airwaves.
So what led the network to take those steps over the past few days, after Napolitano’s claim that President Barack Obama had used the British intelligence service GCHQ to surveil President Donald Trump’s communications last year fell apart?
The White House supercharged the story when press secretary Sean Spicer read Napolitano’s comments from the press room podium. Napolitano’s typical practice of spitballing a conspiracy on Fox’s morning news show suddenly spurred an international news story that threatened U.S. relations with the United Kingdom.
And that firestorm of coverage in the U.K. around Napolitano’s comments threatens Rupert Murdoch’s dream of owning the satellite broadcasting company Sky, which owns that nation’s Sky News network and pay-TV operations in the U.K., Germany, Austria, and Italy.
Murdoch's 21st Century Fox, which owns a minority position in Sky, has bid $14.3 billion for the remaining stake. 21st Century Fox is Fox News' parent company. The bid is currently under review by the British media regulator Ofcom.
The international news mogul previously sought to take over Sky (then known as BSkyB) in 2010. But he was forced to withdraw that bid in response to the investigation of phone hacking at his U.K.-based papers.
Losing out on BSkyB was part of a long series of humiliations Murdoch endured due to the phone hacking scandal, culminating with a parliamentary committee’s declaration that he “is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of major international company."
But those were humiliations ultimately driven by the failures of his son James, who was overseeing the family’s newspapers as head of News International, and who remains an heir to the Murdoch media empire. He surely has no intention of suffering a similar fate due to the actions of a random Fox News commentator.
And yet, Napolitano’s actions put Murdoch’s massive Sky bid in jeopardy. Days after Britain's culture secretary asked Ofcom to review whether 21st Century Fox is sufficiently “committed to the required editorial standards, such as accuracy and impartial news coverage,” U.K. newspapers were filled with stories about how a Fox News commentator’s anonymously sourced, unverified claim had damaged that nation’s relationship with its closest ally.
Yesterday, hours before the network acknowledged that Napolitano was “being kept off the air indefinitely,” Britain woke up to a front-page story in The Guardian reporting that the “former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Peter Westmacott, has issued a withering criticism of Donald Trump and his inner circle, accusing them of making absurd, unthinkable and nonsensical claims about the UK’s involvement in alleged wiretapping of Trump Tower that he warns could damage close ties between the two countries.”
In a Guardian op-ed, Westmacott wrote of Spicer’s repetition of Napolitano’s claim that “anyone with any knowledge of the intelligence world knew the suggestion was absurd.”
The Napolitano-sourced allegation was also torched in British media by a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May (“ridiculous and should have been ignored”); the former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind ( “foolish and very dangerous” ); GCHQ, the British intelligence service that Napolitano accused (“nonsense”); Dominic Grieve, chairman of the parliamentary committee which oversees the U.K.'s spy agencies (“I echo [GCHQ’s] sentiment”); Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader in Parliament ( “shameful”; “harms our and US security” ); and Richard Ledgett, deputy director of the NSA ( “just crazy” ).
Some of the most brutal headlines on the story over the past few days have been published by a Murdoch-owned tabloid, The Sun.
Several British papers produced articles on Fox removing Napolitano from the airwaves. But the story won’t end there. According to Murdoch’s Times, the incident is likely to come up when Jeremy Fleming, the incoming director of GCHQ, next visits the United States. “Jeremy will be expected to make a trip to the US very early on to seek reassurances from our partners,” a source told that paper.
The more that story stays in the news, the less likely British regulators may be to allow the company that started it to dominate the U.K. airwaves.