Australian news website Crikey has challenged Lachlan Murdoch to sue for libel over an article it published alleging that the Murdoch family were linked to the US Capitol riots.
Private Media, which owns Crikey, has published an open letter in the New York Times and the Canberra Times, as well as on its own site, calling on Murdoch to follow through with his legal threat after he accused the news site of defaming him. It has also published a series of letters sent between its lawyers and Murdoch’s legal representatives on the Crikey website.
Will Hayward, chief executive of Private Media, told the Financial Times that it had no choice but to defend itself against the legal threat from the chief executive of Fox Corporation as it stood by its reporting.
“Imagine if the strongest precedent set in defamation law is one with Murdoch as a litigant,” he said. The approach taken by Murdoch differs from that of his father Rupert, who has not sued rival media publishers over coverage of his media empire or his personal life.
The spat with Crikey is one of a growing number of legal issues arising from Fox News broadcasts in the weeks following the 2020 US election, which repeated former president Donald Trump’s false claims about the election.
Fox News, the Murdoch family and several prominent presenters are facing multibillion-dollar lawsuits from Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems, two voting technology companies that were dragged into conspiracy theories after the election. Fox News has said the suits threaten the right of journalists to report newsworthy claims.
Murdoch’s outlets have recently cooled on Trump, with Fox News giving him less air time. Murdoch-owned newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Post have also scolded Trump for failing to act against the Capitol riots.
The Crikey column at issue was written by its political editor Bernard Keane on the Capitol riots in Washington, DC. It was originally published on June 29 but was removed the next day after the legal threat was first made.
The column focused on Trump and his alleged role in the riots, following evidence presented by the January 6 committee. It closed with references to Fox News commentators and “the Murdochs”, alleging that the family were “unindicted co-conspirators” in the crisis of democracy caused by Trump.
This triggered the legal threat delivered by Murdoch’s lawyer John Churchill, who accused the website, its owner and the journalist of defamation and asserted that the alleged imputations in the article were false. A series of letters show the news site was willing to make concessions to appease Murdoch’s concerns but also maintained its position on the Capitol riots.
The legal letter also quoted Murdoch from an annual media lecture honouring his grandfather in 2014 when he said “a free media must be dependent on no one for favours”.
Murdoch’s lawyers continued to push for a “genuine apology” to be issued by the website and alleged that Crikey had run dozens of “baseless” articles about their client.
Following media reports of the legal dispute, Crikey reacted by republishing the column last week. “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,” it said in an open letter.
Hayward said the move to challenge Murdoch’s accusations in court “isn’t without risk” because of the resources that the billionaire has at his disposal and the financial implications for the company if it loses. “But if Crikey doesn’t push back then what’s the point,” he added.
A representative for Murdoch declined to comment.