WILMINGTON: Fox News reached a $787.5 million settlement Tuesday in a defamation case brought by voting technology company Dominion that alleged the network knowingly aired false claims linking its machines to a conspiracy to undermine the 2020 US election.

The agreement to end the case avoided what most experts suggested would have been a damaging, high-profile trial for the conservative channel in which owner Rupert Murdoch would have been compelled to testify in open court.

Judge Eric Davis announced the last-minute agreement after the 12 jurors had been selected and the Delaware Superior Court was readying to hear opening arguments.

Fox News said in a statement it was “pleased” to have ended the dispute and added: “We acknowledge the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.”

Dominion CEO John Poulos told reporters outside the court that Fox had “admitted to telling lies about Dominion that caused enormous damage to my company, our employees, and our customers. Nothing can ever make up for that.”

The proceedings, trailed by the New York Times as “the defamation trial of the century,” had been due to test the limits of free speech rights for media in America when wilfully broadcasting misinformation.

Analysts had predicted it could be one of the most consequential libel hearings in US legal history.

The settlement, believed one of the largest in a defamation case ever, means star anchors, such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity will also avoid appearing on the witness stand.

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US media reported that the agreement does not require Fox hosts to apologize on-air or admit spreading falsehoods.

Dominion sued Fox News for $1.6 billion in March 2021, alleging it promoted Donald Trump’s baseless claim that its machines were used to rig the presidential election he lost to Joe Biden.

Dominion argued that Fox aired the lies despite knowing they were untrue.

It said the network began endorsing Trump’s conspiracy because the channel was losing audience to smaller rivals after it became the first television outlet to call the southwestern state of Arizona for Biden, effectively projecting the Democrat would win the presidency.

First Amendment rights

Fox News denied defamation. It claimed it was only reporting on Trump’s allegations, not supporting them, and was protected by free speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The protection makes it difficult for plaintiffs to win defamation suits in the United States.

In pre-trial hearings, Davis ruled that there was no question Fox aired false statements about Dominion.

For Dominion to have won however, it would have been required to prove that Fox News acted with actual malice – knowing the information was wrong or having a “reckless disregard” for the truth.

The tough burden has been a bedrock of US media law since 1964.

Dominion released a trove of internal Fox News communications in which some commentators and executives balked at Trump’s claims and even expressed a dislike of the ex-president despite praising him on air – evidence, it said, of malice.

A filing showed that Murdoch described comments by former Trump advisors Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell pushing Trump’s claim that the election was stolen from him as “really crazy stuff. And damaging.”

Carlson told staff he couldn’t wait until he could “ignore Trump most nights,” adding: “I hate him passionately.”

Fox News accused Dominion of “cherry-picking and taking quotes out of context.”

John Culhane, a professor at Delaware Law School at Widener University, said high-profile Fox names defending themselves in court would have been much worse for the network than the settlement.

“The audio would have been replayed a thousand times, forever,” he told AFP.

Fox News has overcome several crises in recent years and was the most watched cable news channel for a seventh year in a row last year, well ahead of competitors MSNBC and CNN.

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It employs some traditional news reporters, but the majority of its airtime is given to conservative commentators, including in prime-time shows.

“The network has been completely exposed as a partisan propaganda outlet that is willing to do anything for profit and power,” said Media Matters advocacy group president Angelo Carusone, reacting to the settlement.

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