US judge in voting system defamation suit rebukes Fox News

Judge suggests sanctions after lawyers for Fox News revealed they may have misrepresented Rupert Murdoch’s role.

A man with a backpack walks by a Fox News logo, with the slogan "America is watching."
Dominion Voting Systems has accused Fox News of perpetuating false claims about its ballot-counting systems during the 2020 United States elections [Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo]

A judge in the United States has rebuked a legal team representing Fox News in the wake of revelations that lawyers may have withheld information and misrepresented the role of company co-founder Rupert Murdoch.

Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis on Wednesday also refused a request from the legal team to hold separate trials for Fox News and the network’s parent company, Fox Corporation.

“What do I do with attorneys that aren’t straightforward with me?” Davis asked the court, as he suggested sanctions for the Fox team.

The judge’s announcements come as part of an ongoing defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems, which alleges Fox News knowingly aired false claims about its voting machines during the 2020 presidential elections.

Those claims echoed baseless accusations made by former President Donald Trump, who credited his loss at the polls to a “rigged” election system.

Rupert Murdoch, seen in a suit and tie in front of a US flag
Rupert Murdoch’s role at Fox News has been the subject of scrutiny during the defamation proceedings brought by the Colorado-based Dominion Voting Systems [File: Mary Altaffer/AP]

When Dominion Voting Systems filed its lawsuit in 2021, lawyers for Fox News asserted Murdoch had no official role at the conservative-leaning channel.

Fox lawyers have since repeated that claim several times during court proceedings, as they attempted to shield Murdoch from liability in the lawsuit, portraying him as removed from the everyday operations of the news channel.

But on Sunday, the Fox legal team reversed course, disclosing to Dominion lawyers that Murdoch was indeed “executive chair” at Fox News.

Judge Davis articulated his displeasure at the late-breaking revelations, which arrived days before a jury selection is set to begin on Thursday.

“My problem is that it has been represented to me more than once that he [Murdoch] is not an officer,” the judge told the court on Tuesday.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Caley Cronin, senior vice president of media relations at Fox, said: “Rupert Murdoch has been listed as executive chairman of FOX News in our SEC filings for several years and this filing was referenced by Dominion’s own attorney during his deposition.”

Fox lawyers also faced criticism for failing to share recordings made by former Fox News producer Abby Grossberg with the Dominion legal team.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Fox News team denied withholding any evidence, writing, “As counsel explained to the Court, FOX produced the supplemental information from Ms Grossberg when we first learned it.”

For its part, Dominion has argued the failure to disclose Murdoch’s role has had “a big impact” on its ability to request documents the media mogul might have had access to.

Dominion’s lawyers requested any jurors selected for the trial be warned of “adverse inference” on the part of Fox lawyers — indicating the absence of requested evidence. But Judge Davis declined to rule on that request.

He did, however, open the possibility for the Dominion legal team to redo or request additional depositions with witnesses.

“Fox will do everything they can to make the person available, and it will be at a cost to Fox,” according to an order published by the New York Times.

A man votes at an electronic voting machine
The defamation case by Dominion Voting Systems revolves around claims made about election fraud during the 2020 presidential election [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]

Bloomberg News suggested Murdoch himself could take the witness stand as early as Monday.

The defamation suit has already resulted in unsealed testimony where the media mogul was questioned whether Fox News commentators endorsed conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election.

“Yes. They endorsed,” Murdoch replied.

Text messages also released as part of the lawsuit have shown a gulf between what Fox News personalities said on screen and what they may have felt privately. In one text message from November 2020, for example, Fox News host Tucker Carlson appeared to accuse a Trump lawyer of “lying” about the election fraud claims.

Dominion Voting Systems is seeking $1.6bn in damages. Fox News has argued it was simply reporting on the allegations made by Trump and his allies.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies