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Fox News settles Dominion defamation case for $787.5m

Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch (left, with son Lachlan) could have had to testify

Fox News has settled a defamation lawsuit from the voting machine company, Dominion, over its reporting of the 2020 presidential election.

In a last-minute settlement before trial, the network agreed to pay $787.5m (£634m) - about half of the $1.6bn initially sought by Dominion.

Dominion argued its business was harmed by Fox spreading false claims the vote had been rigged against Donald Trump.

The deal spares Fox executives such as Rupert Murdoch from having to testify.

The judge in the case is not required to give his approval for the agreement.

Fox said Tuesday's settlement in one of the most anticipated defamation trials in recent US history reflected its "commitment to the highest journalistic standards".

The Fox statement added without elaborating that the network "acknowledges the court's rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false".

Dominion chief executive John Poulos told a press conference the deal included Fox "admitting to telling lies, causing enormous damage to my company".

Justin Nelson, a Dominion attorney, told reporters that "the truth matters".

"Lies have consequences," he added. "Over two years ago a torrent of lies swept Dominion and election officials across America into an alternative universe of conspiracy theories, causing grievous harm to Dominion and the country."

Mr Nelson added that for "democracy to endure", Americans must "share a commitment to facts".

Opening arguments in the case had been due to start on Tuesday afternoon.

The announcement of a settlement came after an unexplained delay of several hours once jury selection had finished, prompting speculation that talks were under way behind the scenes.

On Monday, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis announced that the start of the trial would be delayed by 24 hours.

Although he gave no reason, US media reported that it was to give both sides an opportunity to reach a settlement.

On Tuesday morning, however, both sides appeared to be digging in for a lengthy trial.

Attorneys for Fox had repeatedly objected to the $1.6bn in damages sought by Colorado-based Dominion, characterising the figure as massively inflated.

The "real cost" of the case, Fox had argued, would be the "cherished" rights to freedom of speech and of the press enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Dominion's lawsuit argued that the conservative network had sullied the electronic voting company's reputation by airing falsehoods about the 2020 vote being stolen from former President Trump.

The lawsuit said that the false claims were partly an effort to win over viewers who were angered by Fox's decision on election night to - correctly - declare that Mr Trump's then-challenger, Joe Biden, had won the crucial state of Arizona.

Two of the Fox executives responsible for the Arizona decision lost their jobs two months later.

Legal findings released ahead of the trial suggested that a number of Fox executives and journalists privately questioned and dismissed conspiracy claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, but still put them on air.

Court documents show that Mr Murdoch referred to the claims about Dominion as "really crazy", but failed to take any action.

In one series of text messages, top-rated host Tucker Carlson said some of the claims were "insane". Another host, Sean Hannity, said privately he did not believe them "for one second".

Fox has said the words were taken out of context.

Ahead of the trial, Judge Davis ruled that the claims against Dominion had already been proven false, emphasising that the falsehoods were "crystal clear".

Despite the mammoth pay-out, some legal experts believe the settlement was overall a positive outcome for the network.

Syracuse University professor and First Amendment expert Roy Gutterman said: "Looking down the line at a six-week trial, this was going to be gruelling for everyone involved and likely embarrassing for Fox.

"But a verdict against Fox could have been even costlier, and had serious implications on subsequent rulings on the actual malice standard and the First Amendment itself."

Had the defamation trial gone ahead, jurors would have been tasked with determining whether Fox News acted with "actual malice" by broadcasting claims it knew to be false.

Civil litigation attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel told the BBC that the settlement "speaks to the massive threat Fox saw from this litigation".

"The reputational harm of having executives, including chairman Rupert Murdoch, and hosts take the stand seems to have moved the parties towards a resolution," Ms Tuegel added.

Fox still faces a second, similar defamation lawsuit from another election technology firm, Smartmatic, which is seeking $2.7bn.

Dominion still has litigation pending against two conservative news networks, OAN and Newsmax.

The company has also sued Trump allies such as Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and Mike Lindell.

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