Rupert Murdoch may be running out of political clout and financial luck.
For decades Murdoch has been a pernicious influence on journalism, politics, climate policy, progressive ideas and whether nations go to war or not.
Murdoch is now 91. His father died young and his mother lived until 103 mourned by all who knew her and benefited from her generosity. So, what the genetic lottery means for his longevity is moot although when the inevitable comes he is unlikely to be mourned by all.
But his current political and financial situation is not so moot given the remarkable challenges his businesses face.
First, his newspapers’ influence is fading as their circulation and financial performance declines – as the latest News Limited financial results and staff retrenchments demonstrate.
No longer are they making politicians quake in fright. Indeed, rather than setting agendas they have become captive of the monsters they have helped create such as election-denying politicians and far right wing conspiracy theorists.
Second, the empire has succession problems. While it is assumed Lachlan will take it all over in the event of Murdoch’s death or incapacitation the other siblings may want to break the empire up, take the money and do something else altogether.
Third, while he survived the lies he told about protecting The Times’ independence, the phone hacking scandal and The Sun’s Liverpool Hillsborough stadium disaster coverage he is now facing what is probably a much bigger problem – the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit.
Fourth, while staff and others testify to his acumen and forceful role in the business he showed an uncharacteristic approach in his deposition in the Dominions case. The text of the interview was revealing in that he didn’t seem to care much about what he was saying. It’s too simplistic to imagine he wouldn’t put the best spin on something short of perjuring himself but it’s almost as if he didn’t care that much about what he was saying.
The Washington Post (7 March 23) said: “Fox News is facing a billion-dollar lawsuit over the airing of conspiracy theories that a voting machine company helped rig the 2020 presidential election. There is no evidence that this happened, and the election technology company, Dominion Voting Systems, says false claims propagated on Fox amount to defamation. The company is seeking $US1.6 billion in damage.”
The Washington Post also summed up the fascinating legal situation Murdoch is embroiled in saying: “News organizations have broad First Amendment free speech protections. There are lots of good reasons for this. One is to safeguard against defamation lawsuits from unhappy sources or viewers seeking to bankrupt newsrooms and chill speech. So plaintiffs in defamation cases like this one have an especially high bar to reach, and these lawsuits rarely go to trial.
“To win its case, it’s not enough for Dominion to show that Fox shared false information — the voting-machine company must show that Fox’s anchors knew the claims were false or ignored serious doubts about them. This is known as acting with ‘actual malice.’”
The problem for Murdoch and Fox is that his own interview and internal material shows that Fox News knew that what they were claiming was false and fell back on its conspiratorial support position when it saw its ratings drop and their audience turning to other even further right wing outlets.
Their ‘journalistic’ malfeasance was also highlighted more recently when Tucker Carlson used selected edited footage of the January 6 coup attempt to depict the rioters as what talk show host, Stephen Colbert, described as “peaceful tourists”. Carlson is also at the centre of the Dominion claims.
Carlson apparently failed to notice that some 140 police officers were assaulted during the attack and 106 people were charged with using a deadly weapon.
The report was even condemned by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who said:
“It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here at Capitol thinks.”
Another Republican, Senator Kevin Cramer, “To somehow put January 6 in the same category as a permitted peaceful protest is just a lie.”
Fox, after a brief moment of telling the truth, quickly reverted to appeasing its extremist viewers – particularly after viewers began switching off and turning to even more right-wing outlets.
The Dominion defamation case is seeking damages of $US1.6 billion, which is not much in the overall scheme of Murdoch’s operations and his estimated net worth in 2022 of $US21.7 billion, but it’s not to be sneezed at even for billionaires. More importantly it will put an imprimatur on claims that Fox is not a news organisation but rather a source of false and misleading information and propaganda.
Could the case get to the Supreme Court (whose ruling on media First Amendment rights will be the basis of any Murdoch defence) and how could the court rule? We don’t know – but we do know that all the current problems are not likely to be forgotten as quickly as the UK phone hacking was. And if it’s a lengthy process the heirs by then might be carving up what’s left of the empire.