On September 21 2023, Rupert Murdoch unexpectedly announced his retirement from the Fox and Fox News Corporation boards, leaving son Lachlan with the keys to the kingdom. Even though Lachlan was announced as the heir in 2019, after the sale of Fox’s entertainment assets to the Walt Disney Company, we can expect a real-life Succession-style battle to play out in coming years.
While the shock retirement of the 92-year-old media baron marks the end of an era for one of the world’s most influential media organisations, the announcement has no doubt been in the making for decades.
Since Rupert Murdoch inherited his first paper, The News, from his father, in Adelaide, back in 1952, he has exercised significant influence on first Australian and then global politics. Over those 71 years, he has not been immune to controversy – which crescendoed into a full-blown crisis during the 2020 US election scandal.
Earlier in 2023, we did a deep investigation into the fallout from Fox News’s reporting of those election results, Donald Trump’s reaction and finally the assault by Trump supporters on the Washington Capitol Building. Here’s how it all played out.
Donald Trump has been indicted four times. The latest, filed in August 2023, alleges that the former President of the United States, along with 18 others, led a conspiracy to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory in the state of Georgia.
The indictment alleges that the defendants “refused to accept that Trump lost, and they knowingly and wilfully joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favour of Trump.”
But Trump’s apparent refusal to accept the election result caused problems long before the indictment. In fact, it was the driving force behind his now-fractured relationship with Rupert Murdoch.
For years Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump had enjoyed a mutually rewarding relationship. A lifelong admirer of mavericks and outsiders, Murdoch prided himself on having spotted Trump’s voter appeal when virtually the entire US political establishment saw the gaudy Manhattan real estate tycoon as a joke. In response to Rupert’s backing, Trump had steered his millions of loyal followers towards Fox News – “the only channel you can trust,” he would say – helping to make it the most watched and profitable TV network in America. But on election night 2020, the relationship crashed to earth, leaving Fox News faced with a thunderous lawsuit.
At 11.20pm on election night, leaping ahead of other networks, Fox made an audacious prediction that Trump was losing the key state of Arizona, and with it, most likely, the election, and from that moment began a fateful chain of events that has left the most prized asset in Murdoch’s multibillion-dollar empire facing a battle for survival.
Today Murdoch’s legacy is under threat from a massive lawsuit brought by the company which makes the voting machines used in American elections. Dominion Voting Systems, in a lengthy deposition lodged before a court in Delaware, claims that in the weeks after November 3, Fox – in a desperate bid to hold on to its angry and disappointed pro-Trump viewers – deliberately broadcast false claims that its machines were rigged to secure a win for rival candidate Joe Biden.
The firm wants a record US$1.6 billion in damages – a figure that could go even higher if a jury decides that Fox executives showed “actual malice” in putting out the broadcasts. Emerging from the pre-trial manoeuvrings is a gripping portrait of a network in crisis as Rupert and his top aides – Lachlan, 51, who jointly runs Fox Corporation with his father, and Suzanne, 57, a cool, blonde survivor of several previous controversies – struggled with the fallout from the election.
On the night of the election, Trump, then 74, and his ex-model wife, Melania, were in the grand East Room of the White House, confidently schmoozing hundreds of guests, including cabinet secretaries, ambassadors and officials – all keeping a keen eye on the Fox TV monitors. Then came the Arizona announcement and a stunned silence.
According to guests who were present, including reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times, Trump erupted with rage.
“Get that bulls*** result changed,” he told his chief of staff Mark Meadows, who put in a series of desperate calls to Fox.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in- law and senior advisor, describes in his book, Breaking History, how he called Rupert personally to complain.
“Sorry, Jared,” the media mogul told him. “Our numbers are ironclad. It’s not even close.”
By the following morning Fox’s prediction had been vindicated, but what Trump saw as a public humiliation and betrayal would have profound consequences.
The defeated president’s fury quickly spread to his followers. On conservative social media platforms a ‘Boycott Fox’ campaign formed, and from America’s Trump-voting strongholds came a rolling thunder of outrage. Being the first network to correctly “call” a presidential election is a valued prize in American broadcasting – but in going so early, Fox gave the impression it had given up on its own candidate.
“For most of Trump’s time in office it was almost impossible to overstate the closeness of the relationship between Fox News and the White House,” wrote The Washington Post later. “To the Trump base, Fox was their network. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.”
Back in New York, Rupert and his lieutenants found themselves in full crisis mode. Millions of viewers were switching off or defecting to other conservative channels. In a November 8 memo to Suzanne, revealed in the court filings, Rupert warned that rival network CNN was “creaming us” in the ratings, and called for “a long talk” about what to do. Lachlan, according to the court papers, told fellow executives he couldn’t sleep at night, and star presenter Tucker Carlson, host of a popular right-wing chat show, bluntly warned his bosses: “Trump is a demonic force. He could easily destroy us if we play this wrong.”
What was decided in the “long talk” has not been disclosed, but the Dominion suit essentially alleges that to juice up its fading ratings Fox decided to highlight the Trump camp’s claims that the election was rigged.
Even before the votes were counted, Trump had been warning of a plot, hatched by his enemies, to “steal” the election, and now began upping the ante with outlandish claims of mass ballot-rigging, rogue counting machines, voting papers being dumped in landfill sites and the deployment of body doubles.
One of his most vocal complaints was about the widely used electronic voting machines made by Dominion. Without citing any evidence, Trump claimed the machines had “flipped” 2.7 million of his votes to Biden.
As the days went by these claims began to figure prominently, and with little obvious scrutiny, on Fox’s shows. One regular guest was Sidney Powell, a Trump campaign lawyer, who, in a series of bizarre on-air allegations, claimed that the voting machines had been designed on the instructions of Hugo Chávez, the late Marxist dictator of Venezuela, and secretly programmed to switch millions of Trump votes to Biden.
“We’re getting so much evidence of this fraud it’s like it’s coming out of a fire hose,” Sidney excitedly told Fox host Maria Bartiromo. The court filings reveal that the “evidence” was given to her by a mysterious “time- traveller in a semi-conscious state”. Even so, she was booked for several other prime-time Fox interviews.
Inside Fox HQ the turmoil continued. Documents lodged with the court suggest that even while the claims were being aired, many of the network’s biggest names believed there was no substance in them.
“Sidney Powell is nuts,” Fox’s $15 million-a-year show host Laura Ingraham messaged to her fellow star presenters Tucker Carlson ($12 million) and Sean Hannity ($40 million) on November 15.
“She’s lying,” agreed Tucker, while Fox’s Senior Vice President Raj Shah called the allegations “mind blowingly nuts”, and from on high, Rupert concurred: “Crazy stuff,” he texted to Suzanne. “Damaging to everyone, I fear.”
Yet by now the boss was facing a terrible dilemma. Just as it seemed clear that the fraud allegations were baseless, so it was equally clear that Rupert’s audience was panting to know about them. Lou Dobbs, another popular Fox presenter, found his ratings more than doubled when he brought on guests to back what Trump was calling the “Big Steal.”
“It’s all our viewers want to hear about,” a senior producer texted Tucker, who bitterly replied: “I just hate this s***.” Trump happily rubbed salt in the wounds. “Fox News daytime ratings have completely collapsed,” he tweeted. “Weekend daytime even WORSE. Very sad to watch this happen, but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose.”
In the midst of this chaos, the nearest thing to a cool head belonged to Suzanne. The daughter of a trucking company manager, she had joined Fox at its launch in 1996 as a program assistant, and worked her way up the career ladder, becoming CEO in 2018. Widely credited with steadying the ship after the tumultuous ousting of her larger-than-life predecessor Roger Ailes after a sexual harassment scandal, she had grown increasingly close and valuable to the Murdochs.
Personally, Suzanne clearly didn’t believe the fraud claims either. “We shouldn’t be giving the crazies an inch,” she warned in a memo, and colleagues recall her scoffing at the suggestion of Trump getting the election result overturned.
As the crisis deepened, Suzanne sought advice from two of Fox’s most respected news anchors, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. “We’re getting bombarded,” Bret told her. “It’s getting really hurtful.”
“There’s been a tremendous amount of backlash,” agreed Martha. “More than any of us anticipated.” Every opinion sounding Fox took showed that huge numbers of Trump voters thought both that the election was a fix, and that Fox had let them down. And they wanted their views heard.
So, who did think it was a good idea to give “the crazies” airtime?
Rupert claims it wasn’t him, although he revealed in a deposition that he speaks to Suzanne every day and still attends editorial meetings. “I’m a journalist at heart,” he said. “I like to be involved in these things.” At the same time he downplayed his reputation as the all-powerful puppet master, appearing at one point to blame Fox’s presenters, saying: “Maybe Sean and Laura went too far.”
Lachlan claims it wasn’t him either.
“I’m not responsible for the editorial on Fox News,” he said. “I don’t make editorial decisions on Fox News. For me to criticise or to endorse or even talk about a Fox News opinion piece, I think it becomes very challenging. And I think it’s ultimately the wrong thing.”
Rumours that Suzanne might have to take the corporate fall have proved unfounded, with Fox recently reiterating its confidence in her. Tucker, Sean, Maria and the rest of the presenting line-up remains intact, and apart from a few minor resignations and firings, Fox looks much as it always did.
But now the real battle begins.
In its lawsuit, Dominion alleges: “Fox took a small flame [of disinformation] and turned it into a forest fire. The truth matters. Lies have consequences. Fox sold a false story of election fraud in order to serve its own commercial purposes, severely injuring Dominion in the process. If this case does not rise to the level of defamation by a broadcaster, then nothing does.” The firm says that as a result of Fox’s “orchestrated defamatory campaign” it suffered “enormous and irreparable economic harm” and that its employees had been subjected to death threats.
Fox contends that it was merely reporting allegations made by the president and members of his staff, and so doing its job as a news organisation. “Dominion,” it says in a forthright response, “does not even try to argue that a reasonable viewer would fail to understand that the vast majority of the statements it challenges were ‘mere allegations’ … not proven facts.”
In the course of his immense career Rupert has survived many scandals – the publication of the faked ‘Hitler Diaries’, the phone hacking affair in Britain, and a scathing indictment by an Australian Senate committee. He has a thick skin, a fighting instinct, and after 70 years in business doesn’t intend to fold now. “This time, this time …” pray his many detractors, but the word from within is that Rupert has everything worked out. Television, he says, isn’t really his thing. “Personally, I prefer newspapers.”