“I Think Lachlan’s Trying to Peter Thiel Crikey”: Inside a Scrappy Australian News Site’s War With the Murdochs

The biggest thorns in the sides of Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch right now are the billion-dollar-plus defamation lawsuits that Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic are pursuing against the Murdochs’ most powerful American media outlet, Fox News. They’re dealing with a different sort of legal agita in their native Australia, or at least Lachlan is, setting the stage for high-stakes courtroom battles in the months to come. The two imbroglios have about 10,000 miles between them, but they also have parallels: The Dominion and Smartmatic lawsuits involve unfounded claims, aired on Fox News, that the companies’ voting machines helped Joe Biden steal the 2020 election; the Australian matter involves a digital news publication called Crikey, which Lachlan is suing over an article suggesting that he and his father—who jointly preside over sister companies Fox Corporation and News Corp—were complicit in the madness of January 6.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’ll do my best to translate it all for an American audience, starting with the background. Crikey, conceived as an irreverent, left-leaning alternative to the Australian duopoly of News Corp and Fairfax Media (the latter now merged into Nine Entertainment Co.), was founded in 2000 by Stephen Mayne and acquired five years later by Eric Beecher via his company Private Media. Both of them had previously worked for Rupert Murdoch–owned papers and were “appalled by his practices and media market dominance,” Mayne told me. Which is to say, as Mayne put it, that “the one big constant” throughout Crikey’s 22-year run “has been holding the Murdoch empire to account.”

For a long time Crikey’s Murdoch accountability went unchallenged. But as Lachlan consolidated power atop the family business and moved his immediate family from Los Angeles back to Sydney, the heat began to rise. Over the past two and a half years, Lachlan’s lawyers have dispatched four legal threats to the small but scrappy website. Crikey complied with the first three of these, including one pertaining to a headline in which it had mistaken Lachlan for his brother, James Murdoch; in another, pertaining to Lachlan’s membership on the board of the Australian media company Ten Network Holdings, Crikey forked over a redress of $10,000, which Lachlan donated to an organization supporting women’s crisis shelters. The fourth legal letter was the one that landed Crikey in its current predicament. It came on the heels of a June 29 opinion column, by political editor Bernard Keane, headlined, ”Trump is a confirmed unhinged traitor. And Murdoch is his unindicted co-conspirator.” The kicker of the piece elaborated: ”Nixon was famously the ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ in Watergate. The Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators are the unindicted co-conspirators of this continuing crisis.”

Lachlan’s lawyer, arguing that the article had defamed his client, immediately demanded a deletion and a public mea culpa. Crikey took the article down but refused to apologize, instead offering to cover Lachlan’s legal fees and publish a lengthy clarifying statement, in which it would say that while the site ”does believe that Mr. Murdoch bears some responsibility for the events of January 6 because of the actions of Fox News…Crikey does not believe that he was actively involved in the events of that day.” No dice, because, as Lachlan’s attorney put it in a subsequent communication, ”a genuine offer to resolve my client’s complaint would not include the republication of the defamatory material.” (Lachlan’s camp also argued that Crikey ”failed to adhere to journalistic standards” by not giving him a chance to respond before publication, but to be fair, that’s a journalistic standard that generally applies more to reporting than opinion pieces.)

From there the lawyers went back and forth with a series of sternly worded letters. Eventually, with compromise proving elusive, Crikey basically said, fuck it: It reposted the offending article, published all of the related legal correspondence, and took out ads in The Canberra Times and The New York Times showcasing the text of an open letter to Lachlan: ”We at Crikey strongly support freedom of opinion and public interest journalism.… You have made it clear in your lawyer’s letters you intend to take court action to resolve this alleged defamation. We await your writ so that we can test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom.” Crikey got what it asked for: Lachlan filed suit the next day, and part of his case holds that the added publicity aggravated his harm.

Here’s where you’ll benefit from a quick primer on Aussie media law. Unlike in the US, where there’s a high bar for proving you’ve been defamed or libeled by a news organization, Australian courts favor the plaintiffs—so much so that Oz is commonly referred to as the ”defamation capital of the world.” Reforms, however, took effect last year, requiring plaintiffs to meet a ”serious harm” threshold while enabling their targets to argue a ”public interest” defense. The legal battle between Lachlan Murdoch and Crikey is set to be the first major test of these new standards, which suggests that David-size Crikey’s willingness to go to war with a Goliath like Lachlan is about more than brinksmanship. It wants to highlight, as the outlet put it in its open letter, that ”Australia’s defamation laws are too restrictive.” Also, as Crikey editor in chief Peter Fray told The Sydney Morning Herald’s media correspondent, “Crikey and its publisher, Private Media, are sick of being intimidated by Lachlan Murdoch.”

Lachlan, who is personally funding the lawsuit, has a different read on things, according to someone familiar with his thinking. He believes Crikey has a ”preoccupation” with him and his family, and he’s been more attuned to what’s being written about him now that his kids are back at school in Australia. He regards Crikey’s coverage as ”clickbait” and views the present situation as a ”marketing opportunity” for the site. ”Crikey took a stand, and he’s taking a stand,” the source said.

Executives for Crikey and Private Media aren’t saying very much publicly right now, with the lawsuit making its way through the courts. But here’s what I was able to glean about their thinking from sources in the know: They find it ”mind-blowing” that Lachlan is pursing a lawsuit that could, if successful, make it even harder for Australian news organizations, including all of News Corp’s Australian news organizations, to defend themselves against defamation claims. They also find it ”extraordinary” that after Lachlan appears at Crikey’s defamation trial in March (assuming the case isn’t settled ahead of time), he will then fly to the US for the Dominion trial, set for April, in which Fox’s lawyers will argue vigorously for free speech. “That’s the key point of the hypocrisy,” said Mayne, who still contributes to Crikey but hasn’t been on staff since he sold it. (He’s also an activist News Corp shareholder.) ”Being so precious in Australia while running a free speech defense against blatantly outrageous speech.” (Lachlan’s camp argues that Crikey and Dominion are two entirely different cases that can’t be compared apples to apples.) 

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