Trial begins in case against Fox News for false election claims

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Jurors are set to get their first look on Tuesday at a voting machine company’s 1.6 billion dollar (£1.29 billion) defamation lawsuit against Fox News in a trial over the network’s alleged role in spreading the lie of a stolen 2020 presidential election.

The trial began with the judge conferring with lawyers on both sides after he granted a one-day delay that offered time to see if they could work out a settlement.

Jury selection and opening statements had been scheduled for Monday in Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit. The Denver-based company aims to hold Fox accountable for airing false allegations of election fraud that continue to hit US politics.

Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis gave no explanation for the brief delay. But he suggested the companies try to mediate their dispute, according to a person close to Fox who was not authorised to speak publicly about the lawsuit’s status and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Fox Dominion Lawsuit
Representatives of Dominion Voting Systems arrive at the justice centre in Wilmington, Delaware, for the Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News (Matt Rourke/AP/PA)

Fox News stars such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, as well as company founder Rupert Murdoch, are expected to testify during the six-week trial, but it is unclear whether any witnesses would be called on Tuesday.

Dominion claims New York-based Fox News and its parent company, Fox Corp, essentially bulldozed the voting company’s business and subjected employees to threats by falsely implicating it in a bogus conspiracy to rig the election against Mr Trump.

In the weeks after Election Day, prominent Fox News hosts brought on Trump allies who falsely claimed that Dominion’s machines were programmed to snatch votes away from the Republican incumbent and pad the Democratic challenger’s total.

Many of Fox’s hosts and executives were said not to believe the claims but allowed them to be aired nevertheless.

Fox Dominion Lawsuit
Tucker Carlson, host of Tucker Carlson Tonight (Richard Drew/AP/PA)

Pointing to communications among Fox figures, from executives to fact-checkers, Dominion argues that the network knowingly amplified falsehoods for the sake of ratings.

Fox says it simply reported on Mr Trump’s challenges to the election results and let viewers hear from his lawyers and allies.

“Dominion’s lawsuit is a political crusade in search of a financial windfall, but the real cost would be cherished First Amendment rights,” the network said in a statement last week.

Fox said its hosts sometimes alluded to a need for evidence to back up the allegations and noted that Dominion denied the claims.

Fox Dominion Lawsuit
People wait to enter the justice centre in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday, (Matt Rourke/AP/PA)

Dozens of courts, some with Trump-appointed judges, also rejected his fraud allegations.

A key question for the jury is whether Fox News acted with “actual malice”, a legal standard that applies when public figures sue news outlets for defamation. The standard, derived from a 1964 Supreme Court case, means knowingly publishing or airing something false or operating with “reckless disregard” for whether it is true.

Dominion has pointed to text and email messages in which Fox insiders discounted and sometimes overtly mocked the vote manipulation claims. One Fox Corp vice president called them “mind-blowingly nuts”.

Mr Carlson, Fox News’ biggest star, even expressed scorn for Mr Trump, whose supporters formed the core of the network’s viewers. Text exchanges revealed as part of the lawsuit show Mr Carlson declaring “I hate him passionately” and saying that “we are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights”.

Mr Murdoch, the Fox News founder and Fox Corp chairman, found the election claims “really crazy”, according to an email he sent while watching a news conference that Trump lawyers gave on November 19, 2020.

“Terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear. Probably hurting us too,” Mr Murdoch told Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott in another email that day.

Yet talk of the alleged conspiracy continued to air on Fox for weeks after the voting.

In his deposition for the case, Mr Murdoch acknowledged the 2020 presidential election was fair while also acknowledging that some of Fox’s hosts seemed to endorse the bogus election claims.

Voting Machines Defamation Lawsuit
Fox Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch is expected to testify (Mary Altaffer/AP/PA)

The network also maintains that Dominion’s claims of lost business are massively inflated.

Judge Davis criticised the network last week for what he saw as “misrepresentations” and belated disclosures of some information in the case. On Friday, a Fox lawyer apologised in a letter to the judge for what the lawyer described as a misunderstanding about the disclosure of Mr Murdoch’s formal role at Fox News.

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