The known cost of the great sexual harassment by just two elderly men — Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes — has cost the Murdoch clan’s 21st Century Fox an estimated US$100 million (A$130 million plus) that we know of. The departure of O’Reilly once again raises the question of the financial and emotional costs to the women especially, and to Fox News and the Murdoch company, as well as any blowback from US regulators who have been investigating whether some of the payments to women victims of both predators should have been disclosed.
CNN reported overnight that O’Reilly will receive a payout of $25 million (A$33 million), or one year’s salary, as part of his exit settlement with 21st Century Fox. That is less than the US$40 million Roger Ailes, the network’s former chairman, received when he was fired in similar circumstances last July. O’Reilly was reportedly waiting for a flight back to the US from Italy (where he was photographed shaking hands with the Pope). He wanted (again, reportedly) to make a final appearance on his Fox program next Monday to say goodbye but learnt that he was out, immediately. O’Reilly’s sacking came after he had agreed to a new four-year contract worth US$25 million a year. And his contract reportedly contained a provision for him to receive a maximum of one year’s salary in the event of any dispute or action that required him to leave.
While it is a good thing that sons James and Lachlan forced the removal of Ailes last July and O’Reilly this week, the grim fact is that they forced their father to join them in each case, not the other way round (he as chair or co-chair of 21st Century Fox ad Fox News Channel). Rupert Murdoch was the hold-out, reluctant to assume responsibility and impose discipline on Fox News management and risk what was becoming his most valuable political and financial weapon across his entire empire, and the one that has brought him close to the centre of global power in the current President, Donald Trump.
Like the News of the World phone-hacking crisis, which engulfed Murdoch’s UK empire (and a bid for the rest of Sky back then in 2011), the harassment scandal is still spiralling, with many more questions to answer and many more facts to emerge — both at a corporate and regulatory level. It is not too early to say that this scandal could cost Rupert Murdoch more than he imagines if it can be proved that he turned a blind eye to the sexual depredations of Ailes and O’Reilly (and whoever else emerges, such as the putative US ambassador to New Zealand, Scott Brown, a former Fox News host who has a sexual harassment allegation hanging over him.
And multiple media reports from The New York Times, to New York magazine, CNN and the Financial Times and Washington Post have now all reported that the Murdochs had been aware of unsavoury allegations about O’Reilly’s behaviour since at least 2004 when Andrea Mackris, a producer on his show filed a legal complaint — and was pre-emptively sued by O’Reilly for extortion. (O’Reilly settled for an undisclosed amount.)
Fox said it “takes matters of workplace behaviour very seriously” and that “Mr. O’Reilly is fully committed to supporting our efforts to improve the environment for all our employees at Fox News”.
Contrast that to the comments in an internal memo sent to Fox News staff by the three Murdoch men on Wednesday:
“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.”
“Lastly, and most importantly, we want to underscore our consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect.”
On what we are now starting to learn from the growing list of harassment cases against O’Reilly and Ailes (at least) is the hollowness of those words. In fact, the Murdochs’ “constant commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect” has been anything but constant. Whatever the reason, Rupert Murdoch’s management of this issue has been appallingly weak. He cannot claim the distance defence, as he did in the phone-hacking scandal — that he was thousands of kilometres away in New York from London and depending on executives on the ground to handle the story and report back. he was in the News Corp/21st Century/Fox News HQ on the Avenue of the America’s in New York, a floor or three away from where Fox News studios were located and where Ailes and O’Reilly were mostly based.