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The recent legal battles of Fox News and its corporate parent 21st Century Fox are in the spotlight in London this week as British media regulator Ofcom is meeting lawyers representing people who are suing the company in sex- and race-based litigation as part of its review of Fox’s bid to take full control of pay TV giant Sky.
Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have been reviewing various aspects of Fox’s $14.4 billion bid for all of Sky, in which it already owns a 39 percent stake. Ofcom is looking at the deal’s effects on the number of media voices in Britain and analyzing whether Fox is a “fit and proper” owner.
Radio host Wendy Walsh, who said that she lost her regular segment on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor after declining to join host Bill O’Reilly, who was recently forced out by the company, in his hotel room, and her lawyer Lisa Bloom met with Ofcom officials on Monday. The visit was facilitated by U.K. campaign group Avaaz, which has opposed the deal.
Bloom, who represents Walsh and other women who have made allegations against O’Reilly, made a verbal submission at the regulator’s office Monday afternoon. Bloom shared a statement with media after the meeting around 6 p.m. London time.
“My client Wendy Walsh and I came to London to meet with Ofcom because we want the British regulator to understand the corporate governance failures at that company. We both very strongly believe that Fox should not be allowed to take full ownership of Sky,” said Bloom’s statement. “In the meeting that just ended, I told Ofcom about the epidemic of sexual harassment and retaliation and allegations of racism rampant inside the Murdoch media empire in the U.S. It’s phone-hacking part two,” she added in reference to the hacking scandal that led the Murdochs to abandon their last attempt to take full control of Sky. “The Murdoch media hacks, harasses and hides it with hush money.”
Her statement continued: “By my count Fox News currently faces lawsuits filed by 19 different employees alleging sexual and racial harassment and retaliation. This is after over 13 years of dozens of women raising serious issues of sexual harassment there, and Fox News paying tens of millions of dollars to drive them out and silence them.”
And Bloom added: “As with phone hacking in the U.K., this Murdoch-owned company has stood by senior staff they knew had acted illegally or immorally. Bill O’Reilly, who harassed Wendy, is a perfect example. Fox knew about O’Reilly’s harassment since at least 2004 when one of his employees reportedly came forward with records of him masturbating while on the phone with her, but he remained in post until a few weeks ago — even after a second woman in 2011 reportedly came forward with similar disgusting and demeaning tapes.”
The lawyer concluded that “the problem remains, because many of the executives and attorneys who enabled and covered up for these illegal acts remain in place.” And she said: “A company that so openly flouts our laws and values should not be rewarded with a multi-billion dollar deal that will enable it to bring its culture of sexual and racial harassment to the U.K. New cases are being filed every week. More is yet to come. Given everything we already know, let alone revelations to come, it would be irresponsible of Ofcom to let this bid through.”
An Ofcom representative said the regulator would not comment on the private meeting or provide details about meetings with third parties during its deal assessment period.
Fox didn’t immediately comment on Bloom’s comments specifically, but said in a statement: “21st Century Fox’s actions demonstrate its clear commitment to providing a positive, safe and inclusive workplace free of harassment and discrimination. The company’s management has taken prompt and decisive action to address reports of sexual harassment and workplace issues at Fox News. These actions have led to an overhaul of Fox News Channel’s leadership, management and reporting structure, and have driven fundamental changes to the channel’s on-air talent and primetime programming lineup.”
It added: “In assessing and transforming the leadership team at Fox News, the company has been focused on its long-held commitment to a diverse workplace that promotes racial and gender equality, elevating Suzanne Scott to the post of president of programming; along with the hiring of a new female CFO, Amy Listerman, to lead the financial operations at the Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network.”
Concluded Fox: “This newly instituted leadership structure at Fox News brings it closer in line with the wider practices at 21st Century Fox, where women serve as the chair and CEOs of its Fox film studio, as well as its Fox television studio and the Fox television network.”
The deadline for comment submissions to Ofcom for its review of Fox’s bid for Sky was March 30. Sources familiar with the process said, though, that Ofcom has decided to consider material received later given the deadline for its report to the government was recently pushed back to June 20 due to the upcoming U.K. election.
Ofcom and the CMA will by June 20 file reports on the deal to the British government, and the secretary of culture will then make a decision on it based on regulators’ suggestions.
If the regulators have no concerns, the secretary would approve the bid. If they do raise concerns, the secretary would have to decide if the government should require conditions, so-called “undertakings,” from Fox to address the concerns. In 2011, for example, the company suggested spinning off news channel Sky News before the bid was abandoned.
Fox’s recent litigation in the U.S. will again be in focus for Ofcom on Thursday when attorney Douglas Wigdor, whose firm has represented 19 current and former Fox employees in the past year who have made claims of gender and/or race discrimination, harassment and retaliation, will meet the regulator.
While Wigdor is New York-based, he has said he is qualified to practice in the U.K. and studied at Oxford, making him “uniquely qualified” to weigh in on whether Fox’s potential takeover of Sky is in the public interest.
He’s asking Ofcom to consider the facts he’s put forth in the context of a section of the U.K.’s Broadcasting Act, which holds that a broadcasting license shouldn’t be granted to any entity that is not “fit and proper” to hold it. According to Ofcom’s invitation for comment, in evaluating whether Fox meets this standard, it is considering contextual factors, such as governance models and the “range of internal voices” within the organization.
In a recent letter to Ofcom, Wigdor said the Fox executive team “made a conscious decision” to renew Bill O’Reilly’s contract despite being aware that multiple women had been paid settlements in connection with sexual harassment. “It was not until the O’Reilly scandal began to cost 21st Century Fox advertisers — well over a decade after the first allegations against Mr. O’Reilly were lodged — that the company finally decided it was time to part ways with him,” he wrote.
He also claimed that the company “permits and covers up race discrimination,” attributing that, at least in part, to a lack of diversity in its leadership. Fox did not comment on the letter.
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