The article didn’t mention Lachlan Murdoch by name, and Crikey has argued that most readers would interpret the specific “Murdoch” mentioned in its headline to be his father Rupert Murdoch, the media baron who serves as chairman of Fox Corp. and executive chairman of News Corp.
Crikey, a small news site, had essentially lobbied Murdoch to sue it as a test of Australia’s laws protecting journalistic free speech. “We are concerned that Australia’s defamation laws are too restrictive,” the site’s editor in chief and chairman both wrote in an open letter to Lachlan Murdoch, published in the New York Times on Monday and in Australia’s Canberra Times. “You have made it clear in your lawyer’s letters you intend to take court action to resolve this alleged defamation. We await your writ so that we can test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom.”
Murdoch’s lawyers obliged. In a statement of claim filed on Tuesday, they argued that Crikey had baselessly accused Lachlan Murdoch of criminal behavior and associations. “Murdoch has been gravely injured in his character, his personal reputation, and his professional reputation as a business person and company director, and has suffered and will continue to suffer substantial hurt, distress and embarrassment,” the filing stated.
Murdoch’s lawyers argued that publicizing the open letter served to “humiliate and harm” Murdoch, to misrepresent his legal team’s communications, and to promote Crikey.
The site had also published reams of correspondence between Murdoch’s lawyers and the site sent this summer in which Murdoch’s team laid out a case for defamation and demanded an apology that Crikey was unwilling to give — though the publication had been willing to publish an editorial clarification and to pay Murdoch’s legal fees, according to the Guardian.
Crikey briefly took down the commentary piece on June 30, the day after it was published, but republished it last week.
Following the filing of the lawsuit, Crikey’s editor in chief Peter Fray said in a statement that the site stands behind the commentary piece and looks forward to taking on Murdoch in court. “We are determined to fight for the integrity and importance of diverse independent media in Australian democracy,” Fray said. “We welcome the chance to test what an honest, open and public debate actually means for free speech in Australia.”
In explaining the site’s decision to release the legal letters, Crikey argued that American media outlets had published “thousands of stories … about the complicity of Fox News in the Trump presidency and Jan. 6, 2021, riots — many of those stories far more accusatory than ours.” But libel is considered to be much harder to prove in the U.S. legal system, where public figures suing for defamation must prove that false statements were published maliciously — either with knowledge that they were untrue or with reckless disregard for the truth.
The lawsuit comes as Fox Corp is facing defamation lawsuits from two U.S. election technology companies that were baselessly accused of abetting voter fraud on Fox News shows after the 2020 presidential election.
In June, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis allowed Dominion’s case against Fox Corp to proceed, after determining that the company’s allegations “support a reasonable inference that Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch either knew Dominion had not manipulated the election or at least recklessly disregarded the truth when they allegedly caused Fox News to propagate its claims about Dominion.”