Right-wing channel Fox News late Tuesday struck a last minute deal to settle a defamation suit filed by Dominion - a voter tech company - for a whopping $787.5 million. The quantum of this settlement is a record for a defamation suit and the highest publicly known figure for a defamation case in US history.
"The truth matters. Lies have consequences", Dominion's lawyer Justin Nelson told reporters outside a court in the US state of Delaware, where the judge presiding over the case announced the deal. The announcement came just before opening arguments of the case were about to begin.
Reuters reports that Fox issued a statement stating, "We are pleased to have reached a settlement of our dispute with Dominion Voting Systems," it said. "We acknowledge the Court's rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.
This settlement ends a $1.6 billion lawsuit filed by Dominion against Fox News. Dominion's suit alleged that Fox News ran conspiracy segments where it accused voting machines made by Dominion to play a part in rigging the US elections of 2020 in favour of incumbent President Joe Biden.
The larger terms of the agreement remain unclear - like if there was any non-cash component to it, though Fox will not be required to retract any of its reporting or issue an apology of any kind.
But a larger ramification of the case could have been in setting precedent if defamation suits could potently be used by victims of disinformation campaigns.
Right-wing politicians, notably former President Donald Trump, who lost to Biden, routinely accuse him of coming to power on the back of a "rigged" election. Such political narratives continue to be amplified by similarly aligned channels like right-wing media outlet Newsmax.
Even though the settlement price tag may seem pricey, Fox News has been spared from going to trial. Doing so would have possibly put its prominent anchors like Tucker Carson and Sean Hannity on the dock to testify, alongside the publicity blowback the network would have faced.
Nonetheless, reporting Fox's financials quotes Fox's CEO Lachlan Murdoch telling analysts and other Wall Street participants in this February that they had $4 billion in cash on hand.
The case against Fox
Fox was already on the backfoot when the case began.
Wire agency AFP reports that Dominion had released caches of documents, including messages and mails, showing that Fox's executives had dismissed Trump's claim and even expressed their disapproval at Trump's allegations despite praising him publicly.
AP reports that Tucker Carlson revealed in a text message as part of the lawsuit show declaring, “I hate him passionately,” as he referred to Trump and that “we are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights.” Trump would go on to give an interview to Carlson as recently as last week regarding the former's recent indictment in New York.
Dominion wanted to prove that Fox was deliberately spreading false information. In their filings, they said, “Fox knew the truth. It knew the allegations against Dominion were ‘outlandish’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘ludicrous’ and ‘nuts.’ Yet it used the power and influence of its platform to promote that false story.”
On its part, Fox News argued that its coverage was under libel laws. In order for the suit to have been successful, Dominion would have had to show that Fox spread the news with "actual malice", AP reports. This precedent was set in 1964 by the US Supreme Court in a case involving the New York Times. This precedent has largely shielded news organisations from libel cases. Political figures like Trump and his potential rival Ron DeSantis have called for making it easier to win libel suits.
Nonetheless, legal troubles will still be plaguing Fox from elsewhere, as they remain to be on the recieving end of another $2.7 billion lawsuit on nearly the same lines. Another voter tech company, Smartmatic, has also sued Fox news for "over 100 false statements and implications about the company". They say that Fox News had reported that Trump and allies had even accused Smartmatic of being complicit in electoral fraud.
When the news of the settlement broke, Smartmatic issued a statement stating, "Dominion’s litigation exposed some of the misconduct and damage caused by Fox’s disinformation campaign. Smartmatic will expose the rest,” J Erik Connolly, their lawyer, is quoted saying. “Smartmatic remains committed to clearing its name, recouping the significant damage done to the company, and holding Fox accountable for undermining democracy.”