The 19th of July, 2011 was Rupert Murdoch’s “most humble day” To date, at least. On that day in 2011, the most powerful media magnate in the world was summoned to appear before the Culture and media committee of Parliament as the phone hacking scandal engulfed his UK newspaper operations.
The final straw was the revelation that the News of the World had listened to murdered adolescent Millie Dowler’s voicemails.
Its tragedy continues to reverberate, and the story of phone hacking is far from over.
Murdoch’s damage limitation strategy was expeditious at the time. He closed the 168-year-old newspaper and privately apologized to the Dowler family.
Since he arrived in London in the late 1960s to purchase the News of the World, he has held such sway over Britain’s media. This humiliating one-liner was imposed upon the man.
“This is the most humble day of my life,” he told MPs (with the drama of the event enhanced by his then-wife Wendi Deng launching herself at a protester who had assaulted her husband with a custard pie).
Now, Murdoch has been forced into yet another humiliating retreat, this time regarding his enterprises in the United States.
Once again, the Murdoch empire’s approach to the truth is under scrutiny.
Fox News argued that it was fighting a court case against voting machine manufacturer Dominion to protect the First Amendment right to free expression.
Instead, it appeared that, in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election in the United States, the network replaced fact-based journalism with fiction.
We already know, based on emails and messages published by Fox News in February as part of a court case, that many Fox executives and presenters did not believe claims of voter fraud but broadcast them anyway.
It appears that the network continued to give a platform to those who agreed with Donald Trump and his supporters that the election had been hijacked in order to avoid upsetting its viewers.
Just before rioters invaded the US Capitol in January 2021, Suzanne Scott, the chief executive officer of Fox News Media, cautioned Rupert Murdoch against “pissing off the viewers”
Now that 7,000 documents are in the public domain, there has already been a great deal of detrimental information to digest.
Huge questions persist regarding the influence of Fox News and its broadcasts on the apparent schisms tearing the United States apart. Truth has taken a back position, and the consequences are still being felt.
Perhaps the prospect of confronting yet another public humiliation, this time in court, was the final straw for Murdoch. Fox’s attorneys failed to convince the magistrate that he should not be required to testify.
Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan, executive chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation, would have been required to testify.
It is evident that Dominion’s attorneys would not have accepted a one-liner from the media magnate.
“The most humble day of my life” would have been insufficient. It would have been extremely humiliating.
As a result, Rupert Murdoch reached a last-minute settlement whereby Fox will pay Dominion $787.5 million (£634 million).
Although the case was never tried and the Murdochs were never called to testify, the reputational harm is comparable to that of the hacking scandal.
So where does this leave the man who has long been an integral part of the media landscape in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia?
Murdoch’s empire was founded on ruthlessness and risk-taking, whether it was his victory over the print unions in the early days of his ownership of the Times and Sunday Times or his determination to establish the right-leaning Fox News, which is credited with helping Trump win the 2016 election.
His detractors will celebrate the Dominion settlement.
Jake Tapper, a CNN presenter, described it as “one of the ugliest and most embarrassing moments in the history of journalism” on CNN, stating that it was difficult to report the outcome “with a straight face”.
Moreover, this is not the conclusion of the story. Smartmatic, another voting software company, is also suing Fox for its coverage of voter fraud. It may be even more expensive. Smartmatic seeks more defamation damages than Dominion: $2.7 billion (£2.2 billion).
In the United Kingdom, the Murdoch empire has already compensated victims of phone hacking with tens of millions of dollars.
Prince Harry is a member of a group suing Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, which includes the Sun, for alleged phone hacking.
How detrimental will this be?
The $787.5 million payout to Dominion is astronomical. However, Fox’s revenue in the fourth quarter of 2022 was $4.6 billion (£3.7 billion), and the share price has scarcely budged as a result of the settlement.
There may be a lesson to be learned from 2011. The horrific story of the News of the World’s exploitation of Millie Dowler’s murder felt like a turning point to many at the time.
It cost the empire dearly in the near term, but Murdoch’s influence has only grown since then, despite the ongoing effects of phone hacking and financial costs.
He is 92 years old. He has also recently endured a personal humiliation. A few weeks after announcing his engagement and his intention to spend the “second half of our lives together,” he canceled his wedding plans.
But if we’ve learned anything over the past fifty years, it’s that Rupert Murdoch is not to be underestimated.