Exactly one year on from Lachlan Murdoch first initiating defamation proceedings, the case of Murdoch v Private Media (Crikey) has resulted in Mr. Murdoch paying $1.3 million in legal costs to the online news publisher. Mr. Murdoch offered these funds on the condition that the nearly $600,000 raised by Crikey's fundraising campaign be paid out to the Alliance for Journalists' Freedom.
Mr. Murdoch's lawyer, John Churchill, said his client's payment was to “enable Private Media [Crikey's publisher] to keep its commitment to donating all the funds raised through a GoFundMe page to the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom."
"All the money raised from this crowdfunding initiative will be used for legal costs to defend the defamation action that has been commenced by Lachlan Murdoch, as well as any costs or damages we are ordered to pay by the court. If the court makes a costs order in our favour, this could mean that we end up raising more money than we need to pay our legal costs. If this happens, we will make a donation of any surplus funds to the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom. Surplus funds will include any amount recovered through a costs order, as well as any funds raised that exceed the total amount charged by our lawyers."
Mr. Churchill also stated that Mr. Murdoch's discontinuation of the defamation proceedings was to stop Crikey using the trial as a marketing tactic:
“Crikey admitted that there is no truth to the imputations that were made about Mr Murdoch in the article and Mr Murdoch remains confident that the court would have ultimately found in his favour...Mr Murdoch said when he discontinued the proceedings that he did not wish to further enable Crikey’s use of the court to litigate a case from another jurisdiction that has already been settled and facilitate a marketing campaign designed to attract subscribers and boost their profits.”
The defamation case had already been discontinued since April of 2023 by which point Crikey had raised $588,735 to cover their legal costs. Crikey were "surprised" by Mr. Murdoch's offer to pay out a sum $1.1 million more than what was expected. Mr. Murdoch reportedly did not wish to see Crikey's crowd-sourced funds used to cover the gap in legal costs and thus chose to pay out more than was legally required.
Background to Crikey Defamation Lawsuit
On the 29th of June 2022, Crikey published an article by Bernard Keane titled “Trump is a confirmed unhinged traitor. And Murdoch is his unindicted co-conspirator”. The article discussed the events of January 6th 2021 in Washington DC and argued that Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, contributed to encouraging the Capitol Hill rioters. The article did not specify a particular member of the Murdoch family, only using the term once in the headline and once as a collective in the final sentence of the piece: "The Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators are the unindicted co-conspirators of this continuing crisis."
The next day, the solicitor for Rupert Murdoch's son, Lachlan Murdoch, wrote to Crikey with demands that the article be taken down along with all accompanying social media and demanded that Crikey publish an apology as a way to potentially avoid legal action. The solicitor, John Churchill, described the article as an "'unwarranted attack on my client, without any notice and in complete disregard of the facts'.
Crikey denied that the article was defamatory in regards to Lachlan Murdoch, arguing that the term Murdoch referred only to Rupert Murdoch. They also removed the article and social media posts as requested and invited Lachlan Murdoch to an on-the-record interview, both actions serving as 'goodwill gestures'.
Crikey later republished the article and further correspondence between the two parties saw no movement on their positions. Crikey also published an open letter to the Murdoch family in advertisements published in Australian and United States' newspapers, as well as letters exchanged between its own lawyers and those of Lachlan Murdoch.
Crikey 's Managing Editor, Peter Fray, and the chairman of Private Media, Eric Beecher, dared Mr. Churchill to proceed with his threat of legal action:
'We want to defend those allegations in court...You have made it clear in your lawyer’s letters you intend to take court action to resolve this alleged defamation...We await your writ so that we can test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom."
Lachlan Murdoch filed defamation proceedings against Crikey on the 23rd of August 2022. He has also hired prominent defamation lawyer, Sue Chrysanthou SC.
On the 25th of August 2022, Crikey launched a crowdfunding campaign to support its defence against Lachlan Murdoch's defamation lawsuit. By September, the campaign had grown to over $450,000, and to nearly $600,000 by the campaign's close. David Donovan for Independent Australia suggested an outfit like Crikey should not require crowdfunding for its legal defence due to its significant financial backing.