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21st Century Fox Defends Renewing Bill O’Reilly Contract Despite New Sexual Harassment Settlement

21st Century Fox was back on the defensive Saturday after the New York Times revealed a new sexual harassment settlement involving former Fox News star Bill O’Reilly that was set just a month before the company signed O’Reilly to a lucrative new contract.

O’Reilly was fired by Fox News in April following the Times’ report that he had been involved in settlements of harassment and sexual harassment claims with five women totaling $13 million, dating back to 2002. On Saturday, the Times reported that O’Reilly personally reached a settlement in January with former Fox News legal analyst, Lis Wiehl, for $32 million, a fee far larger than previously disclosed settlements. In February, Fox News set a long-term contract with O’Reilly that included a huge salary boost, to $25 million a year from around $20 million under his previous deal.

In a lengthy statement, Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox defended the decision despite the company’s awareness of O’Reilly’s personal settlement with Wiehl. Fox emphasized that the new contract gave the company an out if further harassment claims were made against its star anchor. Two months after the contract was inked, O’Reilly was fired amid the firestorm over the Times’ initial report of the five settlements and the company’s investigation of additional allegations.

However, the timing of the Wiehl settlement paints a damning picture of Fox leadership’s willingness to keep O’Reilly in the fold despite its public statements about its efforts to ensure that 21st Century Fox divisions fostered a healthy and inclusive working environment for all employees. At the time O’Reilly’s new deal was set, Fox News was still reeling from the ouster of its founder and leader, Roger Ailes, amid sexual harassment scandal that led Fox News to reach a $20 million settlement with former anchor Gretchen Carlson. It was also concerned about the strength of its primetime lineup following Megyn Kelly’s surprise decision in January to relocate to NBC News.

“When the company renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract in February, it knew that a sexual harassment lawsuit had been threatened against him by Lis Wiehl, but was informed by Mr. O’Reilly that he had settled the matter personally, on financial terms that he and Ms. Wiehl had agreed were confidential and not disclosed to the company,” 21st Century Fox said in a statement. “His new contract, which was made at a time typical for renewals of multi-year talent contracts, added protections for the company specifically aimed at harassment, including that O’Reilly could be dismissed if the company was made aware of other allegations or if additional relevant information was obtained in a company investigation. The company subsequently acted based on the terms of this contract.”

In an interview with the Times, O’Reilly denied that he had engaged in inappropriate behavior with Wiehl. She had been a contributor to Fox News and made appearances on O’Reilly’s TV and radio shows since 2001 until ending her association with both around the time of the settlement in January. Wiehl also occasionally provided legal advice to O’Reilly. In a statement from a spokesman, Mark Fabiani, O’Reilly said the newspaper “chose to rely on unsubstantiated allegations, anonymous sources and incomplete, leaked or stolen documents.” The statement also said the information in the article was “designed to embarass Bill O’Reilly and to keep him from competing in the marketplace.”

The Times reported that Wiehl’s claims included allegations that O’Reilly sent her pornographic emails. O’Reilly told the Times that material stemmed from threatening emails he regularly received and were forwarded to her in a legal capacity.  A rep for O’Reilly provided an affadavit Wiehl signed on Jan. 17 connection with the settlement in which she withdrew all allegations presented in an earlier draft complaint and specifically stated that the emails in question fell under attorney-client privilege.

The affidavit noted that Wiehl had worked and socialized with O’Reilly for 18 years. She also stated in the document that she had no claims against Fox News.

With O’Reilly already out at Fox News, the fallout from the Times’ latest report is landing on 21st Century Fox. The conglom’s second-generation leaders, co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch and CEO James Murdoch, have sought to assure employees and the public that Ailes’ ouster has meant the dawn of a new era at Fox News. The timing of the O’Reilly contract reinforces the perception that it was the threat of the Fox News scandal derailing the parent company’s pending acquisition of Euro satcaster Sky that forced the ax to fall on O’Reilly.

“21st Century Fox has taken concerted action to transform Fox News, including installing new leaders, overhauling management and on-air talent, expanding training, and increasing the channels through which employees can report harassment or discrimination,” the company’s statement read. “These changes come from the top, with Lachlan and James Murdoch personally leading the effort to promote civility and respect on the job, while maintaining the company’s long-held commitment to a diverse, inclusive and creative workplace.”

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