“The O’Reilly Factor is on!” Bill O’Reilly cried out for years, signalling the opening of his hour-long smorgasbord of right-wing opinions that made him the most powerful voice on US cable news, and indeed one of the most powerful voices in America.
Now The O’Reilly Factor is gone, the consequence of a growing list of ugly sexual harassment allegations that have painted a disturbing picture of an off-screen persona a world away from the onscreen everyman who’s “looking out for you”. That was O’Reilly’s schtick and he just about managed to pull it off, despite a combustible temper and a salary ($18m annually) that made him anything but.
The reverberations from O’Reilly’s defenestration by long-time champion Rupert Murdoch, who built a financial powerhouse off the back of the broadcaster’s huge appeal to conservative Americans who felt unrepresented by “liberal media”, will be felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
The decision will not have been an easy one. O’Reilly has a huge following, and it showed few signs of deserting him despite the nature of the allegations first published by the hated New York Times (the fact that that particular newspaper is responsible for the star’s downfall is just too rich).
However, ranged against him were James and Lachlan Murdoch, reportedly seeking to change a working environment more in tune with the mores of the 1950s than today, following the departure of former FNC boss Roger Ailes amid similarly grotesque allegations.
Crucially, while viewers stayed on board, advertisers did not, threatening the show’s lucrative bottom line. Also lurking in the background while O’Reilly survived was the question of whether his behaviour might have an impact on Fox’s multibillion-pound takeover of Sky, which where it gets interesting from a British perspective.
The takeover has been cleared by the EU’s competition watchdog, but Ofcom has to consider whether Fox should be considered a “fit and proper” owner for the broadcaster.
Much of the debate surrounding that here has focused on the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World.
But the publishing arm has since been separated from Fox. The Murdochs have argued that it is now part of a company independent from it, with its own shareholders and its own directors (even if we do know who is boss). And they have argued that they have acted to change the culture at the newspapers such that it couldn’t happen again
No such firewall protects the bid from the events at Fox News, however, and various campaigning organisations – including the racial justice group Color of Change and Avaaz, the global online activist network – have made detailed submissions to the communications regulator arguing against it.
Given what has gone on at FNC, the allegations levelled at both Ailes and O’Reilly, the multiple multimillion-dollar settlements, the seemingly toxic culture that pushed out even stars like Megyn Kelly, once the heir to O’Reilly’s “face of the network” throne, can Fox really be considered a “fit and proper owner” for Sky?
You might make a case that it could be at some point in the future, that if the younger Murdochs are indeed committed to transforming the Fox workplace and prove successful, then sure.
But now, with all this still going on? Put it this way: if you have a fit and proper test and Fox is considered fit and proper after all this, what do you have to do to fail it? Is there any point to having a fit and proper test in the first place?
These are questions that Ofcom, if it does OK the deal, must answer. Choosing to do what it did after phone hacking – it reaffirmed Sky’s broadcasting licence but sharply criticised James Murdoch – won’t work this time.
Back across the Atlantic, Fox rolls on with Tucker Carlson in the O’Reilly hot seat. A smart choice, that – don’t ever think the controlling brains at Fox are stupid. Arrogant, hubristic and rather horrid, but never stupid.
Carlson is, like O’Reilly, not quite a doctrinaire Republican. Although he thinks Donald Trump is “refreshing”, he isn’t the same as Trump superfan Sean Hannity, another Ailes creation.
The preppy young(ish) fogey, who once made a fetish of his bow ties, lacks the fake “everyman” appeal of his predecessor but he has proved that he has the ability to draw in viewers, and the advertisers that deserted The O’Reilly Factor will follow them.
With Fox facing a challenge from even more extreme right-wing outlets that don’t bother with the “fair and balanced” pretence and that may scent an opportunity from O’Reilly’s ousting, he’ll need to continue doing so.
The Murdochs won’t thank Ofcom, but it mightn’t hurt their bottom line if they are relieved of Sky’s problems (its latest numbers weren’t good) and are able to focus their attentions on the challenges they face at home.Reuse content