Australian news site Crikey has challenged Lachlan Murdoch to sue for defamation over an article he published alleging the Murdoch family was linked to the US Capitol riots.
Private Media, owner of Crikey, published an open letter in The New York Times and Canberra Times, as well as on its own site, calling on Murdoch to follow through on his legal threat after accusing the news site of defaming him. He also posted a series of letters sent between his attorneys and Murdoch’s legal representatives on the Crikey website.
Will Hayward, chief executive of Private Media, told the Financial Times that he had no choice but to defend himself against the legal threat from the chief executive of Fox Corporation as long as he stood by his reports.
“Imagine if the strongest precedent set in defamation law is the one with Murdoch as a litigant,” he said. Murdoch’s approach differs from that of his father Rupert, who did not sue rival media publishers for coverage of his media empire or personal life.
The spat with Crikey is one of several legal issues stemming from Fox News broadcasts in the weeks following the 2020 U.S. election, which repeated former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the election.
Fox News, the Murdoch family and several high-profile anchors are facing multibillion-dollar lawsuits from Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems, two voting technology companies that were embroiled in post-election conspiracy theories. Fox News said the lawsuits threaten journalists’ rights to report newsworthy allegations.
Murdoch’s outlets have recently gone cold on Trump, with Fox News giving him less airtime. Murdoch-owned newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post have also chastised Trump for failing to act on the Capitol riots.
The Crikey column in question was written by its political editor Bernard Keane about the Capitol riots in Washington, DC. It was originally posted on June 29 but was deleted the next day after the first legal threat.
The column focused on Trump and his alleged role in the riots, following evidence presented by the Jan. 6 committee. It ended with references to Fox News commentators and the “Murdochs,” alleging the family were “unindicted co-conspirators” in the Trump-induced democracy crisis.
This sparked the legal threat made by Murdoch’s lawyer, John Churchill, who accused the website, its owner and the journalist of defamation and claimed that the accusations alleged in the article were false. A series of letters show the news site was willing to make concessions to assuage Murdoch’s concerns, but also maintained its stance on the Capitol riots.
The legal letter also quoted Murdoch at an annual media conference honoring his grandfather in 2014 when he said “a free media should depend on no one for favors.”
Lawyers for Murdoch continued to press for a ‘sincere apology’ to be issued by the website and alleged that Crikey had published dozens of ‘baseless’ articles about their client.
Following media reports of the legal dispute, Crikey responded by reposting the column last week. “We want to defend these allegations in court. You have made it clear in your lawyer’s letters that you intend to take legal action to resolve this alleged defamation. We await your subpoena so that we can test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom,” he said in an open letter.
Hayward said the decision to challenge Murdoch’s charges in court “is not without risk” because of the resources the billionaire has at his disposal and the financial implications for the company if it loses. “But if Crikey doesn’t grow back, then what’s the point,” he added.
A representative for Murdoch declined to comment.