Rupert’s American debacle

The spectacular settlement with Dominion Election Systems is an index of both political dysfunction and the role of the rightwing media, argues Paul Demarty

Few civilised people will manage to suppress a smile at the humiliation of Fox News by Dominion Electoral Systems - that plucky little voting machine company.

Fox settled for the modest sum of $787.5 million - about half the damages sought by Dominion. On the morning the case was due to begin in Delaware, proceedings were halted shortly after the swearing in of judge Eric Davis: after a few hours, he announced blandly that the parties had settled their dispute. They thereby denied us a certain spectacle, which was to include the calling of no less a person than Rupert Murdoch himself as a witness.

Why settle? The question demands some consideration. Some rightwing commentators have grumbled about the alleged bias of Davis’s legal advice, which would have stacked the cards against Fox.1 Assuming that such reasoning is legally sound, why then not fight it out and appeal through a federal court system stacked with Trump appointees? Is there not one among them who will give the ‘right’ answer? It does seem more likely that a combination of endless further expenses, a potentially chilling legal precedent, and the embarrassment of the trial conspired to give Rupert cold feet.

Back to 2020

What exactly were Fox’s crimes here (and, whatever the text of the agreement, submission to this settlement must be taken effectively as an admission of guilt)? We will have to go back to that banner year in the history of humanity: 2020. Two questions dominated US news channels, and news-adjacent outrage-vendors like Fox and MSNBC: firstly, the Covid-19 pandemic, as it ripped through the world (and especially, at that time, the USA); and, secondly, the looming presidential election, with Donald Trump facing off against challenger Joe Biden.

It was clear from quite early in the campaign that Trump would not accept defeat lightly. There would always have been a reason for him to reject the result; the question was really which he would alight on, if - as polls looked all the way along - he was heading for defeat. In the event, the pandemic offered much of the raw material for the flood of utterly fantastical denunciations of the whole process as a fraud. Two themes began to predominate - mail-in voting, used at a much greater scale than ever before due to the pandemic, and which favoured the Democrat challenger by slightly undermining the gerrymandering laws put in place by Republican state administrations; and voting machines. Mail-in voting was purely a decision of the state apparatus, and thus fair game for the ravings of Fox, NewsMax and co. But the machines … somebody had to make those machines, inevitably private companies - companies like Dominion Electoral Systems. And companies can sue.

Fox hosts retailed various nonsensical claims about Dominion, largely stemming from Trump’s legal advisors, Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani - neither of whom seemed to have more than a thumb-and-forefinger grip on their sanity. Giuliani addressed a press conference outside a North Philadelphia strip mall, having booked the wrong Four Seasons. Meanwhile, Powell - often clearly intoxicated - was invited repeatedly onto Fox to claim that Dominion had been set up to help the Venezuelan government rig elections, that it had a special algorithm that transferred millions of votes to the Democrats, and so on.

The court papers, which through the discovery process unearthed a lot of damning emails from within Fox, revealed that the network knew very well that all this stuff was false. Their own fact-checkers agreed. A host who demurred from the increasingly desperate ‘stop the steal’ narrative was rebuked for it by CEO Suzanne Scott - it was “bad for business”. The only person at the company who seems to believe it - bless her heart - is Fox host Maria Bartiromo, whose internal missives depart as radically from English grammar as they do from the known facts of the case. Murdoch himself weighed in eventually, emailing Scott on January 20 2021:

Trump insisting on the election being stolen and convincing 25% of Americans was a huge disservice to the country. Pretty much a crime. Inevitable it blew up [on January] 6th … Best we don’t mention his name unless essential and certainly don’t support him.


In retailing these lies, Fox was essentially acting as the propaganda arm of an attempted coup. The shambolic, undercooked, doomed nature of the coup ought not to deceive us here - frankly, the propaganda was the most well-oiled part of the machine by some distance.

Readers of the Weekly Worker will need no convincing, we hope, that nothing more elevated than vanity and personal interest motivated Trump to seek to overturn the election result. Yet that is the peculiar thing about coups: you always need a ‘good’ reason; a quasi-legal justification for suspending the law. Yet that reason does not necessarily need to convince very many people. It needs to be just robust enough to unite the conspirators and their base of support in the wider society. The tapestry of scarcely believable phantasms retailed under the slogan, ‘Stop the steal!’, cannot have convinced more than a few idiots of the Bartiromo stripe; but they fitted the bill for many more people. Of course there was no evidence that the Democrats had rigged the election; but is that not exactly the sort of thing the freedom-hating cultural Marxist woke mob would do, given half a chance?

Murdoch, however, is no random conservative attempting to reconcile his conscience with the overthrow of the US constitution. He is a billionaire, with a laser target on his own bottom line. His calculation with regard to this seems a little more fraught. As we have seen, Murdoch blamed Trump for the January 6 riot, and considered it an all-round disaster. The various insider scoop books on the Trump presidency seem agreed on the point of Rupert’s contempt for Donald. Though he no doubt appreciated his giant tax cut, Murdoch’s favoured political outlook of ultra-orthodox Thatcherism is only imperfectly represented by the capricious populist, Trump. It is not clear why Fox should have supported this insane adventure, then. Put another way - in 1995, after all, Murdoch agreed to swerve his British papers to support the Labour Party under Blair. Are his interests really so opposed to those of the neoliberal centrists in charge of the Democratic Party that he could not see his way to doing the same stateside?

It seems, rather, that Murdoch’s choice of action is constrained: Fox News found it impossible to detach itself from the Trump train. At a relatively superficial level, we could sum up Murdoch’s dilemma with the phrase, ‘audience capture’ - more commonly identified as a question for individual public figures. Suppose a YouTube influencer ‘goes viral’ for one video, and gets a lot of interest from a particular audience that they did not expect. They will not want to lose this new audience, so they may end up changing their output, so as not to alienate it. This can play out very oddly, when it comes to political content - one could think of, say, Russell Brand’s turn towards straightforwardly rightwing conspiracy theories. It is a very contemporary iteration of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.

Major media outlets - especially those like Fox, the Daily Mail and (for that matter) The Guardian, whose audience remains loyal primarily for reasons of political allegiance - are subject to much the same kind of pressure, though they can often manage it more effectively. The fundamental reason why this works goes to the essential difficulties of maintaining capitalist rule at all. Just as coup-makers need justifications for their actions, so do the rest of the ruling class. Capitalism involves the exploitation of the vast majority by a tiny minority, with a slightly larger minority gaining privileges for administering the system - managers, politicians … and journalists.

The system must therefore produce for itself a veneer of legitimacy that it cannot possess as a mere matter of justice - such veneers are called ‘ideologies’. An ideology can unite a fraction of the working class and petty bourgeoisie with the interests of the ruling class as a whole. The mass media is not the only (but perhaps the pre-eminent) means of securing this identification. The history of Fox News, indeed, is an object lesson in how to do it right: the channel built its audience on relentless scandal-mongering about the Clintons, gorged itself on Bush-era war fever, and spent the whole of Obama’s presidency claiming that he was a communist, a Muslim, a foreigner, or perhaps all three. In doing so, it won the allegiance of a decent chunk of blue-collar white America, along with hordes of reactionary retirees; and funnelled all that energy into voting for pro-business mainstream conservatives, who believed not a word of it.

The contradictions of any given ideology are rooted in the contradictions it seeks to smooth over. For Fox News-style enragé conservatism, the contradiction was always between the populist form and elitist content. Thomas Frank, the left-populist writer, noted in his book, What’s the matter with Kansas?, that ultra-conservative Kansans repeatedly got themselves into an almighty lather about the liberals in decadent Hollywood, but exercised their anger by voting for congressmen who would give these Hollywood liberals tax cuts.

Fox News, then, could not refuse to back Trump, even though he was not the typical mainstream GOP creature who could be trusted to maintain the orthodoxy of the treasury and the state department. Its credibility as a ‘populist’ outlet would be destroyed forever, and its audience would leak off to some competitor. Yet continuing down that path had its own risks - like, for example, a near $800 million settlement with a voting machine company.


Murdoch’s companies have gotten into legal difficulties before, of course. British readers may recall the phone-hacking scandal that broke in 2011; Murdoch was capable of taking it on the chin and making drastic adjustments. He shut down the News of the World, relaunched his company, News International, as News UK, and shopped a bunch of his staff to the police. By the time I started my stint as one of Rupert’s software minions four years later, it was clear that this approach, though painful, had worked: we had got back to ‘normal’. People would talk slightly euphemistically about the crisis, but basically act like it had never happened. By the time I left that job, Rebekah Brooks had returned as CEO after four years at leisure in Chipping Norton, with a £16 million payoff and her husband’s horses to keep her company. That rather sent a message.

There are some signs that Murdoch is cleaning house in the States. On Monday, Fox sensationally fired its top host, indeed the top-rated cable news host tout court, Tucker Carlson. Once a perfectly generic US GOP conservative - albeit one who insisted on wearing a bow-tie, giving him rather the air of an inebriated snooker referee - Carlson saw which way the wind was blowing in 2016, and reinvented himself. Until his sacking, he was the most prominent representative in major media of the new strain of ultra-reactionary, nationalist conservatism that primarily gestated in internet outlets like Breitbart.

Carlson opposes US support for Ukraine (it is a distraction from the real enemy, China); he denounces secret state overreach (indeed, even in cases where the victims are leftwing); and, of course, he promotes viciously reactionary social politics, when it comes to gay and trans rights, race and so forth. He is a firm masculinist, having produced a documentary film about how the modern world feminises men through poor diet. He opposes the metric system - apparently on the basis that it will lead to a new Jacobin terror.

It is not yet obvious why he has been let go, but it is difficult to believe the timing is purely coincidental. Carlson is the most obviously Trumpist property, and his quite genuine hatred for military hawks is a source of embarrassment, when this sort of thing is routinely equated with being a Russian agent. The ‘great replacement’ theory is all well and good, but failure to back our boys (even if ‘our’ boys are actually Ukrainians) is acutely embarrassing.

On this view, Murdoch and his cronies have a job of work to do before next autumn: they must steady the ship, and somehow pull the Fox News juggernaut behind someone who is not Donald Trump. There is no end of suitors for such support. Most prominent is Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who has not officially announced his candidacy, but has more or less used his current job as a way of advertising himself as the acceptable face of culture-war lunacy, turning each week’s latest controversy into legislation as fast as he possibly can.

The trouble is that Trumpism without Trump does not actually seem to be very popular. Trump is almost the ultimate example of audience capture - a genius at reflecting whatever people want right back at them, a giant orange mirror neurone. DeSantis just does not have it. He can run Florida in perpetuity, since its population increasingly consists of reactionary retirees. Yet there is no spark. He is a creep with a strange adenoidal voice. Trump will eat ‘Meatball Ron’ for breakfast.

A return to the pre-Trump style of Fox News will not, of course, make it any less repellent. It will merely plug one of the stranger cracks in the bipartisan consensus to have sprung over the years - the fact that today it is not leftwing but rightwing lawmakers and media celebrities most frequently found denouncing the deep state and the military industrial complex. The Ukraine war has been accompanied perhaps by greater media unanimity than existed in America in the aftermath of 9/11. That Carlson’s was almost the only dissenting voice says little enough about the man himself (he remains a cut-price Protestant Charles Coughlin for the internet age, and nothing more) and a great deal about the increasing authoritarianism of American society - happily ratcheted up by both halves of the decaying imperial uniparty.

It was no surprise to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on MSNBC (Fox’s state-department-liberal mirror-image), hinting that the network should not have recourse to the first amendment, since its output amounted to inciting violence, or indeed celebrating the ‘deplatforming’ of Tucker Carlson. Though AOC is no longer meaningfully described as a leftist, most leftists will, in fact, agree with her, that it is a good thing that such a nauseating racist reactionary is cast out of people’s living rooms.

There are many objections to this mindset, but the most obvious one is that it doesn’t work. Murdoch getting rid of Carlson does nothing to dispel the alienation that the latter feeds off. If this really is the end of his career, someone else will replace him; though personally, I expect to see him replatformed before too long, somewhere or other - if his children go hungry, it will be a result of whatever manosphere fad diet he is imposing on them.

As for the Fox lawsuit itself, it is difficult to see any sense in the arguments from some rightwingers that this sets an alarming precedent. Settlements do not set precedents in the same way as judicial decisions. The bar for defamation is much higher in US law than British law; but the fact that so many of the key Fox people cheerfully admit in their internal communications that they knew all these allegations were utterly untrue would certainly seem to meet the standard.

It is, however, a reminder that there are limits to the first amendment, and that those limits are there to be nudged this way and that by an essentially unaccountable judicial apparatus. It is an uncomfortable thought that the right of Rupert Murdoch’s minions to spew absurd lies into the world is the same thing as the right of a leftwing website to denounce Murdoch; but all libel laws ultimately function as a check on radical critique far more effectively than on reactionary garbage. The reactionaries, after all, can afford better lawyers.

Instead of the bureaucratic ‘deplatforming’ of Fox News, or individuals like Carlson, we should break the economic basis of all bourgeois media - the subsidy media outlets receive from the capitalist class en bloc via advertising. It is this vast subsidy that permits the near-comical inequality of reach between bourgeois hirelings and leftwing media. Above all, however, we need to take a good look in the mirror. However much fun we have laughing at a weirdo like Carlson, our own movement badly lacks the strength and cohesion needed to challenge for hegemony on this front.

  1. . See, for example, Christopher Caldwell in Compact: compactmag.com/article/dominion-s-blow-to-free-speech.↩︎