WILMINGTON, Delaware, April 18 (Reuters) – Fox Corp ( FOXA.O ) and Fox News on Tuesday settled a defamation lawsuit over Dominion Voting Systems, avoiding a high-profile trial that would put one of the world’s top media companies in the crosshairs. Coverage of allegations of false voter fraud in the 2020 US election.
The settlement, the terms of which were not immediately disclosed, was announced by Fox and the judge at the 11th hour, with a 12-person jury selected Tuesday morning and the case set to begin with opening statements Tuesday afternoon. Dominion is seeking $1.6 billion in damages in a 2021 lawsuit presided over by Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis in Wilmington.
“We agree with the court’s rulings that certain claims about Dominion were false. This settlement reflects Fox’s commitment to the highest journalistic standards. We believe our decision to amicably resolve this dispute with Dominion, rather than the crime of a divisive investigation, allows the country to move forward from these issues,” Fox said in a statement. said.
At issue in the case was whether Fox was responsible for airing false claims that Denver-based Dominion’s vote-counting machines were used against then-Republican President Donald Trump in favor of Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 US election. Dominion argued that these on-air claims caused “substantial and irreparable economic harm” to the company.
Davis ordered a one-day adjournment of the hearing on Monday before another delay on Tuesday, when both sides apparently struck a deal.
The deal avoids the risk of calling some of Fox’s most famous figures on the witness stand, including executives like Rupert Murdoch, the 92-year-old media mogul who serves as chairman of Fox Corp. Fox CEO Suzanne Scott and on-air hosts including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Brough.
The decision to settle follows a judge’s ruling last month that Fox could not claim free speech protections under the U.S. Constitution in its defense.
According to Nielsen, Fox News is the most-watched American cable news network.
The primary question for jurors will be whether Fox knowingly spread false information or ignored the truth, the “actual malice” standard that Dominion must show to win a defamation case.
In February court filings, Dominion cited internal communications in which Murdoch and other Fox executives privately acknowledged that Dominion’s on-and-off vote-rigging claims were false.
Dominion said Fox inflated the false claims to boost its ratings and prevent its audience from migrating to other media rivals on the right, including One America News Network, which is suing separately.
Adding to the legal risks for Fox, another US voting technology company, Smartmatic, has filed its own defamation suit in New York state court seeking $2.7 billion in damages. Fox Corp had annual revenue of nearly $14 billion last year.
Fox has argued that Trump and his lawyers’ claims about the election are inherently newsworthy and protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment.
Davis ruled in March that Fox could not use those arguments, saying its coverage was false, defamatory and not protected by the First Amendment.
Dominion sued Fox Corp. and Fox News in 2021, claiming its business was ruined by false vote-rigging claims aired by the influential U.S. cable news network known for its roster of conservative commentators.
The test should be whether Fox’s coverage crosses the line between ethical journalism and ratings pursuit, as Dominion alleges and Fox denies. Fox portrayed himself as a defender of press freedom in the pre-trial standoff.
The complaints mention instances where Trump associates, including his former lawyers Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell, appeared on Fox News to make false allegations about Dominion.
Dominion obtained insider communications and testimony from Murdoch and other Fox News executives and commentators. Murdoch described the election fraud claims as “truly crazy” and “damaging,” but refused to use his editorial authority to block them and admitted under oath that some Fox hosts had “supported” the unsubstantiated claims, Dominion filed in court. .
When Murdoch saw what Giuliani and Powell were saying about Dominion on November 19, he filed them to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott as “terrible things that will damage everybody, I’m afraid.”
Under questioning by a Dominion attorney, Murdoch testified that he thought everything about the election was “over-the-top” and that he suspected fraud claims from the beginning, according to Dominion’s filing.
Asked if he could have intervened to stop Giuliani from continuing to spread false news on air, Murdoch replied, “I could. But I didn’t,” the filing said.
Reporting by Helen Koster in Wilmington and Jack Quinn in New York; Editing by Will Dunham
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