Lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems had planned to put media mogul Rupert Murdoch on the stand to testify this week before it reached a $787.5m settlement with Fox for its broadcasting of false claims about the company’s voting equipment after the 2020 election, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Dominion was going to call the 92-year-old Murdoch as its second witness, forcing him to appear in person for cross-examination before the end of the week. He would have followed Tony Fratto, a crisis communications consultant who represented Dominion after the 2020 election and contacted Fox many times to inform them they were making false claims.
The settlement reportedly does not include a provision that Fox apologize on air or retract any of its statements. The network acknowledged in a statement that the court had found it broadcast false claims.
Murdoch’s live testimony was one of the most hotly anticipated moments of what was scheduled to be a blockbuster six-week trial. Murdoch, his son Lachlan, as well as the Fox stars Tucker Carlson, Maria Bartiromo, Sean Hannity, and Jeanine Pirro were all expected to appear on the witness stand, where they would be forced to answer uncomfortable questions under oath about their role in spreading false information.
As part of the lawsuit, Dominion unearthed and published a stunning trove of internal communications from Fox showing the Murdoch and those stars, among others, were aware the claims were false and broadcast them anyway.
The case attracted much attention, both in the US and around the world, because it was seen as a chance to hold Fox accountable for its spreading of misinformation after the 2020 election and the network’s longstanding willingness to distort the truth in service of its conservative base and profits.
“Money is accountability, and today we got that from Fox,” Stephen Shackelford, one of Dominion’s attorneys said after the settlement was announced.
The settlement, the largest publicly disclosed payout to settle a media libel case in the US, came together relatively quickly and on the brink of trial.
Lawyers for Dominion and Fox were emailing over the weekend but were far apart on an agreement hours before the trial was set to begin on Monday, the person familiar said. A mediator got involved on Sunday afternoon and that evening. Eric Davis, the Delaware superior court judge overseeing the case, pushed back the start of the trial until Tuesday. But on Monday night, settlement talks still seemed dead.
Attorneys went to court on Tuesday morning prepared to give opening statements after jury selection was complete. As lawyers prepared for trial, the mediator brokered the settlement. When Davis reconvened court on Tuesday afternoon, he abruptly left the bench and there was an unexplained two-and-a-half-hour delay in the proceedings. Reporters, lawyers and members of the public who had gathered for curiosity stretched their legs and chatted in anticipation over what was going on.
Eventually, Davis returned, called the jury in and said unceremoniously: “The parties have resolved their case.”
Despite the monumental dollar amount, some questioned why Dominion would settle the case without a public apology when it had the opportunity to skewer Murdoch and other Fox stars at trial.
Even though experts said Dominion had strong evidence to clear the high “actual malice” standard required to prove defamation in the US, a jury could have balked at awarding the relatively obscure company $1.6bn. As enticing as days of testimony from Murdoch and other Fox stars would have been, Dominion had already published the most damaging information ahead of trial. And even if Dominion had won the case at trial, it would not have received an apology from Fox.
“What would you say to those who are disappointed that Dominion didn’t go to trial and get the full vindication of making Fox’s lead anchors get on the stand and admit what they did to the company?” Joy Reid, a host on the left-leaning MSNBC, asked Justin Nelson, one of Dominion’s lead lawyers, on Tuesday evening. “If you don’t get an on-air apology and Fox News doesn’t correct what they said about Dominion to their own viewers, they may never know any of this happened.”
“Whatever else happens, you can’t hide from paying almost $800m and having that in a public settlement,” Nelson said in response. “The civil litigation can only do so much and what we have done is hold Fox accountable.”
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