Judge issues mixed order in Murdoch suit against Australian blog

An Australian judge says an online publisher that is being sued by the head of Fox Corporation can play clips from the Fox News Channel at an upcoming trial on the matter.

On Friday, Judge Michael Wigney declined to dismiss a lawsuit brought against the website Crikey by Fox Corporation chief executive Lachlan Murdoch over a commentary piece that was published by the blog earlier this year.

That piece, titled “Trump is a confirmed unhinged traitor and Murdoch is his unindicted co-conspirator,” claimed the Fox News Channel continued to allow former U.S. President Donald Trump to make unsubstantiated claims of election fraud on the cable network, even after it was proven Trump lost the 2020 presidential race.

Crikey Columnist Bernard Keane ultimately colored the Murdoch family “and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators” to be “unindicted co-conspirators of this continuing crisis,” suggesting the matter was comparable to the Watergate scandal and drawing comparisons between the Murdochs and former president Richard Nixon.

Outraged by the column, Murdoch fired off a stern letter to Crikey’s editors, demanding an apology and that the column be retracted. He threatened a lawsuit if editors did not acquiesce. When they didn’t, he went through with his threat, suing Keane, Crikey’s parent company Private Media and publisher Eric Beecher for defamation.

Earlier this month, an attorney representing the blog asked for Murdoch’s lawsuit to be tossed out, arguing that the column fell under the public interest exemption of Australia’s anti-defamation law.

On Friday, Judge Wigney refused to dismiss the lawsuit, saying Private Media’s defense was “ambiguous” and that Murdoch should be allowed to present evidence at trial if he feels he can prove that the column was intended to harm his reputation.

But he granted Private Media’s request to introduce clips from the Fox News Channel at trial, despite an attempt by Murdoch’s lawyers to block them from coming in. Earlier this month, attorneys representing Lachlan said forcing a jury to screen clips from the network would waste time, an argument that the judge didn’t buy.

In his decision, Judge Wigney said he was not convinced that Murdoch had proven that the Fox News clips were “demonstrably irrelevant” to Private Media’s assertion that the column was in the public interest. The clips are likely to include partial or complete segments that aired on the news channel’s prime time programming, including “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Hannity.”

A tentative trial date has been set for March 2023.

The case comes at a pivotal time for the Murdoch family: Last week, Fox Corporation affirmed its board of directors had formed a special committee to explore a possible recombination with publishing arm, News Corp, after receiving letters from founder Rupert Murdoch and the Murdoch family trust. (The Murdochs own both companies, but they are incorporated as separate businesses after Fox split from News Corp in 2013.)

At the same time, the Murdoch and Fox Corporation find themselves on the other end of a defamation lawsuit filed last year by Dominion Voting Systems over unfounded theories about potential voter fraud that were explored by some Fox News commentators and their guests immediately after the 2020 election. Dominion is seeking a judgment of at least $1.6 billion against a limited liability corporation (LLC) that bears the Fox News name and that is owned and operated by Fox Corporation through its Fox News Media subsidiary.

Neither defamation lawsuit is a slam dunk for either side, but the lawsuits could cause headaches for the Murdoch family and their companies should Fox Corporation make a bid for News Corp. The deal will almost certainly going to face scrutiny by regulators in the United States, and the lawsuits could complicate efforts to merge the two businesses if they are not resolved beforehand.