Inside Lachlan & Rupert’s Defamation Endgame

The Murdochs
The Murdochs. Photo: Max Mumby/Getty Images
Eriq Gardner
July 25, 2022

“Just how big a deal are these Fox News cases, really?” That’s a question I’m being asked a lot these days, as the Dominion Voting libel suit, along with a similar case by Smartmatic, prepares to go to trial. The two voting machine companies are, after all, seeking billions of dollars in damages over their claims that Fox’s lies about the 2020 election destroyed their businesses. That’s a sizable chunk of change, even for the Murdoch family. I have my own theory about how this all ends, of course. But let’s start with the current state of play, and the latest twists, in what could become the biggest libel case against a media company in American history.

The first thing to understand about these libel suits is how invasive they are for Fox News. The network has already turned over minute-by-minute ratings charts, emails about ratings, MyPillow advertising revenue, most communications with the White House, internal documents that include mentions of both “Trump” and “election,” and so forth. But that’s not good enough, say Dominion’s lawyers, who are demanding to see Sean Hannity’s texts. They are also wondering why, after providing nearly a half million documents about their company, that Fox has only offered thousands of their own. A discovery referee agreed, and pushed Fox to keep digging. Meanwhile, the potential witness list is getting personal: James Murdoch was recently served a subpoena for documents and a deposition next month. Dominion wants to see communications between him and his father; between him and his brother Lachlan Murdoch; and anything that precipitated his decision two years ago to leave the News Corp board (a separate Murdoch-controlled company).

For its part, Fox News is preparing for next year’s trial by adding Dan Webb to its legal team. A former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and now co-executive chairman at Winston & Strawn, Webb is perhaps best known in media circles for leading Beef Products Inc. to a huge settlement, worth at least $177 million, in the “pink slime” libel suit against ABC News. (Interestingly, his former teammate in that case, J. Erik Connolly, is spearheading Smartmatic’s lawsuit. Connolly once called Webb his mentor.) This time, Webb is on defense and is preparing to tell a jury that when the President of the United States issues statements about how a voting tech company helped steal the election, that’s “newsworthy”—and that the responsible thing for any news organization is to report the allegations first, ask questions later.