21st Century Fox’s Lachlan Murdoch: Wave of Sexual Harassment Allegations Marks a ‘Cathartic Moment’

Lachlan Murdoch
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Lachlan Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, said the tidal wave of sexual harassment charges against men in media and entertainment should lead to healthier working environments.

“We’re going through this cathartic moment as an industry… and I think we [will] come out far stronger,” Murdoch said, speaking at Business Insider’s Ignition 2017 media conference Wednesday in New York. His remarks come after critics have charged the Murdoch clan with turning a blind eye to a culture of sexual harassment at Fox News Channel.

Murdoch, interviewed by BI founder and CEO Henry Blodget, was asked about “Today” host Matt Lauer, who was fired Wednesday by NBC News citing evidence of “inappropriate sexual behavior.” He said he had no direct knowledge of Lauer’s termination, saying that “presumably in NBC’s case they had actionable information.”

Lauer is the latest high-powered man to be charged with harassment allegations after revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and others.

“We should see it as a very good year,” said Murdoch, saying that it’s a positive development that powerful men are facing consequences for engaging in harassment in the workplace.

Murdoch did discuss 21st Century Fox’s process of firing Fox News’ Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly over the last year and a half.

Murdoch defended his company’s taking nearly two weeks to dismiss Ailes once the allegations against him were made. “With Fox News, it took us 13 days from the time we learned of the first allegation about Roger Ailes to the time we walked him out of the building,” Murdoch said. “By historical standards, I think 13 days is a pretty good track record.”

With Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, the “fact sets” were different, Murdoch said: The company had never received a complaint from an employee about O’Reilly, and the private settlements O’Reilly had entered into with his accusers prevented 21st Century Fox from talking to its employees.

“Once, however, these claims [about O’Reilly] became public we were able to change his contract, if any allegations came up we could fire him immediately, which is what we did,” Murdoch said.

Now, 21st Century Fox has installed a global head of HR, which handles harassment allegations by employees directly instead of HR departments in business units. The company also has a hotline for complaints, which are directed to Lachlan Murdoch and his brother, James Murdoch. “These are important mechanisms people need to be able to trust and use,” Lachlan Murdoch said.

Last week, 21st Century Fox — after pressure from shareholders — announced the creation of an independent workplace council at Fox News to advise senior execs on issues including ensuring a “proper workplace environment” for all employees and guests, and recruitment and advancement of women and minorities.

Meanwhile, Murdoch declined to discuss “rumors and speculation” about 21st Century Fox looking to sell some of its assets, comparing it to “schoolyard gossip.” According to reports in recent weeks, the company has been in discussions with Comcast and Disney about selling businesses including the 20th Century Fox film and TV studio, the FX Networks and National Geographic cable group, and Fox’s 30% stake in Hulu.

That said, Murdoch added, “The reality is this speculation … has caused a debate around scale in the media… Absolutely, there are sub-scale businesses in media today, which will be the losers going forward in a digital world.”

For 21st Century Fox, “We don’t believe we’re in that situation” of having sub-par scale, Murdoch said. He cited as an example its cable networks’ presence on all major virtual pay-TV services and the company’s diversified international portfolio.

Asked by Blodget if Fox News Channel was “fair and balanced,” Murdoch responded, “Is the New York Times fair and balanced?” Murdoch said both Fox News and the New York Times have separate news and opinion editorial staffs. He insisted that Fox News is not some kind of mouthpiece for Donald Trump or the current administration: “I don’t think any media organization should get behind an individual.”

Murdoch also said 21st Century Fox would not buy CNN if it became available as the AT&T-Time Warner merger faces an antitrust challenge by the Justice Department. “We wouldn’t be allowed to” buy CNN, he said, nor should Fox be allowed to, he added.