CANBERRA – Fox Corp. chief executive Lachlan Murdoch on Friday dropped his defamation lawsuit against Australian news website Crikey, citing the settlement of the separate U.S. case where Fox News agreed to pay almost $800 million over its lies involving the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s son filed the Crikey suit last August a day after executives at Crikey's publisher put their names to an ad in The New York Times inviting Lachlan Murdoch to sue to test the press freedom issue in court.
Murdoch's lawsuit targeted the publisher, Private Media, its then-managing editor Peter Fray, who was also the website’s editor-in-chief, and Crikey’s political editor, Bernard Keane.
Murdoch claimed he was defamed by Keane’s column about the U.S. congressional investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol building which Crikey published in June last year under the headlines: “Trump is a confirmed unhinged traitor. And Murdoch is his unindicted co-conspirator.”
Murdoch’s lawyer John Churchill said in a statement he had filed a notice of discontinuance in Federal Court on Friday.
“Crikey has tried to introduce thousands of pages of documents from a defamation case in another jurisdiction, which has now settled," the statement said, referring to the Fox News settlement with Dominion Voting Systems that was announced Tuesday.
“Mr. Murdoch remains confident that the court would ultimately find in his favor, however he does not wish to further enable Crikey’s use of the court to litigate a case from another jurisdiction that has already been settled and facilitate a marketing campaign designed to attract subscribers and boost their profits,” Churchill said.
Private Media chief executive Will Hayward said his company, which is valued at less than 20 million Australian dollars ($13.4 million), stood by Crikey's description of the Murdochs as conspirators in the Capitol violence.
“The initial statement was clearly intended with a certain degree of hyperbole,” Hayward said.
“It’s really important that in Australia, journalists have room to express good faith opinions and they don’t have to be terrified of litigious billionaires,” Hayward added.
Hayward and Private Media chairman Eric Beecher said in a joint statement they were "proud to have exposed the hypocrisy and abuse of power of a media billionaire.”
“We stand by our position that Lachlan Murdoch was culpable in promoting the lie of the 2020 election result because he, and his father, had the power to stop the lies," the statement said.
Crikey’s law firm Marque Lawyers said Lachlan Murdoch would be expected to pay all legal costs. "We and our client are well pleased,” the firm tweeted.
The Crikey suit had been set for a three-week hearing in Sydney starting Oct. 9.
Lachlan Murdoch had alleged the Crikey article conveyed a meaning that he illegally conspired with former President Donald Trump to “incite a mob with murderous intent to march on the Capitol" to prevent the transfer of power to President Joe Biden.
In its defense, Crikey had argued Lachlan Murdoch was “morally and ethically culpable” for the attack on the Capitol “because Fox News, under his control and management, promoted and peddled Trump’s lie of the stolen election despite Lachlan Murdoch knowing it was false."
The article did not name Lachlan Murdoch, but referred to “the Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators.”
Sydney University defamation law expert David Rolph said the trial would have been the first test case of a new public interest defense that came into effect across most of Australia in 2021.
The public interest defense is part of a raft of reforms designed to make Australian defamation laws “slightly less plaintiff-friendly,” Rolph said.
“That was a major defense that was pleaded by Crikey here. This was going to be the first test case. We'll have to wait for the next one,” Rolph said.
Rolph said one of the reasons Murdoch dropped the case was that Crikey was trying to expand its defenses by incorporating revelations from the Dominion litigation.
The voting technology firm had sued Fox for $1.6 billion, alleging its business was harmed and employees threatened when it was baselessly accused of rigging its voting machines against Trump in the 2020 election.
The settlement followed the disclosures of the mountain of evidence that would have been presented at trial, showing many Fox executives and on-air talent didn’t believe the accusations aired on some Fox shows but they feared angering Trump fans with the truth.