If the texts sent by Matt Hancock didn’t make everyone in Number 10 want to delete WhatsApp, another messaging scandal on the other side of the Atlantic probably will.
Hundreds of messages sent by senior Fox News hosts and executives, including its owner Rupert Murdoch, have shed unprecedented and unflattering light on the US TV network.
They showed Fox’s most well-known hosts ridiculing Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud but repeating them on air anyway, allegedly out of fear their viewers would desert them.
Even Mr Murdoch questioned in an email to Fox News president Suzanne Scott whether high-profile hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham “went too far” in their coverage of Mr Trump’s claims of voter fraud.
The messages are part of a trove of 6,500 documents released as part of a $1.6bn (£1.34bn) defamation lawsuit against the network by Dominion Voting Systems, with the company alleging Fox amplified false claims its voting machines were used to steal the 2020 election from then-president, Mr Trump. It is set to go to trial on April 17.
Fox has defended its coverage, saying it had the right to report on Mr Trump’s claims of election-fraud and Dominion’s “extreme” interpretation of defamation law would “stop the media in its tracks”. It says Dominion “cherry-picked” and “misrepresented” messages in its findings as a way to “smear Fox News and trample on free speech”. For example, citing additional testimony by Fox Corp co-chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch, who said under oath that he was “concerned” but “not overly concerned” by declining ratings after the election.
The messages have been lapped up by left-wing media organisations with MSNBC gleefully reporting that Fox had “destroyed its reputation”.
But is it surprising that a network ruthlessly run by Mr Murdoch would act like this? As with the Hancock texts, the answer is yes and no.
In both cases, there was a sense of duplicity among people in positions of power over what they said publicly versus what they said in private. And while the overall gist of messages is unsurprising, it is the details that are shocking.
Tucker Carlson, whose evening show is among Fox’s highest-rated programmes, told a colleague on 4 January, 2021: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait… I hate him passionately”.
As votes were counted after the presidential election in November 2020, he texted his then-producer Alex Pfeiffer fearing that voters could turn off Fox after the network called Arizona for President Biden.
“What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that,” Mr Carlson said.
Mr Carlson also texted Laura Ingraham, another popular Fox host, that Sidney Powell, a fringe lawyer who was brought in to advise Mr Trump about baseless election fraud claims, was “insane”.
Ms Ingraham told Mr Carlson in one text: “Sidney Powell is a bit nuts. Sorry but she is”. On another occasion, Mr Carlson said Ms Powell was “lying. F****** b****” he wrote.
Despite this both Mr Carlson and Ms Ingraham – as well as other Fox presenters – raised questions about the validity of the election result on their shows. Dominion’s lawyers argue that Fox defamed the company out of fear its position as the most popular cable network in America was under threat. Fox claims it was within its rights to report on claims raised by Mr Trump’s camp.
Other messages show that days after the election, Mr Murdoch wrote to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott the company was “getting creamed by CNN!”
Fox host Brett Baier said that the network being the first to call Arizona for Mr Biden on election night was “hurting us”. He emailed Fox News president Jay Wallace: “The sooner we pull it… the better we are”.
Mr Wallace said in one message that the network was on a “war footing”, adding that the “surge” in viewers to Newsmax, which endorsed Mr Trump’s false claims, “can’t be ignored”.
Underscoring the point in a text to Ms Scott, Mr Murdoch said: “Everything at stake here.”
Months later, the day after Mr Biden was inaugurated, Mr Murdoch emailed Ms Scott saying: “Maybe Sean (Hannity, Fox News presenter) and Laura (Ingraham) went too far.
“All very well for Sean to tell you he was in despair about Trump… but what did he tell his viewers?”
In another message, then Fox News vice president Bill Sammon said to a colleague: “It’s remarkable how weak ratings makes good journalists do bad things.”
The case is slated for trial next month. Charles Glasser, a first amendment attorney professor of media law, ethics and history at New York University said that if he had to sum up Dominion’s argument it would be “that Fox pursued revenue instead of the truth”.
He said: “Dominion has a pretty good chance of going to trial which in turns means a jury may be given the key to Fox’s bank vault and just start shovelling cash into a truck.”
That would hit Mr Murdoch where it hurts: the $1.6bn Dominion is seeking would wipe out the $1.67bn profit for News Corp, Fox’s parent company, for the 2022 fiscal year.
It also comes amid rampant speculation about the succession battle inside the media company, with the 91-year-old Mr Murdoch yet to name a clear heir.
Mr Murdoch’s three children from his first marriage – Elisabeth, James and Lachlan – have long been watched for clues as to their role in the company. Lachlan, the co-chair of News Corp and executive chairman and chief executive of Fox Corporation, is understood to be Mr Murdoch’s favoured successor, but recent pictures of Mr Murdoch with daughter Elizabeth at the Superbowl alongside Elon Musk led to claims she may now be “a part of those plans”.
As for Fox’s reputation, Juda Engelmayer, who runs PR agency HeraldPR and counts Harvey Weinstein among his clients, said the damage may not be as severe as some expect.
He said that the network has a “core of supporters who love what they say”, adding: “One of the reasons they took the positions they took was for ratings … They were following what they thought their followers wanted to hear”.
Even on Monday amid a string of revelations about the messages, Fox News cleaned up in the ratings and scored six times the number of prime time viewers than CNN.
Mr Engelmayer said: “They will be condemned and criticised, their competition will hound them every day for saying that Fox News was reporting a lie.
“Consumers are their consumers and they know who they are and that’s why they’re doing it.
“But shareholder wise it looks bad and they have a lot of making up to do to gain and instil the trust of their financial stakeholders”.
That means firings but Carlson won’t be shown the door, Mr Engelmayer. Instead, lower level editors and executive producers will be let go.
In a deposition, Mr Murdoch seemed to echo this and said that Fox News executives who knowingly allow lies to be broadcast “should be reprimanded, maybe got rid of”.
In fact, the biggest problem for Fox may well be its damaged relationship with Mr Trump who accused Mr Murdoch on social media of “aiding & abetting the DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA”.
Mr Murdoch swallowed his misgivings in 2016 and backed Mr Trump, and only soured on him after the disastrous midterm elections last year.
Yet if Mr Trump wins the Republican nomination for next year’s vote, the pair will have to overcome their differences, making their awkward marriage even more complicated.