I Ailes death throws Fox probe into doubt
3 Founder was at centre of US probe 3 Several lines of investigation at risk
The criminal probe into practices at Fox News is now on shaky ground after the death of Roger Ailes, the cable channel’s founder, say two people briefed on the inquiry.—
The criminal investigation into a wide range of practices at Fox News is on shaky ground after the death yesterday of Roger Ailes, the cable channel’s founder, according to two people briefed on the inquiry.
Prosecutors with the US attorney’s office in Manhattan have been questioning former Fox News executives in recent weeks as part of a probe opened last autumn. Because Ailes, 77, was at the centre of the government inquiry, these people say, that makes it challenging for them to advance the probe.
The interviews have covered issues ranging from how the cable channel accounted for settlements paid to women who accused Ailes of sexual harassment to a “black ops” unit that Ailes, the ex-chairman, deployed to counter negative publicity, the people say.
In the interviews, authorities have also opened up a new line of inquiry, asking witnesses whether money was moved between Fox divisions to hit financial targets upon which Ailes’ bonus was based, the people familiar with the investigation say.
It is not clear whether any of the matters under scrutiny were illegal or whether prosecutors found any evidence to support a criminal case.
Fox’s auditors signed off on all of the company’s financial statements.
In recent years, 21st Century Fox’s cable channel has been hit with lawsuits from former employees alleging sexual harassment or racial discrimination.
The lawsuits named the channel as a defendant, as well as a number of highlevel Fox executives, including Ailes; host Bill O’Reilly, Dianne Brandi, Fox’s top lawyer; and Bill Shine, a 20-year veteran of the cable channel.
Mr O’Reilly and Mr Shine left the company this year. Ms Brandi, through Fox News, has denied all of the allegations against her. Mr O’Reilly has been adamant that the claims are “completely unfounded”.
The wave of lawsuits come as 21st Century Fox is seeking regulatory approval for its bid to control the 61 per cent of Sky, the European pay- TV group, it does not already own.
The US attorney’s office opened the probe after Laurie Luhn, a former Fox talent booker, revealed that she received a secret $3.1m settlement in 2011 relating to harassment allegations against Ailes. Other women subsequently came forward revealing past payouts and lawsuits filed outlining additional allegations of harassment.
The future of the civil litigation against Fox News remains unclear. Fox is vigorously defending itself against the allegations. Ms Luhn opted to go public after presenter Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes last summer alleging he sexually harassed her.
An internal investigation revealed other allegations by Fox employees, including its then star Megyn Kelly. That led to the ousting of Ailes from the company that he had built into a powerhouse for conservative viewers.
Since then, several employees close to Ailes, including Nikole King, Brigette Boyle and Dennis Mulligan, Ailes’ private security detail, have left Fox News.
Mark Kranz, Fox’s chief financial officer since 2004, left after Ailes’ exit and has been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony.
The death of Roger Ailes at the age of 77 marks the end of a television era defined by Fox News Channel, the Rupert Murdoch-owned network that the former Republican operative ran for 20 years.
Under his leadership, Fox became the most influential force in political media, generating more than $1bn a year as it provided aggressive prime time conservative opinion from the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
But by the time of Ailes’ dismissal last year, the network had been engulfed by a wide-ranging sexual harassment scandal that tarnished his reputation and sparked a criminal investigation.
Ailes cut his political teeth as an adviser to Richard Nixon and finetuned his skills alongside the late Lee Atwater on the election campaign of George HWBush.
Mr Bush said on Twitter: “He wasn’t perfect, but Roger Ailes was my friend & I loved him.”
Atwater once described Ailes as his “soul brother”, adding: “We believe really in two things. One is the importance of staying on the offence, and the other is the importance of controlling the agenda.”
Under Ailes, Fox News embodied this philosophy. Launched by Rupert Murdoch in 1996 with a little help from the cable billionaire John Malone, whose TCI group distributed the network, it aimed to capture a heartland audience that had been turned off by coastal broadcasters such as CBS and NBC.
Ailes’ own ideology drove the channel’s agenda. The son of an Ohio factory foreman — he once described his upbringing as “God, country, family” — Ailes realised that much of middle America shared his resentment of urban liberal elites. So they — and the “mainstream media” — quickly became Fox’s prime targets.
At Fox News, Ailes turned presenters into national stars. Mr O’Reilly became the most watched cable news presenter in America until his ignominious fall last month when he, too, was fired following an investigation into claims that he sexually harassed female colleagues.
The cause of Ailes’ death was not disclosed. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Zachary. In a statement Mrs Ailes said her late husband was “profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity”.
Ailes embodied the macho culture that defined the network. Paranoid and controlling, he used private investigators to follow reporters who had written critical stories about him.
The f ormer Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, whose lawsuit last summer sparked the investigation that led to his downfall, alleged that he once told her: “You and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better, and I’d be good and better.” He was not loved by Mr Murdoch’s sons, James and Lachlan, who have taken bigger roles at 21st Century Fox, which owns Fox News — and will eventually succeed their father at the top of the company. Ailes was known to speak in derogatory terms about James and clashed with Lachlan in 2005 over a programming matter. When Rupert Murdoch sided with Ailes, Lachlan left the company and moved to Australia, only to return to the fold — and the executive chairman role — a decade later. But Rupert Murdoch and Ailes remained close. “Roger and I shared a big idea which he executed in a way no one else could have,” Mr Mur- doch said in a statement, which acknowledged the “huge role” Ailes played “in shaping America’s media over the last 30 years”. Ailes, he added, was “a great patriot who never ceased fighting for his beliefs”.
In Ailes, Mr Murdoch had a kindred spirit who shared his political views and knew how to fashion them into attention-grabbing television for conservative-leaning viewers. When Ailes was forced out of Fox News last summer, his departure coincided with Donald Trump’s acceptance of the Republican nomination in a speech that reminded some of Nixon’s law and order-themed campaign in 1968 — a campaign a much younger Ailes helped to craft.
“The camera doesn’t like you,” Ailes once told Nixon, a reference to his much derided 1960 televised debate performance with John F Kennedy.
“It’s a shame you have to use gimmicks like television to get elected,” Nixon replied.
“Television,” Ailes shot back, “is not a gimmick.”
Few understood this better than him. The question facing Rupert Murdoch, who took over Ailes’ job last autumn, is whether a true successor at Fox News will ever be found.
‘He wasn’t perfect, but Roger Ailes was my friend & I loved him’ President George HW Bush
Roger Ailes built up Fox News but was sacked after it became embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal