Rupert Murdoch described allegations that the 2020 US election was stolen from Donald Trump as “damaging” and “crazy” even as his Fox News channel continued to air the claims, according to filings from a defamation lawsuit against the network.
The billionaire media mogul, who owns Fox, repeatedly emailed his concerns to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott during the chaotic weeks and months following the election, as some US states took days to count votes and Trump railed that the process was rigged, according to the filing.
The messages were part of a court filing from voting technology group Dominion asking a Delaware judge to rule in its favour on a $1.6bn defamation claim brought against Fox for defamation in March 2021.
In recent months the company deposed Murdoch as well as several central figures at the network about its election coverage, in which some Trump allies, including lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, claimed that voting machines made by Dominion were rigged and that the company had worked for Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan leader.
On November 19 2020, during a press conference given by Giuliani and Powell in which they alleged there was “mass cheating” in the election, Murdoch wrote: “Terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear,” according to messages cited in the filing. Scott replied: “yes Sean [Hannity] and even [Jeanine] Pirro agrees,” referring to two Fox primetime hosts.
In a separate email, with the subject line “Watching Giuliani!” Murdoch wrote: “Really crazy stuff. And damaging.”
In the court filings on Thursday, Dominion’s lawyers depicted Fox News as scrambling to cover the election while revealing internal concerns that its right-leaning audience were waning after Trump lost the vote.
Fox News said in a statement responding to the filing: “There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners, but the core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v Sullivan.”
Fox added that it was unable to file a full response to the court until February 27.
The 192-page motion filed by Dominion, which is partially redacted, contained multiple instances of the 91-year-old Murdoch expressing concern over Fox’s coverage of the election, as did numerous other executives, producers and presenters.
“Very hard to credibly claim foul everywhere,” Murdoch wrote to Scott on November 6, as votes were still being counted but the results were looking favourable for Biden. “If Trump becomes a sore loser, we should watch Sean [Hannity] especially and others don’t sound the same.”
On November 8, the day after Fox and others called the election for Biden, Murdoch emailed Scott: “Getting creamed by CNN! Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it.”
After Fox News continued to air allegations of election fraud, star host Laura Ingraham’s producer texted a Fox executive: “This dominion shit is going to give me a fucking aneurysm,” according to the filings.
The filings quoted fellow Fox host Tucker Carlson as telling Ingraham on November 18: “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane.” Ingraham responded: “Sidney is a complete nut.”
On January 5 2021, Murdoch told Scott, “It’s been suggested our prime time three” — a reference to Hannity, Carlson and Ingraham — “should independently or together say something like ‘the election is over and Joe Biden won’”, and that such a statement “would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election [was] stolen”.
The day after that email, Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in Washington and attempted to stop the official election result being certified.
At some point after the deadly riot, Murdoch told Scott: “All very well for Sean [Hannity] to tell you he was in despair about Trump but what did he tell his viewers?” the court filings said.
Scott forwarded the email to another Fox executive, stating: “I told Rupert that privately they are all there — we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers but they know how to navigate.”
Legal experts say Dominion faces an uphill battle, due to strong US constitutional protections around discourse about matters of public interest. A judge has scheduled a jury trial for later this year.
Dominion has filed several defamation cases in the aftermath of the 2020 election, alleging that its business was severely damaged by false claims of election fraud. Other defendants include Powell, Giuliani and conservative news outlets OAN and Newsmax.
Another election machine maker, Smartmatic, has filed similar lawsuits.