With contradictory defamation lawsuits, the Murdochs attempt to have it both ways on free speech
The Murdochs cry free speech as a defense in the Dominion lawsuit while simultaneously attempting to suppress an Australian media company
Recently released files in the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News have shown the active role of father-son duo Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch in leading the network to promote election lies. But while Fox tries to shield itself by using free speech as a defense, Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch is also suing an Australian website for using its platform to criticize Fox personalities and the Murdochs.
In 2021, the voting technology company Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox News for defamation, accusing the network of knowingly spreading false information about the voting company throughout the 2020 election cycle. Fox has since attempted to defend itself against Dominion's allegations by making a “free speech and freedom of the press” argument. Just this week, Fox host Howard Kurtz promoted the First Amendment defense on his weekend show MediaBuzz.
New filings released from the Dominion suit reveal multiple Fox executives and on-screen personalities voiced skepticism about election lies peddled by former President Donald Trump and his lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani. Though these Fox personnel privately denounced the false claims that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential race due to manipulated votes cast with Dominion machines, Fox continued to broadcast election denial and even attacked and suppressed staffers who publicly questioned such conspiratorial claims.
Further, exhibits from the lawsuit also show Lachlan Murdoch’s and Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s active involvement in directing Fox News’ coverage of the 2020 election to benefit the GOP, treating the network as a propaganda arm of the party. Additionally, Rupert Murdoch continued to air hundreds of ads from election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell and his company MyPillow to bolster Fox’s bottom line, with Rupert even testifying, “The man is on every night. Pays us a lot of money.”
Meanwhile, Lachlan Murdoch is embroiled in another defamation lawsuit after the Australian news site Crikey published an op-ed in June 2022 at the end of which author Bernard Keane called Fox the “world’s most powerful media company, which continues — even in the face of mountains of evidence of Trump’s treachery and crimes — to peddle the lie of the stolen election and play down the insurrection Trump created.”
Written during the public hearings of the House select committee investigating the January 6 riots, the piece concluded, “The Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators are the unindicted co-conspirators of this continuing crisis,” akin to President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal. In response to the lawsuit, lawyers for Crikey have defended the piece on the grounds of “public interest” and “implied freedom of political communication.”
Earlier this year, Lachlan Murdoch broadened his claims against Crikey, adding the names of Eric Beecher and Will Hayward, executives of parent company Private Media, to the suit. Murdoch’s lawyers have argued that they created “a scheme to improperly use the complaint by Murdoch about the article to generate subscriptions to Crikey and thus income to Private Media under the guise of defending public interest journalism.” The lawyers further argued:
“We say Beecher and Hayward are the relevant guiding minds of Private Media and I should say, your Honor, surprisingly so. We cannot think of any case in this country where management interferes in the editorial decision-making of a media company. ... It is ... frankly outside of a plaintiff’s comprehension that such editorial interference would have taken place. And, to the extent my friends say, we should have known [earlier] to sue Mr. Beecher and Hayward ... I can plainly say it did not enter our minds that the suits, the businessmen, the non-journalists, would have been part of that editorial decision-making.”
Just as the Murdochs try to evade culpability for Fox’s cesspool of election lies in the U.S. by claiming free speech protections, the same family is targeting a minor media operation in Australia for a piece that simply expressed an opinion. The only difference is that Fox’s coverage around the 2020 elections was lucrative for the Murdochs and helped them maintain power, while the opinion piece in Australia threatened their already tarnished reputation. Though the Murdochs facilitated the spread of election misinformation on their networks, they are pointing the finger at Crikey for allegedly allowing its executives to influence the site’s editorial decisions. Simply put, the Murdochs are trying to have it both ways.
As Vanity Fair wrote about the ongoing cases involving the Murdochs, Crikey, and Dominion:
But cherry-picked or not, the Dominion documents paint a picture overall of two stupendously powerful media executives—Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch—who could have tamped down dangerous conspiracy-mongering about the election on their money-minting cable news network, yet chose not to because the conspiracy-mongering was apparently good for ratings and, by extension, the bottom line.
Perhaps that’s why some observers of Lachlan v. Crikey believe there’s merit to a Dominion defense. “Those revelations just further emphasise that the subject matter of the Crikey article ... was a legitimate matter of public interest,” a defamation expert at the University of Sydney Law School told The Guardian Australia. Or, as Australian Financial Review columnist Myriam Robin suggested this week, “What’s good for Fox News is good for Crikey.”