Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox is facing renewed scrutiny after it emerged that it had signed a new $25m contract with its star Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in February — despite knowing that he had agreed a settlement with a previously undisclosed woman who had complained about him.
The New York Times reported that Mr O’Reilly paid $32m to Lis Wiehl, a Fox News contributor, in a private settlement in January after she complained about his behaviour. Shortly afterwards, Fox News agreed its new deal with Mr O’Reilly.
The presenter was fired weeks later after an investigation into his conduct revealed that other women had complained about harassment by him.
“When the company renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract in February, it knew that a sexual harassment lawsuit had been threatened against him by Lis Wiehl, but was informed by Mr O’Reilly that he had settled the matter personally,” 21st Century Fox said in a statement.
It added the “financial terms that he and Ms Wiehl had agreed were confidential and not disclosed”.
While Fox knew Mr O’Reilly had settled with Ms Wiehl, the size of the payment caught executives at the company by surprise this week. It will give additional ammunition to critics of its proposed takeover of Sky, the European pay television group, in which Fox owns a 39 per cent stake.
21st Century Fox said it had added protections in his new deal that meant he “could be dismissed if the company was made aware of other allegations”. It was because of these new protections that it was able to fire him, the company said.
Its proposed takeover of Sky has been delayed by an extensive regulatory review, with Karen Bradley, the UK culture secretary, ignoring a recommendation from Ofcom, the media regulatory, and referring the deal for additional scrutiny by the Competition and Markets Authority on “broadcasting standards” grounds.
The new review will take several months and will look at the company’s management of Fox News, its lucrative but highly controversial cable news channel.
Fox News has been beset by a string of sexual harassment scandals starting a year ago with revelations about the conduct of its chairman, Roger Ailes.
Mr Ailes, who died this year, harassed a string of women and paid confidential settlements to buy their silence. Other Fox News employees have also been accused of harassment — most notably Mr O’Reilly.
US prosecutors are investigating the payment of confidential settlements by Mr Ailes and exploring how they were hidden from executives at Fox News’s parent company.
21st Century Fox added that it had taken “concerted action” to “transform Fox News”, including appointing new leaders, overhauling management and on-air talent and increasing the channels through which employees can report harassment or discrimination.
“These changes come from the top, with Lachlan and James Murdoch personally leading the effort to promote civility and respect on the job, while maintaining the company’s long-held commitment to a diverse, inclusive and creative workplace,” it added.