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Australian site challenged Fox's Lachlan Murdoch to sue after he accused it of libel

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Go ahead and sue us. That's the defiant message from a small Australian news site called Crikey over threats of a defamation lawsuit from Fox Corp CEO Lachlan Murdoch. Murdoch helps to oversee a huge global media empire, and NPR's David Folkenflik is covering legal fights involving Fox in Australia and the U.S. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What sparked Lachlan Murdoch's outrage in Australia?

FOLKENFLIK: So there's this irreverent political news site called Crikey in Australia. And on June 29, they posted a column by their political editor, Bernard Keane, which basically made the case that Lachlan Murdoch and his father Rupert were - I mean, the words he used were unindicted co-conspirators. It was a big rhetorical flourish, but essentially saying, in creating the circumstances in which the January 6, 2021 siege of the U.S. Congress occurred, Fox was full participant and the Murdochs bore responsibility for that. Murdoch threatened a defamation suit, as you said, and now, Crikey is putting all that out there. They're sharing all the correspondence back and forth. They say they want the public to judge whether or not Lachlan Murdoch's outrage and threats have any merit.

SHAPIRO: In the U.S., Murdoch and News Corp have often argued for a sweeping interpretation of press freedoms. Why would Murdoch sue a news outlet in a case like this?

FOLKENFLIK: That's right, and in fact, he's done so eloquently in Australia as well. I got to say, I asked his representatives in both continents about it. We got no comment for our coverage of this. But I think you got to consider Australia a major character in this saga. It's such a part of the Murdoch history - Rupert Murdoch, of course, himself a native Australian. The country is smaller, and Lachlan has at times gone back to that country as a place from which to derive strength. His wife is Australian. During the pandemic, he moved his family back there. And in fact he's an Australian native.

So why is this important? Well, he looms huge in that country. His father isn't present there in the same way he once was. And the laws are different. They give much less protection for the press to make grand criticism even of public figures - someone so public as Lachlan Murdoch.

SHAPIRO: OK, in the U.S., Fox is also involved in litigation, and things look very different. Tell us about that.

FOLKENFLIK: It's hard to reconcile. So you've got him going on the offensive there, as he's threatened a few times against Crikey before. They've written about him a ton. Here, however, he's on the defense, and there are huge dollar figures and huge questions at stake. You have two lawsuits seeking more than $4 billion from Fox News, the most important property in Fox Corp. The filing of one of them led to pretty much the immediate ouster of former Fox star Lou Dobbs. It involved a voting software company named Smartmatic and a voting machine company called Dominion.

And the claims were made by guests time and time again after the November 2020 elections - and echoed and amplified by Fox News stars repeatedly - that those companies had been involved in trying to steal the election for now-President Joe Biden and from then-President Donald Trump. And even though some Fox reporters countered and showed again and again that there was no evidence to support any of those claims, for weeks and weeks, they dominated Fox airwaves.

SHAPIRO: And so how do you reconcile the sweeping interpretation of press freedoms that Fox is arguing in the U.S. with the narrow interpretation in Australia?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, part of it is just that Lachlan Murdoch is operating more conventionally as a media baron here. And in Australia, you know, Crikey would argue that he's trying to tamp out criticism there. But I think in both cases, you're seeing Fox having to wrestle with the messy and ugly legacy of what some of its most prominent stars did in late 2020 - those false claims of a stolen election, the desire for there to be a ramping up and a ratcheting up of intense rhetoric as the days tick down to that January 6 protest that became the siege of Congress. Crikey is saying that Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch bear responsibility for what aired on Fox and part of what transpired afterward. And Lachlan Murdoch is saying, I certainly don't.

SHAPIRO: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.