Was Murdoch's Sky Bid Behind Andrew Napolitano's Fox News Benching?

Judge Andrew Napolitano Greater Talent Network - Getty - H 2017
D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

The commentator's rejected claims came just as the U.K.'s media regulator was assessing whether 21st Century Fox was a “fit and proper” owner for the pan-European broadcaster.

When Fox News was said to have “indefinitely” dropped its legal affairs analyst Andrew Napolitano on March 20, the general consensus was that the commentator — known somewhat lovingly as “Judge Nap” on the channel — had crossed the line when it came to conspiracy theories.

By making claims that British intelligence had been used by Barack Obama to spy on Donald Trump while he was president-elect — a claim cited by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer when backing up Trump’s tweets about being wiretapped — he provoked the U.K.’s usually tightlipped Government Communication Headquarters, which labeled the claim “utterly ridiculous.”

Eventually, after authorities had backed away from the claims and pointed the finger squarely at Fox News, even the channel was forced to backtrack, with anchor Shepard Smith saying that it knew of “no evidence” that Trump had ever been under surveillance.

Network sources have disputed to The Hollywood Reporter that Napolitano has actually been suspended, though his apparently false claims are indeed the reason he has yet to appear on the air since they were made. And he certainly will not be made available to discuss any legal issues involving future wiretapping stories.

But Napolitano’s benching comes at a rather tricky time for Fox News’ parent company 21st Century Fox with regards to its relations with the U.K. (where the story had generated numerous outraged headlines).

Chairman Rupert Murdoch has long desired to take full control of satellite broadcaster Sky, which owns Sky News in the U.K. and pay TV operations in the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Italy and Austria. A $14.3 billion bid for the remaining 61 percent is currently being reviewed by the U.K.’s media regulator Ofcom, which is looking to see whether Fox is a “fit and proper” owner.

The last time Fox made a bid for Sky, in 2010, the infamous phone-hacking scandal involving Murdoch’s papers The Sun and News of the World hit, and it was forced to withdraw. The humiliation suffered at the time (Murdoch was labeled unfit to head up a major international company by a parliamentary committee) has led several to believe that the removal of Napolitano is simply an attempt to keep things friendly as Ofcom does its work.

“I would imagine that Murdoch’s people are going around busily putting water over fires, any fire that could cause an embarrassment,” says Jonathan Coad, a partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, who adds that acquiring Sky is the “one box” the mogul hasn’t yet ticked and is something he’s wanted for years.

“The more public attention there is, the more MPs there are standing up saying it’s outrageous,” he adds.

Mark Lewis, a partner at Seddons law firm, who took on Murdoch’s newspapers in the phone-hacking scandal, says that the media mogul has a solid track record when it comes to jettisoning anyone who might hinder his business plans.

“Everybody is expendable to further his commercial interests,” he says, pointing to the immediate aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, when News of the World, a paper that began publishing in 1843, was shuttered. “I described it as having firewalls in a circle. He burnt through the News of the World and the staff there, he was happy to sacrifice them. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. They were all expendable on the bigger interest. Then he told James Murdoch to leave the U.K. and go to America.”

Interestingly, alongside Fox News' about-turn on Napolitano, this week also saw Murdoch's Wall Street Journal change its usually conservative stance and take aim at the president in an editorial labeling Trump "his own worst political enemy" who is damaging his rule with a "seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods."

For media analyst Claire Enders, the decision to ditch Napolitano was purely because he lied, and did so taking “Fox News' name in vain,” claiming that the supposed sources behind the wiretapping revelations had actually informed the channel, rather than himself.

However, she does highlight Fox News' ability to generate negative publicity and complaints in the U.K., despite having a viewing share of a fraction of one percent. 

Indeed, when politicians were discussing the Sky bid, the British culture secretary spoke of “breaches of broadcasting standards by Fox,” a concern echoed by another MP weeks later.

Falsely suggesting that British intelligence was involved in political espionage against the soon-to-be president of its closest ally would surely represent at least one such breach.