Hot Seat

Next Front in War on Bill O’Reilly: Sky News Deal

As the host took what he said was a previously scheduled vacation, his troubles hopped the Atlantic to threaten the Murdochs’ European plans.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beas

If embattled Fox News star Bill O’Reilly believed that his Tuesday night vacation announcement would quell his mushrooming sexual harassment scandal, he was wildly mistaken.

O’Reilly’s troubles grew exponentially Wednesday, and even spread across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, as the 67-year-old cable television personality began what his crisis communications consultant, former Clinton White House scandal manager Mark Fabiani, insisted was a long-scheduled spring break with his teenage son and daughter.

Fabiani dismissed media speculation that the besieged O’Reilly, who renewed his contract just before the latest controversy erupted, hastily dropped off the air to escape the gathering storm and possibly won’t be back.

“We’ve been clear on this,” Fabiani told The Daily Beast. “The vacation was planned last October. It’s planned with a group of people. He generally takes time off during his children’s spring break around Easter. And anything to the contrary is just complete fabrication.”

O’Reilly has been in the crosshairs since a front-page April 2 New York Times story detailing allegations of his unwelcome sexual advances to female coworkers, workplace retaliation against women who rebuffed him, and legal settlements totaling $13 million to resolve the women’s complaints. Although he paid a portion out of his own pocket, O’Reilly has denied the allegations.

Fox News, which plans to install a series of substitute hosts in the top-rated 8 p.m. time slot during O’Reilly’s absence, said he’s scheduled to return to The O’Reilly Factor on April 24. But the damage is mounting.

Along with a continuing exodus of advertisers (more than 60 so far), increasing demands for O’Reilly’s termination, a late-afternoon street protest staged outside Fox News’s Manhattan headquarters Wednesday and led by New York Public Advocate Letitia James, and new petitions calling for state and local government investigations of alleged sexual misconduct and racial discrimination, O’Reilly’s detractors are also using the corporate crucible to attack the financial jugular of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

On Wednesday morning in London, representatives of the global citizens advocacy group Avaaz met for an hour with officials at Britain’s Ofcom, the communications industry regulators who will recommend whether or not to approve the long-attempted $14.1 billion acquisition of Sky Plc, Europe’s dominant and highly profitable pay television and internet platform, by 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent company.

“We were arguing that 21st Century Fox, Fox News, and the companies in general have shown a pattern of defiant non-compliance, and therefore should not not be given the green light,” said Avaaz advocate Alex Wilks, who is steering the group’s campaign against the transaction. “The meeting went well. The officials were very much in listening mode. They were scribbling notes and taking it very seriously.”

Wilks urged the regulators to investigate the allegations before making their recommendation, expected on May 16, to Tory M.P. Karen Bradley, Britain’s secretary of state for culture, media and sport, who will make the final call on the Sky acquisition.

Murdoch’s original bid seven years ago to increase his company’s stake in Sky from 39 percent to total control had initially seemed assured, given his clout with the Tory government of Prime Minister David Cameron. But the acquisition was abruptly thwarted by the British phone-hacking scandal, in which Murdoch was forced to shut down his popular News of the World tabloid amid criminal charges and public disgust over the paper’s illegal hacking of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s cell phone.

But this time Wilks predicted the Murdochs—not only Rupert but his sons and fellow executives, Lachlan and James—will use all their political influence, to say nothing of their newspapers, to achieve their desired outcome.

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“The Murdochs are very powerful and they don’t leave a lot of things to chance—and they’ve been building up to this for some time,” Wilks said, noting that Prime Minister Theresa May made a point of meeting privately with Rupert in New York during her visit last September to the United Nations. “The Murdoch press”—notably The Sun and the Times of London—“can be pretty vitriolic and tough.”

Armed with lengthy dossiers alleging Fox News’s and O’Reilly’s history of violating protections against sexual harassment and racial discrimination—including one prepared by Los Angeles activist lawyer Lisa Bloom, who represents O’Reilly accuser Wendy Walsh, and another sent by the racial justice non-profit Color of Change—Avaaz also submitted its own detailed, 19-page compendium of workplace problems at various Murdoch subsidiaries, especially the conservative-leaning cable network’s alleged misconduct under its disgraced founder and former chairman, Roger Ailes.

The compendium was titled: “Sexual harassment, denials and cover ups: evidence of a rotten corporate culture at Fox.”

A spokesman for 21st Century Fox referred the The Daily Beast to a previous statement: “21st Century Fox takes its regulatory and compliance obligations very seriously. We have a strong record of compliance in all our markets, including in the UK. We are confident that our proposed transaction to acquire the outstanding shares of Sky that we don’t already own will be approved following a thorough review by regulators.”

Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson was dubious, claiming that the workplace culture of Fox News—which is coping with racial discrimination complaints from three African-American employees against payroll executive Judy Slater—has shown little improvement.

Despite the network’s vow that “we take complaints of this nature very seriously and took prompt and effective remedial action in terminating Judy Slater,” Robinson told The Daily Beast: “We continue to learn about the culture behind the scenes that feeds into what we then see on TV, promoting racial stereotypes, and it’s something we can’t take lightly.”

Robinson, who has been calling for O’Reilly’s firing for years, noted that he helped organize the 2009 campaign to pressure then-Fox News personality Glenn Beck’s advertisers to leave Beck’s show after he called President Obama a “racist” with “a deep-seated hatred for white people,” ultimately leading to Beck’s 2010 departure.

Lisa Bloom, meanwhile, said her pro bono client, Los Angeles radio personality Wendy Walsh, was finally contacted and interviewed on Monday by lawyers at Paul, Weiss—the law firm retained by 21st Century Fox ostensibly to investigate the O’Reilly allegations—after Walsh phoned in her complaint to the corporate sexual harassment hotline.

“I am outraged and disgusted at the widespread harassment and retaliation against women at Fox News, and the many repulsive allegations against O’Reilly since 2004,” Bloom said. “The most disgusting part, for me, is that women’s careers were ruined when they simply said no.”

Bloom added: “Coincidentally, I’m on my way to vacation right now with my family, just like Bill O’Reilly. The difference is that on Monday, I will definitely be back at work. I’m not so sure about him.”