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  1. The Weekend Report
22 April 2023

What Rupert Murdoch vs Dominion reveals about his UK empire

The media magnate has been spared court. But the legal evidence offered extraordinary insights into his influence.

By William Turvill

It is almost 12 years since Rupert Murdoch, then a sprightly 80, was hauled before MPs to answer questions about the phone-hacking scandal that had infected his UK newspaper business. On 19 July 2011 he told a select committee, “This is the most humble day of my life.” Just nine days earlier, he had published the final edition of the News of the World, his first British newspaper, after it emerged that private investigators working for the paper had intercepted the voicemail messages of the missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler. 

Last week, Murdoch faced another chastening prospect. Dominion Voting Systems, the company whose tech was used to count votes in 28 states for the 2020 presidential election, had filed a $1.6bn defamation lawsuit against his US television network, Fox News. The suit alleged that Fox had disseminated Donald Trump’s claims that the election was “stolen” and votes rigged, while knowing they had no basis in fact.

On Monday 17 April dozens of reporters gathered at a courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware, for what was predicted to be a six-week trial. As Fox chairman, Murdoch was due to be called as a witness – but at the eleventh hour decided to settle, paying out $787.5m. Outside the courthouse, Dominion CEO John Poulos told reporters that, “Fox has admitted to telling lies… that caused enormous damage to my company, our employees and the customers we serve.”

But while Murdoch may have avoided humiliation, the case has damaged the 92-year-old. Dominion’s lawyers had forced Fox to release hundreds of internal documents, including email exchanges between Murdoch and his most trusted lieutenants. In January, Murdoch was deposed to take part in an interview with Dominion’s lawyers. This was not public, but a revealing redacted transcript was made available to reporters. 

[See also: Time for Rupert Murdoch to trade his empire for a legacy]

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Together, these documents provide a fascinating window into the inner workings of Murdoch’s empire, including his newspaper arm, News Corp. They reveal how his orders filter through his outlets, and how he gradually turned against Trump after the 2020 election. They show that, shortly before the US Capitol was stormed on 6 January 2021, Murdoch had suggested that Fox News’ key presenters state clearly that Joe Biden had won the election. In an email to chief executive Suzanne Scott, he wrote: “It’s been suggested our prime-time three should independently or together say something like, ‘The election is over and Joe Biden won. We are all disappointed. But it happened. We love America and have to turn the page.’”

The statement was never made. Murdoch now faces an even larger defamation suit of $2.7bn from Smartmatic, another US election technology company, which may have been strengthened by this week’s settlement. On Friday 21 April, Murdoch’s eldest son Lachlan – the executive chairman and chief executive of Fox – dropped a defamation suit against the Australian news site, Crikey, for writing that he had been an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the US Capitol insurrection.

Nearer to home, what do these lawsuits tell us about Murdoch’s power and influence in the UK? Is he an increasingly remote figure, more interested in the bottom line than the politics? Simon Jenkins, who edited the Times between 1990 and 1992, told me the Murdoch he knew was not a “political animal; he was a power animal. Rupert Murdoch has no ounce of political sophistication in him. I don’t think he’d quarrel with me saying that.” Jenkins said that Murdoch had given him just one instruction: “I’m appointing you to get rid of the Independent.”

He believes that Murdoch began investing in US media in the 1970s because he felt disrespected in Britain. “Largely because he owned the News of the World and acquired the Sun, which had been a Labour-supporting, middle-of-the-road newspaper, and he turned it into the Sun we know today. I can’t imagine a person less likely to appeal to a St James’s Club toff than Rupert Murdoch. And eventually he got fed up with it and went to America, where they understood him much better.” Jenkins felt that, in America, Murdoch’s political line shifted further to the right. “When he was in Britain, he supported Labour, he supported the Conservatives, he simply supported the person who was most likely to win an election.”

Other British editors, such as Jenkins’ predecessor at the Times, Harold Evans, have recalled a far more interventionist Murdoch. The former deputy editor of the News of the World Paul Connew told me: “He probably took more of an interest in suggesting policy lines on politics, as opposed to anything else, with the tabloids.”

In the material gathered for the Dominion case, both sides of Murdoch – the merely power-hungry, and the more details-oriented – were revealed.

[See also: New Cabinet Office transparency data reveals Rishi Sunak’s dinner with Rupert Murdoch]

In early November 2020, Murdoch found himself marooned in the UK. Wary of catching Covid-19, and restricted by Boris Johnson’s lockdown rules, the billionaire media mogul holed up with his fourth (and now ex-) wife, the model Jerry Hall, in the English countryside. On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans were beginning to cast their votes for the presidential election. 

Hall, an American 25 years his junior, was “extremely anti-Trump”, Murdoch told Dominion’s lawyers in his deposition. He was leaning towards the Republican candidate. Back in September 2020, after completing his daily read through the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal (which he owns), Murdoch had emailed a friend to wonder, “How can anyone vote for Biden?” The recipient of that email was Colin Allan, a former editor-in-chief and then-adviser to the New York Post (also owned by Murdoch), which became the only major US newspaper to endorse Trump for a second term in the White House. When asked in his deposition about this email exchange, Murdoch explained: “I was stuck in Britain. Bored in the country.” The conversation also included a pledge by Murdoch that Fox News would be “banging on” about issues relating to Biden.

As the election neared, Murdoch appeared to feel increasingly disconnected from the US – sometimes literally. He was struggling to tune into his own TV channel, Fox News. “I constantly asked our IT people to come out and fix it, and they didn’t,” Murdoch complained in his deposition. America voted on 3 November but, according to Murdoch, his IT people – no doubt constrained by Covid-19 restrictions – didn’t fix his Fox News problem until 6 November. Even then, his connection was “sporadic”. 

In the same interview, Murdoch made it abundantly clear that he had become fed up with lockdown life in rural England. (Murdoch and Hall had reportedly based themselves in a Grade II-listed Georgian house near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.) Asked whether he had had much time to strategise about Fox News in December 2020, he responded: “Probably. I had lots of time. I was stuck in bloody England.” Asked how he followed the news, Murdoch replied: “I read my newspapers a lot more than I watch television.” Which newspapers did he read? “The Wall Street Journal, the London Times, New York Post. Those are the only ones I follow.” Conspicuous by its absence was the Sun, the newspaper Murdoch bought in 1969 and with which he is most closely associated in the UK. (Once a cash cow, it is still weighed down by the legal costs incurred since the News of the World hacking scandal, and made a £127m loss last year.)Asked what other news outlets he followed, Murdoch named the Drudge Report, the right-wing US aggregation site, and the Sun‘s biggest rival. “I look at the Mail Online,” he said, “a bit of gossip, that sort of stuff.” 

[See also: Iraq made Donald Trump inevitable]

The image Murdoch projected throughout his deposition was of a modest, if extremely well-connected, businessman with a geeky interest in current affairs. “I’m a journalist at heart,” he said. “I like to be involved in these things.” Asked about the nature of any conversations with Trump earlier in his presidency, Murdoch said: “I don’t remember specifically many. But I admit I am a bit of a political junkie, and a news junkie.” He then recalled congratulating Trump on his decision to take America out of the Paris climate agreement in 2017. And in 2020, he said, he had warned Trump to take Covid-19 seriously: “You better be careful. It is a big deal.” To which the then-president had apparently responded, “Well, some people say that.” 

Even under pressure, his deadpan Australian sense of humour was in evidence. A Dominion lawyer, seeking to establish Murdoch’s influence over Fox, began, “Sir, you are one of the most successful businessmen this century…” to which he interjected: “I wish that was true. I gambled on a couple of things. And often failed. But the average was OK.” The lawyer persisted, suggesting that when Murdoch spoke, people listened. “I don’t really think so,” he replied, adding that his influence was “greatly overestimated”. Was his influence with Fox overestimated? “By the outside world, yes.” 

Late in his interview, a lawyer suggested to him that, as a result of Fox News’ promotion of conspiracy theories, some Dominion employees had received death threats. “You know what,” said Murdoch, “I don’t believe they are getting death threats today any more than I am. I have death threats. I’ve had people murdered near me.” It is not clear who he was referring to.

He appeared to draw a distinction between two arms of his empire, with Fox News and the New York Post on the one hand, and the Wall Street Journal on the other. While he clearly plays a role in directing the former two, including by contributing to New York Post editorials, the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages appear to be off limits. “I don’t interfere,” Murdoch said when asked. 

Evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 showed that Murdoch took a similar approach in the UK. While he admitted to exercising some editorial control over the Sun and the News of the World, he told the inquiry he would not give “instructions” to the editors of the Times and Sunday Times.

His former editor Simon Jenkins backed this assessment. “I was running the Times [in 1990] when Thatcher fell and Major took over. Rupert really didn’t give a damn. He was in America at the time. And I remember saying to him, ‘We’re going to support John Major,’ to which his response was: ‘Who’s he?’ He didn’t care that much about politics.” But at the News of World, he took a keener interest, Paul Connew recalled. “[He] would ring up most weeks, usually on a Friday or a Saturday, to find out what the big stories were and what you were splashing on. He probably took more of an interest than he did with the Times and Sunday Times.” 

[See also: The unexpected folly of prosecuting Donald Trump]

A somewhat different picture of Murdoch emerges from the email exchanges released as part of Dominion’s lawsuit. A news and politics junkie? Yes. A journalist? Not in the traditional sense. A man with limited influence over his news organisations? Certainly not. 

On 24 and 25 September 2020 Murdoch exchanged emails with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, about a Biden presidential ad campaign that was about to go live. Murdoch judged the ad to be “extremely good. Or I think so! Will send it.” At his deposition, Murdoch admitted that it appeared he had agreed to give Kushner access before the campaign went public. “I was trying to help Mr Kushner,” he explained. “He’s a friend of mine.” In mid-October 2021, Murdoch apparently contacted Kushner again, to tell him “more stuff on Biden was coming”. When questioned about this, Murdoch speculated that he may have been referring to a New York Post investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Biden’s son, Hunter. 

In the days after the election, Murdoch exchanged emails with senior colleagues including his son Lachlan, the Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott, News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson, and Allan of the New York Post. On 6 November, three days after the vote, Murdoch emailed Allan to say that a speech by Trump in which he had spoken of an election “steal”, was half good, half “bullshit and damaging”. He added: “With several states now disappointingly favoring [sic] Biden, hard to claim foul everywhere.” 

On 7 November both Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch gave their approval to a New York Post editorial, calling for Trump to concede. The older Murdoch corrected a typo and edited a description of China, changing the emphasis from “perhaps America’s most dangerous enemy” to “perhaps America’s most dangerous rival”. The following day he emailed Scott to note that Fox News was “getting creamed by CNN! Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it. Hard enough for me!” He exchanged emails with Scott on 9 November about Pfizer’s breakthrough Covid-19 vaccine – “People will be hungry for every detail. What if it happened two weeks earlier!?” – and the pair agreed on the need for Fox News to “pivot” coverage, presumably away from the election, to keep viewers happy. 

On 14 November Thomson emailed Murdoch a link to an article that lent some credibility to claims of voter fraud and suggested it was “too early to declare a winner”. Murdoch responded: “OK. But where’s the evidence?” Two days later, in an email to Scott, Murdoch predicted that Trump would “concede eventually” but added that, in the meantime, “we don’t want to antagonize [him] further”. (Fox News had upset Trump supporters on election night by becoming the first news channel to declare Biden had won Arizona.) 

In fact, Trump continued to claim that he had been robbed. On 19 November Murdoch emailed a friend, Saad Mohseni, the chief executive of the Dubai-headquartered broadcaster Moby Group, to share that Trump appeared “increasingly mad” and that he was “apparently not sleeping and bouncing off walls”. In early December Trump floated a plan not to attend Biden’s inauguration but to instead hold his own gathering in Florida for people who believed his claims of fraud. Murdoch described this as “horrible” in an email to Scott. In late December, a New York Post front page called on Trump to “stop the insanity”. Murdoch emailed Allan to say he thought Trump had read it. 

Murdoch emailed Scott on 5 January with his (unheeded) suggestion that Fox presenters state that Biden had won the election. When Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol the following day, many US commentators suggested that Fox News should accept some responsibility. Two days later, Murdoch exchanged emails with a friend and former Fox executive, Preston Padden. “I love you like a surrogate father/older brother/uncle. Working for you was the highlight of my career,” Padden told Murdoch, but added: “For what it’s worth, I do think Fox News needs a course correction.” Murdoch responded that he was a “flatterer”, adding that Fox News was “very busy pivoting” and that “we want to make Trump a non-person”. 

On 11 January Anne Dias, a board member, emailed both Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch to say that, because Fox had become a “megaphone for Donald Trump, directly or indirectly, I believe the time has come for Fox News, or for you Lachlan to take a stance.” Lachlan responded by emailing his father twice to suggest they should discuss. He signed the first email, “Love you”, and the second, “Xx”. Murdoch responded: “Yes. Just tell her we have been talking internally and we intensely [sic] along these lines, and Fox News, which called the election correctly, is pivoting as fast as possible. We have to lead our viewers which is van [sic] not as easy as might seem.”

[See also: G7 Energy and Environment Ministers Meet in Japan Amid Fears of Weakened Climate Ambition]

What now for Rupert Murdoch, his family, and his news businesses? A recent Vanity Fair profile documented a number of recent health issues, but Murdoch is fond of reminding people that his mother, Elizabeth, lived to 103. His fifth engagement, to 66-year-old Ann Lesley Smith, was called off a couple of weeks after it was announced. James Murdoch, his former heir apparent, quit the family business in 2020 and has since been critical of Fox’s climate coverage. Lachlan is thought to be Rupert’s chosen successor, but would he want it? Michael Wolff, the author of the Murdoch biography The Man Who Owns the News, told me: “I don’t think, frankly, that Lachlan wants the job. James Murdoch will probably take it from him, or his sisters. The remnants of the empire will be sold.”

Still, in his own deposition interview, Lachlan talked a good game. “Journalism is about a quest, a search, for the truth,” he said. “Good journalists should not report known falsehoods as fact.” But there are questions over his commitment to the entirety of the business. Like his father, Lachlan described himself as a “news junkie” who reads newspapers – but when asked which ones, he listed the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Post, and sometimes the Washington Post and the Australian. There was no place, then, for the Sun or even the Times, although a News UK source said Lachlan was engaged with the business and would be visiting London this summer. 

As for Rupert Murdoch, I’m told that the feeling at the top of News UK is that he retains a strong interest. News Corp has expanded the Sun’s digital operations, notably within the US, and launched TalkTV last year. Murdoch is said to call London most days to speak to Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News UK, and/or his newspaper editors. It may well be that the “bloody England” he complained of in his deposition was a specific reference to November 2020, a period when the UK was in and out of lockdown, and before a Covid vaccine had been developed. 

Clearly, though, all is not rosy. There is more trouble on the horizon in the form of Smartmatic’s defamation suit, along with its threat of another court appearance for Murdoch. Speaking over the phone from outside the courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware, last week, Michael Wolff gave me his verdict: “I think Rupert Murdoch is an unhappy guy. I think everything that he kind of wanted has turned to shit. He wanted a family dynasty – well, that’s gone. He wanted an empire – well, that’s gone, too.”

Read from the UK, Wolff’s assessment may sound hyperbolic. Murdoch remains the proprietor of three influential newspapers – the respected (and increasingly profitable) Times and Sunday Times, as well as the Sun, which continues to strike fear into its political opponents. Murdoch sold off his stake in Sky five years ago, but has since built a new broadcasting portfolio, including TalkTV and Virgin Radio. However, as his emails, deposition and “bloody England” comments suggest, the UK likely plays second fiddle to the US. And in America, his name and reputation are now inextricably linked to the damaged brand that is Fox News.

[See also: Graham Allison interview: “American politics is driving towards a provocation that China could not avoid”]

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