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Dominion to depose Fox boss Lachlan Murdoch as defamation suit heats up

Lachlan Murdoch is set to be deposed in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News
Drew Angerer
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Getty Images
Lachlan Murdoch is set to be deposed in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News

It's press-shy Lachlan Murdoch's turn in the spotlight.

On Monday, at the offices of a powerhouse Los Angeles law firm, the head of Fox News' parent company — and son of its founder — is scheduled to be deposed under oath. He will face questions about his knowledge of the wild and false allegations the network presented about a voting tech company's role in then President Donald Trump's loss in the 2020 elections.

The deposition represents the apex — to date — of the witnesses assembled by Dominion Voting System's legal team as part of a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit filed in Delaware Superior Court. Despite supporting Trump throughout his presidency, Lachlan and his father Rupert Murdoch refused to force Fox News to retract its projection that Joe Biden would win the key state of Arizona on Election Night 2020 in the face of intense pressure from the Trump camp.

A slew of Fox News guests and hosts - among them Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, and Maria Bartiromo - slammed Dominion Voting Systems for weeks afterward, breathlessly suggesting and even baselessly asserting it committed election fraud. Dominion says Fox was trying to win back the Trump loyalists who abandoned Fox after the election. And the voting tech's attorneys have worked its way up the ranks, deposing Fox News staffers from junior producers to those star hosts to network executives.

"It's an orchestrated effort," Dominion attorney Justin Nelson argued at a court hearing back in October. "It's not just on the part of each host individually, but it's across Fox News as a company." And, he said, that applied to Fox Corporation as well. Dominion's suit notes that countless local, state and federal officials and dozens of court rulings have validated the election as clean and fair.

Now attention swings upward to Lachlan Murdoch, Fox Corp's executive chairman. Such legal proceedings can prove fraught, legal authorities say.

"Reputations can be made and broken in moments like this," says Charles Elson, an attorney who is the founding director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. "If you prove not to be credible, that's a problem. If you prove to have acted in a sloppy manner, that's an issue too."

An unwelcome challenge to Lachlan Murdoch at a charged moment

The lawsuit represents an unexpected and unwelcome challenge to Murdoch - legally, potentially financially, and, as Elson suggests, professionally.

He and Rupert, the 91-year-old patriarch of the family's media empire, are intent on reuniting their broadcast and print empires despite some signs of mounting shareholder opposition. And Lachlan's three eldest siblings — Prudence, Elizabeth and James — are said by associates to be skeptical of Lachlan as the appropriate heir to lead their family's holdings after their father's death.

The move to once more combine the print and television holdings — News Corp and Fox Corp — are in large part a means for Lachlan to consolidate power before his father is no longer on the scene. The four older Murdoch children will then together control the family trust, which holds about 40 percent of voting stock. James, who left his position on the board of News Corp in July 2020 over the editorial direction of the Murdoch empire, was deposed in October.

Rupert Murdoch led Fox News for nearly two years after the Murdochs ousted then-Fox News chairman Roger Ailes over a sexual harassment scandal.

The elder Murdoch also struck a political alliance with Trump, though he has cooled on the former president, signaling in private and through his media outlets that he wants to see another generation of Republicans to rise.

Meanwhile, Lachlan Murdoch's free speech credentials have been somewhat muddied in his father's native country of Australia, where Lachlan moved his family during the pandemic; he is suing the political news site Crikey there for an opinion column calling the Murdochs "unindicted co-conspirators" in the January 6, 2021, siege of the U.S. Capitol for the vitriolic rhetoric of many of Fox's stars and guests.

According to court filings, the Dominion attorneys' deposition of Lachlan Murdoch "will continue from day to day (Sundays and holidays excluded) until complete, unless otherwise agreed."

Fox News's defense embraces the mantle of freedom of the press

The only major figure Dominion has not yet questioned is Rupert Murdoch. That is expected to happen before the end of the year.

Fox News has embraced the mantle of freedom of the press, calling this a nuisance suit and saying it expects to prevail. "There is nothing more newsworthy than covering the President of the United States and his lawyers making allegations of voter fraud," Fox News Media said in a statement for this story.

And it has invoked the journalistic standing of Hannity, in seeking to shield him from another round of questioning under oath. Under prior federal and Delaware court rulings, journalists have some protections against revealing sources and information in court. Hannity was one of Trump's most prominent champions on the air and one of the former president's closest advisers off the air.

During his Aug. 31st deposition, which lasted more than seven hours, Hannity was grilled about the episode of his program that ran on November 30, 2020. It featured Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell, who was condemned, among others, by a federal judge in Michigan for abusing the court system in her challenges to the 2020 election results. Dominion is also seeking the court to force Powell — in a separate case in Washington, D.C. — to produce documents involving her communications with Fox News.

Attorneys for Fox assert that an absolute journalistic privilege protects Hannity's conversations and communications with confidential sources as Dominion tries to force additional testimony from Hannity. Hannity is not himself a defendant in the case. Fox's legal filings note he has not waived his own claims of journalistic privilege.

Hannity has declared "I'm not a journalist"

Over the years, Hannity has publicly characterized himself in a series of contradictory ways. He has not only a strong conservative point of view but also a partisan bent; he has been chided several times by the network for campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates and conservative causes. "I'm not a journalist," Hannity said in fall 2016, in defending himself for giving Trump gentle treatment in the dozens interviews he conducted that election season. "I'm a talk show host."

Similarly, earlier this year, Hannity sought to knock down criticism of his repeated private exchanges with top Trump White House aides, including Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, after they surfaced in the House Select Committee's investigations into the January 6 siege of Congress.

"Yes, I'm a member of the press," Hannity told viewers of his program in April, "I'm on the Fox News Channel, which is a news channel, but I don't claim to be a journalist. I claim to be a talk show host."

He said he is capable of doing investigative reports and continued, "I am a registered conservative. Yes, I voted for Donald Trump. I make no apologies, I give my opinions straight-forward. We even do culture, we do sports – I'm like the whole newspaper."

Lachlan Murdoch typically characterizes Fox News as a "center-right" news organization. Fox draws a sharp distinction between its reporting and news shows with its point-of-view programming. Yet in recent years the network has jettisoned hours of news shows or relegated them to less-prominent time slots. And many outside observers — including former Fox News journalists — argue that Fox's hard-right tilt greatly influences its news shows as well.

Of late, Fox News and Dominion have sparred over whether Fox host Jeanine Pirro should have to give testimony anew after Dominion objected to her refusal to answer some questions about her texts. Dominion won the right for its lawyers to question her under oath further on Nov. 23rd. As NPR first disclosed, Dominion, in the discovery process for its lawsuit, acquired an email from a producer begging colleagues not to allow Pirro on the air after the 2020 election, saying she was spreading unfounded conspiracy theories plucked from unreliable websites. Pirro has recently been promoted to become a co-host of the popular weekday show, The Five.

Arguments over allegations that evidence was destroyed

Fox and Dominion are wrangling over other grounds as well. Fox News is arguing for sanctions against Dominion, alleging the company destroyed evidence: electronic messages of CEO John Poulos and senior executives Waldeep Singh and Kay Stinson. Such destruction is called "spoliation." Fox is asking for dismissal of the case, monetary punishments and other legal measures.

In a statement for this story, Fox News wrote: "Dominion's potential spoliation is not central to Fox's ability to make our case, but it should be noted that courts have found that intentional, bad-faith spoliation of evidence is an abuse of the judicial process and warrants a sanction. It is our intention to provide all relevant and material evidence in this matter."

A spokeswoman for Dominion replied, "This meritless claim is a distraction and will not impede Dominion from moving the case forward based on its merits. We intend to hold Fox accountable for its reckless disregard for the truth and are confident the truth will ultimately prevail."

Maddy Lauria contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.