For the second time in less than a year, James Murdoch has driven a major change at the family’s most important asset — Fox News — that was contrary to what dad Rupert wanted. The decision early today (around 5am, AEST) to give Fox News’ biggest star Bill O’Reilly the flick, represented James Murdoch’s biggest victory inside the Murdoch family — even larger than his win in having Roger Ailes removed last July. The news came before a board meeting on Thursday that had been expected to discuss O’Reilly’s position. Once again, the Murdochs have made the company’s board irrelevant, having forced the situation and made it known beforehand.
Ailes was the man who built Fox News into the ratings and profit powerhouse it is today for the Murdochs and 21st Century Fox. For 14 years, O’Reilly was its biggest star, attracting more revenue than any other host with his hour-long program at 8pm called The O’Reilly Factor. James is the Murdoch who insisted on their removal after the clamour of sexual harassment charges against the two old dinosaurs became too loud to ignore, especially among Fox News and 21st Century Fox staff.
Dad Rupert was the one who was reluctant to move against both — especially O’Reilly. Brother Lachlan (co-chair with Rupert of 21st Century Fox) ended up being the swing voter, more so this time than last July when James obtained his agreement to move against the older Ailes (who had led the anti-Lachlan forces at the old News Corp in New York in 2005, forcing him to resign and return to Australia).
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And according to New York magazine’s Gabe Sherman, who has been a close chronicler of all things Fox News, especially Roger Ailes, the move against O’Reilly came as a surprise to some in the empire.
“James Murdoch, chief executive of 21st Century Fox, had pointedly declined to offer his support and one person with knowledge of the investigation said he had pushed for Mr O’Reilly’s removal. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, the group’s executive chairmen, had also not voiced public support for Mr O’Reilly.”
The 21st Century Fox statement announcing O’Reilly’s departure was brief and just one line:
“After a thorough and careful review of allegations against him, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not return to the Fox News Channel.”
In a memo to staff, the Murdoch men were more expansive, saying the decision followed an extensive review done in collaboration with outside counsel. They praised O’Reilly for his sizable contribution to the highly profitable network’s ratings. “By ratings standards, Bill O’Reilly is one of the most accomplished personalities in the history of cable news. In fact, his success by any measure is indisputable. Fox News has demonstrated the success of its talent bench. We have full confidence that the network will continue to be a powerhouse in cable news,” they said. “Lastly, and most importantly, we want to underscore our consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect.”
According to Deadline.com, the Fox News Channel program Media Buzz said ties to O’Reilly had been severed “after mounting allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior prompted the network to end his program”. The blame has been sheeted home directly to O’Reilly, which he denied in his statement:
“Over the past 20 years at Fox News I have been extremely proud to launch and lead one of the most successful news programs in history, which has consistently informed and entertained millions of Americans and significantly contributed to building Fox into the dominant news network in television. It is tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims. But that is the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today. I will always look back on my time with Fox with great pride in the unprecedented success we achieved and with my deepest gratitude to all my dedicated viewers. I wish only the best for Fox News Channel.”
This all now raises the question of the relationship with US President Donald Trump. Only a day or so after The New York Times published its bombshell report on how Fox and O’Reilly had paid US$13 million to a group of women (with O’Reilly paying the largest amount — US$9 million) who had made sexual harassment claims against the Fox star, Donald Trump weighed in with words of support.
“I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” Trump said in a meeting in the Oval Office with half a dozen staffers. “He’s a person I know well; he’s a good person,” Trump said of O’Reilly. “I think he shouldn’t have settled, personally. I think he shouldn’t have settled. Because you should have taken it all the way,” said Trump, whose presidential campaign survived the release of an old Access Hollywood video in which he was heard bragging about being so famous he could grab women “by the pussy” with impunity.
Rupert Murdoch had built a strong link to Trump and his family. It had survived the removal of Ailes. This will be the thing to watch in coming months to see if the removal of O’Reilly (who, along with Roger Ailes, is very close to Trump) damages that link to the Murdochs and Fox News.