Fox News settles 'false election' libel case with voting systems company

The judge in the Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox has said the parties “have resolved their case”. The news came just as the trial was to begin and the judge dismissed the jury.

It cuts short a potentially lengthy trial in a case that exposed how the news network chased viewers by spreading false claims about the 2020 presidential election. The judge made his announcement shortly after jurors had been seated and lawyers were preparing to make opening statements for a trial expected to last six weeks.

A lawyer for Dominion said the settlement was for $787.5 million dollars (£633.6 million).

“The truth matters. Lies have consequences,” said Dominion lawyer Justin Nelson in a news conference outside the courthouse afterwards.

Jury selection earlier on Tuesday in the voting machine company’s 1.6 billion dollar (£1.29 billion) defamation lawsuit against Fox News came a day after the judge granted a one-day delay that gave the two sides time to work out a settlement.

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Dominion had asked for 1.6 billion dollars, arguing that Fox damaged its reputation by helping to peddle conspiracy theories about its equipment over the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Fox claimed the sum overestimated the value of the Colorado-based company.

Despite settling the case, the judge stressed it was “crystal clear” that none of the allegations about Dominion aired on Fox by allies of former president Donald Trump was true.

Records released as part of the lawsuit showed how Fox hosts and executives did not believe the claims by Mr Trump’s allies but aired them anyway, in part to win back viewers who were fleeing the network after it correctly called hotly contested Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden on election night.

The settlement will end a case that became a major embarrassment for Fox News. Had it gone to trial, it would have been a stern tests of libel laws that have protected media organisations for over half a century.

Several experts said Dominion’s case was among the strongest they had ever seen but there was a real doubt about whether Dominion would be able to prove to a jury that people in a decision-making capacity at Fox could be held responsible for the network airing the falsehoods.

Ultimately, there appeared to be too much at risk for both sides to allow them to put the case in the hands of a jury.

Dominion accused Fox of libel for repeatedly airing false allegations by Trump allies that its machines and the software they used switched votes to Biden — even though many at the network doubted the claims and disparaged those making them. The company sued both Fox News and its parent, Fox Corp.

During a deposition, Fox Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch, who founded the news network, testified that he believed the 2020 election was fair and had not been stolen from the former president.

“Fox knew the truth,” Dominion argued in court papers. “It knew the allegations against Dominion were ‘outlandish’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘ludicrous’ and ‘nuts’. Yet it used the power and influence of its platform to promote that false story.”

In a ruling at the end of March, Judge Davis called out the news organisation for airing falsehoods, adding that the bogus election claims continued to persist nearly three years on from Mr Trump losing his bid for re-election.

“The statements at issue were dramatically different than the truth,” Judge Davis said in his summary judgment ruling. “In fact… it is noteworthy that some Americans still believe the election was rigged.”

Fox said in its defence that it was obliged to report on the most newsworthy of stories — a president claiming that he had been cheated out of reelection.

“We never reported those to be true,” Fox lawyer Erin Murphy said. “All we ever did was provide viewers the true fact that these were allegations that were being made.”

Dominion’s attorneys argued that Fox made a deliberate decision to repeatedly air the false claims to appeal to viewers. They allowed guests to falsely claim that the company had rigged the election, flipped large numbers of votes to Mr Biden through a secret algorithm, was owned by a company founded in Venezuela to rig elections for Hugo Chavez, and bribed government officials.

But a mountain of evidence — transcripts, internal memos and emails — was found to be damaging to Fox. Much of it showed a network effectively terrified of its audience after its election night declaration that Mr Biden had won Arizona. The call infuriated Mr Trump and his supporters.

One of Fox’s top news anchors, Bret Baier, noted the audience’s anger and suggested rescinding the call, even awarding the state to Mr Trump. “We don’t want to antagonise Trump further,” Mr Murdoch stated in a memo in November.

Mr Biden narrowly won Arizona, but two executives responsible for the accurate election night call lost their jobs because of it. In an internal memo, Mr Murdoch talked in mid-November about firing them.

Fox executives and anchors discussed how not to alienate the audience, many of whom believed Mr Trump’s claims of fraud despite no evidence to back them up. Fox’s Tucker Carlson suggested a news reporter be fired for tweeting a fact check debunking the fraud claims.

Some of the exhibits were simply embarrassing, such as scornful behind-the-scenes opinions about Mr Trump, including a Carlson text message that said “I hate him passionately”.