A small independent news website in Australia is taking on the Murdoch empire, buying a full-page ad in the New York Times inviting Lachlan Murdoch to sue them over an alleged defamation.
In dispute is an apparent opinion piece, and associated social media posts, published by Crikey.com.au in June headlined: “Trump is a confirmed unhinged traitor. And Murdoch is his unindicted co-conspirator” – analysing the 6 January insurrection by supporters of defeated presidential candidate Donald Trump. In legal letters published by Crikey, lawyers for Lachlan Murdoch argue the publications contain “scandalous allegations of criminal conduct and conspiracy” and carry a number of “highly defamatory and false imputations about him”.
Written by Crikey’s politics editor, Bernard Keane, the 29 June piece mentions the Murdoch name twice: in the headline and in the closing paragraphs.
The article is largely concerned with the evidence of former White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson to the US House select committee on the January 6 attack. Hutchinson did not mention Murdoch in her testimony.
Having discussed Trump’s continued peddling of the “big lie” that he won the 2020 US presidential election – he lost 306 electoral college votes to 232, and the popular ballot by 7m votes – Keane argues “the world’s most powerful media company” continues “to peddle the lie of the stolen election and play down the insurrection Trump created”.
Keane argued former US president Richard Nixon was infamously the “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Watergate scandal and drew an analogy that “the Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators are the unindicted co-conspirators” in the events of 6 January.
The piece does not name Lachlan Murdoch individually.
In the letters sent to Crikey, and published by the independent news site Monday afternoon, lawyers for Lachlan Murdoch, patriarch Rupert’s eldest son and chief executive of Fox Corporation, argued he was personally identifiable by the article and he was defamed. They allege the publication of the article was “malicious” and “manifestly indefensible”.
“The imputations are false and are calculated to harm Mr Murdoch, both personally and professionally, and should not have been published,” an initial notice of concern said.
Among 14 imputations the article is alleged to carry are: “Mr Murdoch: illegally conspired with Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 presidential election result; … illegally conspired with Donald Trump to incite a mob with murderous intent to march on the Capitol; … was a co-conspirator in a plot with Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election result which costs people their lives; has conspired with Donald Trump to commit the offence of treason against the United States of America to overturn the 2020 election outcome; … should be indicted with the offence of being a traitor to the United States …”
A further nine imputations are alleged to have been made through a Facebook post and a tweet.
Through its lawyers, Crikey responded that the article does not mention Lachlan Murdoch at all and that the threatened defamation action “is bound to fail”.
“There can be no credible argument that the article conveys … for example, that your client was engaged in a conspiracy to incite a mob with murderous intent, or that he was aware of how heavily armed the attendees would be at the insurrection,” Crikey said. “Any such imputation relies on a thoroughly strained and contorted interpretation of the words of the article.”
In response to the initial complaint, Crikey initially agreed to remove the piece from its website and deleted a related tweet and Facebook post – but after failing to reach agreement has since reinstated the piece live.
In extensive legal correspondence, published by Crikey, the news website refused to apologise but offered to not republish the original article, pay Murdoch’s reasonable legal fees and publish an “editorial statement” clarifying its position and arguing the article did not convey the imputations alleged by Murdoch.
The proposed statement repeated the contested paragraphs regarding the Murdoch family and detailed the full list of defamatory imputations claimed by Murdoch. The proposed statement said that Crikey does not agree that the original article makes the imputations alleged: “There is no evidence that Mr Murdoch did any of the things described above. Crikey does not say that [Murdoch] did any of them.”
“Crikey does believe that Mr Murdoch bears some responsibility for the events of January 6 because of the actions of Fox News, the network he leads. However, Crikey does not believe that he was actively involved in the events of that day as the things described above would suggest.”
The offer to publish the editorial statement was rejected by lawyers for Murdoch.
“It must be obvious … that the reference to Mr Murdoch in the article was unfair and should not have occurred. An available inference is that Crikey persists in seeking to increase its readership by making unfounded ‘headline’ allegations about my client,” the lawyers said. “This inference is open given the previous false articles that have appeared on the Crikey website about Mr Murdoch and the senselessness of the inclusion of his name in the article.”
Crikey’s open letter, published as an ad in the New York Times and the Canberra Times, said “we at Crikey strongly support freedom of opinion and public interest journalism”.
“We want to defend those allegations in court. You have made it clear in your lawyer’s letters you intend to take court action to resolve this alleged defamation.
“We await your writ so that we can test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom.”
One of Crikey’s legal letters cited Murdoch’s own words in his 2014 Keith Murdoch Oration (Keith Murdoch was his grandfather), when he argued “a free media must be dependent on no one for favours” and that censorship in any form “erodes our freedom to know, to be informed, and to make reasoned decisions in our society and in our democracy”.
Crikey’s editor-in-chief, Peter Fray, told the Guardian his organisation stood by Keane’s reporting and that defamation laws were being used in Australia to silence the media and stifle legitimate and vital debate.
“We need to ask: what is going on here?” Fray said. “What’s going on is these laws are being used to stop a legitimate piece of news analysis linking the actions of Fox with what happened in Washington DC on January 6, that’s what’s going on.”
A spokesperson for Murdoch declined to comment.
In letters published by Crikey, lawyers for Murdoch rejected Crikey’s claims that the piece was in the public interest saying “the article was not ‘a legitimate exercise of press freedom and freedom of speech’ about a matter of ‘critical public importance’. Given it was removed within about 40 minutes of the provision of the concerns notice, we infer that Crikey fully comprehends this. In fact, it was an example of Crikey reporting on a topic (the evidence about Trump in the house select committee) and seeking to draw Mr Murdoch into the quagmire of allegations about the former President and impugn him by association”.
They go on to say that Murdoch “is not seeking to dictate stories” and “has only raised complaints when the falsities are egregious. Nor has he been unreasonable or intimidatory”.
The letter said Murdoch “does wish to resolve the matter with Crikey as he has successfully done so in the past … the only issue between the parties is the provision of a genuine apology”.
Crikey and the Murdochs have form.
In April last year, Crikey withdrew an article written by the site’s founder, Stephen Mayne, which made a series of claims about Lachlan Murdoch’s time on the board of Channel Ten. The article was found to have contained a series of mistakes, and Crikey agreed to “keep the current apology on the homepage for 14 days”.
In September 2020, Crikey was also forced to apologise for comparing Murdoch to an organised crime boss.