Australian site retaliates after Lachlan Murdoch threatens to sue : NPR

Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, pictured above in 2019 in Sun Valley, Idaho, is threatening to sue an Australian news site for defamation over a June 29 column about rhetoric about Fox. In the United States, Fox News is defending itself against two libel suits, saying that “freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and must be protected”.

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Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, pictured above in 2019 in Sun Valley, Idaho, is threatening to sue an Australian news site for defamation over a June 29 column about rhetoric about Fox. In the United States, Fox News is defending itself against two libel suits, saying that “freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and must be protected”.

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Fox Corp CEO and executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch – already busy fighting two multibillion-dollar defamation lawsuits targeting Fox News here in the US – has threatened a news organization in the home country with legal action of his family, Australia.

The threat stems from comments accusing him of being responsible for rhetoric on the network that helped fuel the US Capitol siege on January 6, 2021.

Now Australia’s political news site Crikey has a message: Bring it.

“Lachlan Murdoch appears desperate to disassociate himself from Fox’s actions in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection,” Crikey’s editor, Peter Fray tells NPR from Sydney. “And he’s taking some pretty extraordinary steps to shut down public debate in this country.”

Fray says his news site didn’t literally say that Murdoch personally incited people to violence that day. But, says Fray, “responsibility has to stop somewhere.”

So in the full-page ads scheduled to run today in The New York Times and the Canberra timetables in the Australian capital, Fray and Eric Beecher, the chairman of Crikey’s parent company, Private Media, proclaim that they have welcomed Murdoch’s threat of a trial.

In the written text of their announcement, the two men hinted that they wanted it to serve as a test of Australia’s defamation laws, which they write “are too restrictive”.

Fox Corp declined to comment yesterday on the dispute with Crikey.

Murdoch’s complaints stem from a June 29 article prompted by revelations about the activities of former President Donald Trump and his allies before the uprising in the US Congress last year.

Crikey’s The political editor said Fox was among Trump’s top allies and concluded a column by calling Murdoch and his father Rupert “unindicted co-conspirators” in the siege because of the inflammatory rhetoric often aired by Fox.

“At Crikey, we strongly support free speech and public interest journalism,” Beecher and Fray wrote.

The two men said they decided to publish all of the legal requests and accusations made against Crikey by Murdoch’s attorneys, along with the site’s responses, “so that people can judge your allegations for themselves.”

Fox News faces a pair of libel lawsuits in the United States

The flap comes at the same time Fox News is publicly invoking the ideals of free speech as it seeks to defend against two multibillion-dollar libel lawsuits brought by election tech and voting machine companies in the USA.

In response to both lawsuits, Fox News said “freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and must be protected.”

And the network called the damages sought – more than $4 billion combined – “nothing more than a blatant attempt to deter our journalists from doing their job.”

One day after Crikey In political editor Bernard Keane’s June 29 column alleging a link between Fox broadcasts and Trump’s actions, Lachlan Murdoch’s Australian media lawyer John Churchill sent a memo threatening libel suits and demanding apologies.

Churchill argued that Crikey had made an “unwarranted attack” by personally linking Murdoch to the January 6 attacks that was “malicious and aggravates the evil”.

Crikey took the job, saying he was doing it out of courtesy. But there was no apology, and earlier this month, Crikey reposted Keane’s column.

Its leaders told the Sydney Morning Herald that the episode was just one of many moments in which Murdoch had sought to intimidate the news site.

Former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt is sworn in during a hearing of the select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol in Washington, DC on June 13.

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Former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt is sworn in during a hearing of the select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol in Washington, DC on June 13.

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Australia remains key to the Murdochs

Australia plays a recurring and central role in the many Murdoch family dramas, both personal and professional.

Lachlan’s father, Rupert Murdoch, was born there and built his wealth there through a small diary granted to him by his father in Adelaide. Nearly two decades ago, Lachlan moved to Australia, seeking to make his own mark, when he left his father’s Manhattan-based media empire due to infighting. Lachlan’s wife is Australian. He holds Australian citizenship and considers Australia his home.

Although Lachlan has returned to the fold and is once again helping run the family media empire, he has moved with his wife and children to Sydney during the pandemic. They still live there.

In defending its coverage of unproven claims of voter fraud involving Dominion Voting Systems and voting technology companies Smartmatic, Fox Corp and Fox News argued that the network was merely covering up newsworthy, albeit false, claims made by President Donald Trump and his allies.

Republican and Democratic election officials at the local, state and federal levels concluded that there was no significant voter fraud in the 2020 presidential race. Trump-appointed justices were among dozens who spoke out against the Trump campaign in its legal challenges to the presidential election results.

Similarly, New York-based Fox News general counsel Bernard Gugar filed a formal complaint last September against a two-part documentary program. Four corners on the Australian Broadcasting Corp, called “Fox and the Big Lie”.

The documentary focused on Fox’s coverage after the 2020 election, which it said spurred Trump’s false claims. But Gugar claimed the documentary was biased and fake.

His very first objection: the fact that he said he relied on “insiders” in the network. He noted that the six former Fox News staffers interviewed by the ABC included people who left as early as 2016 and 2017, as well as its former political director, who was fired several months after the election. (Fox sparked Trump’s fury when his policy office was the first to predict he would lose Arizona on election night in November 2020.)

According to two people with knowledge of the matter, the complaint was dismissed by the CBA’s internal unit which reviews outside objections. Fox then filed its objections with the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the regulator that oversees broadcasting there. The regulator has yet to respond.

The Crikey column that triggered the spat

The latest clash between the Murdochs and the Australian press hinges on a June 29 column by Crikey political editor Bernard Keane, inspired by revelations from the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 uprising.

Keane made two references to a Murdoch, although it was unclear whether the first pointed to Lachlan or Rupert.

The column’s headline, no doubt a work of political commentary, calls Trump a “confirmed unhinged traitor” and goes on to say “Murdoch is his unindicted co-conspirator.”

The last line of the column reaches a grand rhetorical crescendo to argue for moral culpability for the Murdochs: “The Murdochs and their slew of venomous Fox News commentators are the unindicted co-conspirators of this continuing crisis.”

Churchill, Fox and Murdoch’s attorney, argues that linking the Murdochs to such violent acts is unfair, inaccurate and ultimately defamatory.

Fox’s attorneys have taken the first steps toward filing such a lawsuit against Crikey. In Australia, such cases are much easier to win than in the United States

“We don’t want to be intimidated by Lachlan Murdoch anymore,” Crikey‘s Fray tells NPR. “We thought it was important to stand up for free speech and independent journalism – something Lachlan Murdoch, his father Rupert and his grandfather have stood for over the years.”

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