A day after TheWrap exclusively reported that 21st Century Fox paid off a woman who accused former top executive David Hill of sexual misconduct 19 years ago, questions persist regarding whether the company has made sufficient changes to its corporate culture.
According to two individuals with knowledge of the situation, the payment happened in 1998 when Hill, a longtime member of Rupert Murdoch’s inner circle, was chairman of Fox Sports. The case predated the sexual harassment investigations that led to the departures of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and founder Roger Ailes, along with the dismissal of Fox Sports President Jamie Horowitz earlier this month. All denied wrongdoing.
A former Fox executive told TheWrap that Murdoch established an environment where he protected certain valued employees, saying misconduct was “confined to the news business and the sports business.”
“And both of those divisions had guys at the top that Rupert provided air cover for, and who misbehaved decades ago without repercussions,” said the former executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Did that sow the seeds of the culture that’s now being seen by clearer eyes? Because women thankfully decided to have their voices heard? I think that’s a real possibility.”
Attorney Lisa Bloom, who has filed multiple sexual harassment suits against Fox, said that the Hill case is the earliest recorded one against the company that she is aware of.
“If they’d cleaned house then, or simply monitored their staff to require compliance with the law, so many women could have been spared,” Bloom told TheWrap.
Fox has made concerted efforts to improve its workplace following Gretchen Carlson filing a lawsuit against Ailes in July 2016. The company overhauled management, launched an investigation led by outside counsel and introduced forums for women to come forward with allegations.
Particularly on the film side, the company employs women in high positions — including Fox co-chair Stacey Snider.
Rupert Murdoch no longer handles day-to-day oversight of the company, having passed the torch two years ago to his sons, CEO James Murdoch and executive co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch.
Horowitz’s prompt dismissal from Fox Sports suggests that the company’s current regime acts more quickly than it used to — though Horowitz would call it a rush to judgment.
And not everyone is convinced that the recent changes amount to much more than lip service.
David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR and author of the book “Murdoch’s World,” suggests that the establishment of new hotlines and avenues for reporting misconduct ring hollow because these claims still go through a law firm hired by 21st Century Fox, rather than an outside agency.
“I’ve talked to women — including women who have said they’ve experienced such things — and many of them have expressed the beliefs that they don’t trust the new policies and procedures in place,” Folkenflik told TheWrap.
Looming over Fox’s recent moves is the pending takeover of pay-TV group Sky by 21st Century Fox, which has been scrutinized by media watchdog group Ofcom.
Attorney Debra Katz, who frequently represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment lawsuits, told TheWrap that she questions whether Fox’s effort to clean up its act “is being motivated by this desire to move forward with their Sky deal, and they’ll revert back if that deal goes through.”
“We have been saying all along that Fox’s superficial changes have not created any meaningful change and were only designed to appease advertisers and Ofcom,” added attorney Douglas Wigdor, whose clients include current and former Fox employees alleging racial discrimination and sexual harassment. “These two new cases are further evidence of that fact, and I would expect there to be others in the not too distant future.”
Should Fox have made more personnel changes in the wake of the flurry of allegations? According to Folkenflik, some Fox employees are dismayed that Dianne Brandi, executive vice president of legal and business affairs, has not been under fire amid the scandals.
“In some ways, the real question has to be how Dianne Brandi has her job, given that she had to be involved in a number of ways of addressing or not addressing allegations of misconduct as they came in,” he said. “I think Dianne Brandi’s continued presence upsets and alarms people.”
Fox is not the only company dealing with such issues, given similar problems in the tech industry. Katz praised Uber for sharing the results of its recent investigation into allegations of gender bias and sexual harassment that contributed to CEO Travis Kalanick stepping down.
“You can’t just wait until the next case comes and fire the next person,” Katz said. “You need to actually take meaningful preventive and corrective measures.
Folkenflik sees Fox at a kind of “crossroads where the decisions that it makes in the months ahead will help determine the kind of company it proves to be, especially as the sons increasingly assert themselves.”
He pointed out that Ailes’ legacy may be tough to shake.
“You used to joke before Roger’s departure that if he were to ever leave, they would try to summon up his spirit within them to figure out what he would have done,” Folkenflik said. “There seems to be a lot of that still going on.”
Fox declined to comment for this story. A 21st Century Fox spokesperson also declined comment.