The most powerful person in traditional media globally is Rupert Murdoch, the Australian owner of hundreds of media outlets, including The Times, Sunday Times and The Sun in the UK, and of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post in the US, plus a string of Australian titles.
The feather in his cap, though, is Fox News, the absurdly right-wing US TV channel that faithfully sided with Donald Trump in his bid to undo the 2020 US presidential election results by claiming electoral fraud.
Murdoch may no longer be the outright owner of 21st Century Fox entertainment businesses, having sold his main interest for US$66 billion in 2017 to Walt Disney, but the defamation saga currently being played out in the US is worthy of a new silver-screen feature on the backroom politics of media moguls and their minions.
The main story would be about what a mogul might do to stay on top and then, when faced with a US$1.6 billion lawsuit, just who gets fed to the lions in order to save the family silver. The backstory would be Trump’s attempt to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
If you are a movie buff, the brilliant, Oscar-winning Citizen Kane (1941, black and white, about the making and undoing of a US newspaper magnate) would be near the top of your list of classic films. And there too would be multi-Oscar-winning All the President’s Men, the 1976 cine account of how the icons of modern journalism Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post successfully followed a trail to uncover the Watergate scandal and bring down a corrupt president.
Then Republican President Richard Nixon’s re-election team organised a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, stole sensitive documents and wiretapped the place. The subsequent White House cover-up, which involved bribery sanctioned by the president and other abuses of presidential power, brought down the re-elected Nixon.
Of course, Trump lost the 2020 election despite claiming it was rigged, but the plot thickened in an unexpected way – good plots always surprise – when Dominion Voting Systems, the company that owned the electronic voting technology, filed a suit against Fox News for defamation by allegedly “recklessly” broadcasting false claims of a fraudulent election system that has damaged the company’s reputation. Now, $1.6 billion is a lot of money, even for 92-year-old Mr Murdoch, the last remaining 20th-century media baron, with an estimated net worth of US$21.7 billion (March 2022), one of the richest 100 people in the world.
In defence of Fox News, a barrage of e-mails and other documents have been released in the current pre-trial stage to show that Fox Corporation chairman Murdoch and Fox News executives and producers, behind the scenes, disbelieved Trump’s claims.
However, damningly, Fox broadcast them anyway in order to keep Trump and valuable advertisers onside. Even Tucker Carlson, who appears to be the most unbelievably ardent Trump on-screen supporter, promoting Trump’s conspiracy theories, was apparently against the former president – he sent an internal company message declaring, “I hate him passionately.” He understood that not supporting Trump could make a lot of their viewers disappear. For that reason he buried his feelings over the “destroyer” Trump, his “disgusting” behaviour, and the “demonic force” that he is.
Murdoch himself, who is known to be actively involved in the news agenda of his media companies, replied, “No,” when asked if he believed that Dominion tried to steal the election for Trump, but he opined that Fox presenters had gone overboard in endorsing Trump’s charges.
For its part, Fox accuses Dominion of attempting “to trample on free speech and the freedom of the press.”
This raises two important questions: when can we trust the media to tell us what they know to be true?; and what is the significance of their not doing so?
The role of the profit motive is the key element of this Fox media crisis. Dominion has alleged that the lies were good for Fox’s business, and there may be evidence of it. The then Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon messaged a colleague, “More than 20 minutes into our flagship evening news broadcast and we’re still focused solely on supposed election fraud…It’s remarkable how weak ratings makes good journalists do bad things.”
And the more important observations between the two executives: “What’s most worrisome is that there doesn’t seem to be much conflict,” to which Sammon responded, “What I see us doing is losing the silent majority of viewers as we chase the nuts off a cliff.”
The lack of a profit motive is the single most important argument in favour of a national broadcaster funded by taxpayers, free of the pressure to misinform in order to pay its bills while the silent majority remains helpless to stop the rot.
In Britain, where the Conservative Party (the party of business) persistently seeks to subjugate the BBC, non-BBC broadcasting organisations argue that the BBC benchmarks the entire industry, keeping it on the straight and narrow. They know freedoms are not automatic; they have to be cared for.