Judge says Fox News has 'credibility problem' after Murdoch disclosure

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By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Delaware (Reuters) -A judge said Fox News had a "credibility problem" just days before a $1.6 billion defamation trial after the company disclosed for the first time in nearly two years of litigation that Rupert Murdoch was an officer of the company.

Superior Court Judge Eric Davis called the delayed disclosure "bizarre" and chided Fox attorneys for having previously made representations that Murdoch wasn't an officer of Fox News, only to reverse on the eve of a trial set to begin Monday over the broadcaster's coverage of false claims the 2020 Presidential election was rigged.

"I'm not very happy right now," Judge Davis said during a hearing in Wilmington, Delaware. "You (Fox News) have a credibility problem."

Dominion Voting Systems alleges Fox damaged its business by knowingly and repeatedly airing false claims that Dominion voting machines were used to flip the 2020 election against former President Donald Trump, a Republican, and in favor of Democrat Joe Biden, who won.

An attorney for Dominion, Justin Nelson, said his client only learned of Murdoch's role on Sunday and got its first document with Murdoch's title of Fox News executive chairman on Tuesday morning. Murdoch, chairman of Fox News parent company Fox Corp, is expected to testify in court.

Dominion says that depositions by Murdoch and others, as well as troves of internal Fox communications, prove top network personnel knew the election-rigging claims were false but aired them anyway to appease Fox's conservative viewers

Fox News had disclaimed that Murdoch was a company officer, which shaped how Dominion litigated the case, according to Dominion attorney Nelson. As a Fox News officer, Murdoch would likely have been subject to more probing discovery by Dominion.

"It is very troubling but this is where we are," said Nelson.

A Fox lawyer told the hearing that Murdoch disclosed the title in a February deposition and he called the title "honorific."

"Rupert Murdoch has been listed as executive chairman of Fox News in our SEC filings since 2019 and this filing was referenced by Dominion's own attorney during his deposition,” said a statement from Fox.

In 2019, when Fox Corp was formed from some assets of the former 21st Century Fox, Murdoch was described in Fox's proxy as the executive chairman of the news business.

Fox News did not immediately respond to a question why Murdoch's executive chairman role was excluded from earlier court filings.

Determining who knew what when and how much power they had over Fox coverage is likely to be a critical task for jurors, who will start being selected Thursday ahead of opening statements on Monday.

Dominion's Nelson said at Tuesday's hearing that the company was still trying to determine what action if any it would ask of the judge for the delayed disclosure.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Anna Driver and Kenneth Maxwell)