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Fox seeks to quell uproar over Rupert Murdoch’s comments about sexual harassment

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 17, 2017

Fox News chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch attends the WSJ Magazine 2017 Innovator Awards at The Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in New York. (Evan Agostini / Associated Press)
Fox News chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch attends the WSJ Magazine 2017 Innovator Awards at The Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in New York. (Evan Agostini / Associated Press)
By Meg James Los Angeles Times

21st Century Fox on Saturday sought to tamp down a furor over Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s comments that downplayed the magnitude of the sexual harassment scandal that has roiled Fox News for the past 18 months.

During a interview Thursday with Sky News to discuss the Murdoch family’s sale of most of Fox to Walt Disney Co., Murdoch was asked how harmful sexual harassment allegations at Fox News had been to the business of the parent company – and whether the scandal had stalled Fox’s campaign to gain full control of the Sky pay-TV service.

“It’s all nonsense,” Murdoch said. “There was a problem with our chief executive (Roger Ailes) over the years, isolated incidents. As soon as we investigated, he was out of the place in hours, well, three or four days. And there has been nothing else since then.”

But there have been more allegations and firings since then, including the ouster of commentator Bill O’Reilly and the afternoon show host Eric Bolling, who was fired last summer after allegedly sending lewd photographs and text messages to female colleagues.

Murdoch suggested that Fox News had been the target of such allegations because of its conservative leanings.

“That was largely political because we are conservative,” Murdoch said during the interview, but then he appeared to recognize a potential inconsistency, adding: “But the liberals are going down the drain. NBC is in deep trouble.”

NBC fired longtime anchor Matt Lauer from the “Today” show because of inappropriate workplace conduct.

Murdoch’s comments ignited a firestorm on social media, and the liberal Huffington Post website followed up by interviewing current and former Fox News personnel who complained that they had to endure a toxic workplace culture and that their complaints were far from nonsense. The women also bristled over Murdoch’s comment that some of the problems “probably amount to a bit of flirting,” rather than harassment.

A Fox corporate representative issued a statement Saturday to clarify what the company said Murdoch meant.

“Rupert never characterized the sexual harassment matters at Fox News as ‘nonsense.’ Rather, he responded negatively to the suggestion that sexual harassment issues were an obstacle to the company’s bid for the rest of Sky,” according to the statement.

Fox owns 39 percent of the London-based satellite television giant Sky, which provides service in Britain, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. A year ago, Fox bid $15 billion to buy the remaining 61 percent of the TV service that Murdoch helped launch in the late 1980s.

But the deal has bogged down. British regulators have spent months considering whether to approve the Murdoch takeover of Sky, and have interviewed U.S. lawyers and women who have complained that their careers were stalled when they refused to perform sexual favors for men at Fox News. (Under the deal announced Thursday, Disney would eventually take over Fox’s interest in Sky.)

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