Murdoch cases: best to do nothing

The disappointment – especially among people in the media – at the settlement of the defamation action between Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems was almost audible. 

Murdoch has just bought his way out of accountability, they wailed. When will he ever be brought to account?

In Australia, the disappointment ran deeper because it was followed by the abandonment of the defamation action against the online news outlet Crikey brought by Fox Corporation chief executive Lachlan Murdoch over an article titled: “Trump is a confirmed unhinged traitor. And Murdoch is his unindicted co-conspirator”.

Both cases were about the same thing: the role of Fox News in knowingly publishing lies about the results of the 2020 US election and asserting Donald Trump won but was not declared winner because of various conspiracies to rig the voting and that Dominion’s voting machines were part of it.

The reason for the abandonment of the Australian case looked decidedly like the reason for the settlement of the US case: to prevent Rupert and his son Lachlan having to go into the witness box and answer uncomfortable questions about the unethical conduct of their business.

Essentially, that was knowingly publishing the lies because that was what their audiences wanted to hear. And if those audiences were not fed those lies, they would tune in to other channels at great financial cost to the Murdoch media empire.

The business model was the exact opposite of that of pre-internet media. In those days the ideal model was that media organisations would do their best to present accurate news so they could build up trust with their audiences who would remain loyal so circulation and ratings and the concomitant advertising revenue stayed high.

Clearly, the internet has put paid to that model. The source of revenue is no longer carefully accumulated trust through accurate and truthful reporting. Rather it is built upon the instantaneous gratification and self-reinforcing of the audience members’ world view – however inaccurate or twisted that might be.

If disabusing that audience with facts and the truth would result in the loss of the audience and with it the advertising revenue, then, under the new model, facts and the truth would have to take back seat to the perpetuation of the lies.

How does a democracy bring to account those who thrive on the new model so that it can be stamped out? Not very easily because the cure could be worse than the disease.

In Australia, defamation law is a nightmare. It hampers investigative reporting, enabling wrong-doers to continue wrong-doing longer than they should, or indefinitely. Now suggestions of tighter privacy laws, with penalties, will make things even harder for the media and easier for wrong-doers to hide behind.

Adding some broad government-run body to monitor truth in news reporting poses too much danger, however independent it might be.

The great majority of institutional wrong-doing in Australia is first uncovered by media, not proper authorities: banks; war crimes; robodebt; aged care; child abuse and so on. It is worth putting up with the Murdoch empire’s misuse of media power rather than to do anything that would make real investigative journalism harder.

The solution, of course, would be for more people to see the tendentiousness of almost everything published by that empire and cancel their subscriptions.

But while ever there is a rump of fools who enjoy being duped that will not happen and the Murdoch empire will continue to sell them what they want to hear, though they might have to be more careful about who they allege is involved.

Yes, many would have enjoyed seeing the Murdochs and their henchpeople in the witness box. And it is a shame that the private litigation that promised to do that could be settled or stopped.

As it happens, the Dominion defamation case could not happen in Australia because, fortunately, companies that employ more than 10 people cannot take defamation cases, though they could take an action for “injurious falsehood”. The requirements for that are similar to the requirements for a successful defamation action in the US – proof by the plaintiff that the defendant knew of (or was reckless about) the falsity of the material and published anyway.

That is what the judge found in the preliminary hearing in the Dominion case. It would be a good test for defamation in Australia, instead of putting all the onus on the defendant.

That said, the Dominion and Murdoch cases tell us one thing for sure: that like all rich and powerful people, the Murdoch hate humiliation more than the average person.

We saw that in 2012 when a parliamentary inquiry in Britain exposed the role of the Murdoch-owned News of the World in the phone-hacking scandal. Forced to give evidence at the inquiry, Rupert Murdoch blamed “one or two very strong individuals” at the paper, without naming them.

“I also have to say that I failed,” he said of the fact that he did not pay enough attention to the problem of phone hacking. He then paused a long time before finally continuing: “And I am very sorry for it.”

He was very uncomfortable. But the lesson he and his henchpeople learned was not that they should not do it again, but that they should avoid that sort of “witness-box” cross-examination ever again – at all costs, even $1.2 billion.

Perhaps it is a testament to the Murdoch empire’s power in Australia that the call for a Royal Commission into Murdoch influence by two former Prime Ministers – the Liberals’ Malcolm Turnbull and Labor’s Kevin Rudd – and half a million petition signatories has come to nothing.

Ultimately, though, it comes back to voters and media consumers. We are fortunate in Australia that we have compulsory voting and more people are willing to see through the self-serving tripe dished up by various Murdoch News Corporation entities.

Australia is not like the US where Donald Trump’s following is impervious to truth and cannot be offended by being faced with it without political costs and costs to audience size. As more Australians wake up, News Corporation outlets here are shrinking into an ever-smaller, irrelevant echo chamber and taking a lot of the Liberal Party with them.

So, despite much disappointment with the Dominion and Crikey outcomes, it would be best to do nothing in response.

Crispin Hull 

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 25 April 2023.

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