Lachlan Murdoch’s decision to sue Australian media outlet Crikey for defamation is big news by anyone’s standards. What a coincidence then, that it’s not big news in Murdoch media outlets.
Lachlan Murdoch announced his decision to sue independent media outlet, Crikey, for defamation on August 24. This decision came after Crikey challenged the media mogul to follow through with his threats to sue in a full page advertisement in the New York Times.
Lachlan Murdoch claims a commentary piece written by Bernard Keane defamed him because he referred to “Murdochs” and “Fox News commentators” as “unindicted co-conspirators” in the insurrection of the US Capitol by Trump supporters who claimed the election was rigged.
This case is fascinating for a range of reasons. Unlike in Australia, the US legal system does not usually allow high profile people like media moguls and politicians to sue for defamation because philosophically, Americans value freedom of speech, particularly when it comes to holding power to account. That is presumably why Lachlan Murdoch hasn’t tried to sue US media outlets for defamation, despite the fact, as Bernard Keane pointed out, many have made similar accusations as he did about Fox News and the violent US insurrection.
The other fascinating element of the case is that it’s usually journalists and their media outlets who are staunchly opposed to the silencing effect of defamation law, rather than the ones who use it to silence others. Journalists usually value freedom of speech, arguing they should not be threatened by powerful people they hold to account. Yet, in this case, a powerful media outlet is trying to silence a much smaller competitor, and in turn is threatening anyone else who critiques them.
This case therefore has broad implications for Australian media’s freedom, journalists’ ability to critique power, and raises questions about how defamation laws can be used to limit news media from holding power to account.
The news that Crikey was being sued led to huge public interest. The outlet trended on Twitter, and was able to quickly raise over $400,000 for their defence fund.
You would expect the defamation suit to be huge news in Australian media too. And it was – at some outlets. But in a stunning coincidence, the Murdoch media in Australia were almost silent about Lachlan Murdoch’s lawsuit. In fact, The Australian, Murdoch’s national newspaper which supposably is meant to report on issues of national significance, has not even mentioned the case. Not once.
And that brings me to another case of defamation that has not been mentioned in The Australian – Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation case against Murdoch’s Fox News. Dominion is seeking a whopping $1.6 billion in damages against Fox Corp.’s Fox News and Fox Business, claiming the company’s reputation was damaged when various commentators claimed Dominion voting machines were used to rig the 2020 US election.
This defamation case is fascinating for all the same reasons as the Crikey versus Murdoch case. Despite the US system’s First Amendment protections which usually give media outlets cover from such defamation proceedings, Dominion has successfully brought the case to court in an attempt to show that Fox News hosts made repeated falsehoods which hurt their reputation.
Indeed, the Murdochs seem very aware of these First Amendment protections, having hired a lawyer – Dan Webb – to fight this case who is a First Amendment expert. A statement by Fox News emphasised the value the company places on a free press, saying Webb’s experience would be valuable to their legal team: “ensuring the protection of the First Amendment and the fundamental right to a free press remain intact”.
This fundamental right, apparently, does not fundamentally extend to Crikey’s right to hold Murdoch accountable for exactly the Fox News commentary about the election that the Dominion case is focused on.
If your head is spinning at the hypocrisy and contradictions around these cases, you’re not alone. Perhaps this is why The Australian has decided to pretend that neither case is happening, and to exit the field on the subject of freedom of speech and the important role journalists play in holding power to account. It is apparently too much to ask that journalists and editors at The Australian even report about their owners’ defamation proceedings, let alone stand up for Crikey’s right to free speech, and to hold power to account in all its forms – including media power.