‘Fox/Sky’ looks like a done deal but the goings-on at Fox News keep rocking the boat.

Your know your channel is in big trouble when 18 advertisers/sponsors don’t want their names mentioned anywhere near your biggest talent because of a sexual harassment scandal. Not to mention the arrival of the third law suit from black female members of staff alleging racial discrimination. Those are just some of the problems facing Rupert Murdoch at Fox News in New York. Just as well that here in the UK the deadline has now passed for submissions to Ofcom on the proposed acquisition by Twenty-First Century Fox,Inc of the shares in Sky plc does it not already own. My own view from the start has been that this is a process that politically needs to be seen to be done and that the deal will go through.
So if I was Rupert Murdoch I would now be asking ‘would those people at Fox News please stop rocking the boat’. The problem is that he’s very much the captain of that particularly troubled ship and that there are definitely echoes of the phone-hacking scandal.
The DCMS Secretary,Karen Bradley, has asked Ofcom to report by 16 May on three issues:
1. ‘The need, in relation to every different audience in the United Kingdom or in a particular area or locality of the United Kingdom, for there to be a sufficient plurality of persons with control of the media enterprises serving that audience’
2.’The need for persons carrying on media enterprises, and for those with control of such enterprises, to have a genuine commitment to the attainment in relation to broadcasting of the standards objectives set out in section 319 of the Communications Act 2003’
3.Ofcom has an ongoing duty under the same Act ‘to be satisfied that the holders of broadcast licences are fit and proper to be licensed’.
The argument for letting the deal go ahead is that last time round in 2011 all the regulatory hoops had been jumped through and it was only the politics triggered by phone-hacking at Murdoch’s papers that did for his long cherished ambition to bring all his broadcasting assets in the US,UK,Germany and Italy under one corporate roof. Since 2011 Murdoch’s share of the UK media has got smaller and his empire is now divided into separate though connected print and TV companies. In addition Ofcom’s metrics for measuring Murdoch’s share of the cross-platform news cake have always been arguable.
On the ‘fit and proper test’, Twenty-First Century Fox already has Ofcom licences in the UK for TV channels  and Ofcom has never previously suggested Fox were not ‘fit and proper persons’ so why now?
So if the regulatory course is set for a smooth run what’s the problem? Simply put it is that the wider lessons of last time don’t seem to have been learned and at the Fox News Channel there are beginning to be parallels with the phone-hacking affair. That has possible implications for the ‘commitment to broadcasting standards’ part of the Ofcom brief.
We even have a potential candidate for the investigative role played in revealing phone-hacking by the Guardian reporter Nick Davies. His name is Gabriel Sherman and his work is well worth following at @gabrielsherman. Sherman is a contributing editor at New York magazine and a regular broadcaster, sometimes at Fox News’s left-of-centre equivalent MSNBC.
In 2014 Sherman wrote a best-selling biography about the founding CEO of Fox News Channel,Roger Ailes, called ‘The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country’. This alleged that Ailes had offered a television producer a pay increase if she would sleep with him. Fox News strongly denied the allegation. Since then Sherman has chronicled the subsequent goings on at Fox News.
In 2016 a former Fox News anchor,Gretchen Carlson, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes. Ailes denied it. New York magazine later reported that after an internal review of the evidence against Ailes, Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James decided Ailes had to go but couldn’t agree on the timing. Then one of the network’s stars Megyn Kelly, perhaps best known outside the U.S. for confronting Donald Trump with his own attitude to women, told investigators that Ailes had made “unwanted sexual advances toward her” at the start of her career.
New York magazine reported that the Murdochs had given Ailes an ultimatum—resign by August 1 or be fired. He resigned and reportedly received a pay-off of 40 million dollars. Rupert Murdoch succeeded him as chairman and as interim CEO.
In a recent interview on the ‘Trumpcast’ podcast ( also recommended) Gabriel Sherman offered these thoughts on what Murdoch wants to do with Fox News:
‘Fox News was the one part of his empire that for much of its history he really had very little to do with. His relationship with Roger Ailes was chummy at times but there was a competitive aspect to it and Ailes throughout his nearly 20 years running Fox News created a lot of headaches for Murdoch.
‘Now that Ailes is gone,what I hear from people inside Murdoch’s world is that he wants to show everyone that Roger Ailes was not as central as people like to think and that Rupert Murdoch really had the guts and the foresight to create Fox News. He’s spending all of his time now working out of Roger Ailes’ former office, he personally decided to promote Tucker Carlson to the 9 o’clock show , so this is Murdoch’s time to put his stamp on Fox News. He would like nothing more than to show Roger Ailes ’listen under my watch the ratings were actually better than when you ran Fox News’.
‘Since Trump’s ‘inauguration there has been a very strategic direction from the top down by Rupert Murdoch that Fox will be the in-house channel for the Trump White House. All stories have be filtered through the prism of whether they help Trump or not.’
Sherman thinks that this is partly driven by Murdoch’s wish to beat Ailes’ ratings but partly very personal. He says Murdoch has never had a close relationship with a recent US President, even though he met all of them and Fox News supported George W Bush. ‘It was never the case that Murdoch had the President of the United States on speed-dial and that is now what Rupert Murdoch has achieved with Donald Trump’.
Measured by ratings, profits and closeness to President Trump the new era could be judged to be going well for Murdoch but there have been a catalogue of problems that range from editorial issues to a federal investigation and can often be traced back to the man Murdoch left to run Fox News.
Sherman has reported how, for example, ‘a grand jury in Manhattan will be hearing new testimony in a federal investigation of Fox News… and people familiar with the investigation say the government is looking into a number of potential crimes, including Fox News’ alleged surveillance of journalists, and whether network executives misled investors by hiding Ailes’s sexual-harassment settlements’.
The Financial Times has reported that the former Chief Financial Officer of Fox News,Mark Kranz,has been offered immunity to cooperate with prosecutors.
In a process reminiscent of the post phone-hacking scandal deal-making, Fox News is now making a series of financial settlements,  some with their own employees who are suing them. One recent lawsuit alleges racial discrimination. More claims were reported to be on their way and indeed they were.
The New York Times reported that Fox News’s most famous and controversial anchor man, Bill O’Reilly, had paid out thirteen million dollars million in secret settlements to five women who had alleged that he harassed them. The Times duly noted that Mr O’ Reilly said the claims had no merit. A follow-up opinion piece in the Washington Post called O’Reilly ‘an awful, awful man’. Advertisers and sponsors like Mercedes and BMW began pulling out of the show.  O’Reilly’s future is now in Murdoch’s hands and Sherman  thinks his instincts will be to protect him as long as possible but quotes an insider as saying ‘O’Reilly will be gone if Murdoch thinks it will help the Sky merger get approved’.
To pile up the pressure  a former political strategist who became a Fox News contributor,Julie Roginsky, filed a suit in the New York Supreme Court alleging that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by Ailes in 2015 and was demoted after rebuffing his advances. Roginsky’s allegations go wider into the current Fox News’ management team, claiming that among other things they denied her job opportunities after she spoke up.
Sherman tweeted: ‘The Murdochs say they want to create a safe environment for women, but this suit shows how Fox News executives continued to silence one’. He said Roginsky’s suit describes in detail how Fox staffers pressured employees to publicly defend Ailes against Gretchen Carlson’s suit and that that even after Ailes was forced out, Fox News’ general counsel Dianne Brandi didn’t investigate her claims. Again echoes of phone-hacking.
Its not as if life has been any easier on-air. Fox’s ‘judicial analyst’, Andrew Napolitano, (according to Trump ‘a very talented legal mind’)  said Britain’s GCHQ had helped President Obama spy on Trump, a claim that was repeated by White House spokesman Sean Spicer, rubbished by GCHQ and even disowned by Fox’s own news department. Napolitano was said to have been suspended, Sky News reporting  that ‘A legal expert who claimed GCHQ helped Barack Obama to spy on Donald Trump during the presidential campaign has been removed from air by Fox News’.
Commentators speculated that he had been taken off-air because of the danger that his remarks, which had so enraged the British Government, might affect the chances of the Fox-Sky deal going through.
But Napolitano was soon back on the air.
‘FOX ANCHOR : you put out a statement, I think it was 10 days ago ―
NAPOLITANO: Right.
FOX ANCHOR : Saying you were confident in the story that you reported here in the past month.
NAPOLITANO: Yes.
FOX ANCHOR : You still stand by that or ―
NAPOLITANO: Yes, I do, and the sources stand by it. And the American public needs to know more about this rather than less’.
Anybody expecting a Rupert Murdoch-style ‘the most humble day of my life’ mea culpa would have been very disappointed. The Twenty-First Century Fox lobbyists in their London offices in Soho Square might have been among them.

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