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Australian publisher challenges Murdoch to sue it over US Capitol riot article

Independent media outlet Crikey has invited News Corp boss Lachlan Murdoch to sue them over an article about the US Capitol riots and News Corp’s coverage of former president Donald Trump.

News Corp's Lachlan Murdoch (left) with father Rupert and brother James. Photo: Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP

News Corp's Lachlan Murdoch (left) with father Rupert and brother James. Photo: Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP

In a highly unusual step, the Australian publication took out an ad in The New York Times on Monday calling on the US-based Mr Murdoch to make good on legal threats over the article.

Lawyers for Murdoch claimed in late June that Crikey defamed him by implying he “conspired” to overturn the 2020 presidential election, demanding a retraction and apology from the outlet’s editorial staffers.

But in a surprising twist, half-a-dozen legal letters detailing the claims were made public on Monday by Crikey, revealing correspondence between lawyers for its publisher Private Media and Murdoch’s lawyer.

Crikey stands by the story, with editor-in-chief Peter Fray saying people can now read the documents and judge the allegations for themselves.

He said wealth and power are too often used to “silence the media”.

“It’s time to draw a line in the sand,” Fray told The New Daily.

“The issue at hand is freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

Crikey’s open letter will also appear in the Canberra Times on Tuesday, though not in Nine Entertainment’s mastheads The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which declined to publish the ad.

A legal letter sent to Fray by Murdoch’s lawyer John Churchill alleges a June article written by Crikey political editor Bernard Keane implied that the Fox News executive “illegally conspired” to overturn the 2020 US presidential election and played a key role in the Capitol riots.

Lawyers for Crikey contest those claims in subsequent letters, retorting that there’s “no credible argument” the article made such implications.

The story contains two references to “Murdoch” and “the Murdochs” but Lachlan is not mentioned by his first name, while a tag underneath the story refers to his father, News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch.

In their open letter published on Monday, Fray and Private Media chair Eric Beecher invited Lachlan Murdoch to make good on this threat, writing that they want to “defend those allegations in court”.

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“You have made it clear in your lawyers letters you intend to take court action to resolve this alleged defamation,” they wrote.

“We await your writ so that we can test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom.”

Murdoch has threatened Crikey with legal action repeatedly in the past and has on several occasions received retractions or apologies from the outlet’s editorial team.

But Fray said they “don’t think they’ve overstepped the line this time”, saying the threats expose how the wealthy use defamation law to exert power over the media.

Fray hopes Crikey’s invitation to Murdoch to sue them prompts “proper debate” about much-needed reforms to Australia’s defamation laws.

He said views similar to those published in Crikey are “written virtually every day in the US”, including by publications such as the Washington Post.

Australia needs a “significant person’s test” allowing “fair commentary on matters of public interest”, Fray argued.

“Defamation is used by the powerful to silence the media,” he said.

“I’m not saying there should be a free-for-all, there are rules that should be adhered to.”

Crikey initially took down the allegedly defamatory story in late June after receiving legal threats from Murdoch, but Fray republished it last Monday after media reports began surfacing about the legal letters.

Fray said this was an effort to combat “the threat of suing” becoming the media story rather than the “substance of what’s being sued about”.

Lachlan Murdoch has been approached for comment.

-This story was first published in The New Daily

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