If anyone ever wondered why commercial broadcasters hired - and stood by - presenters whose past was a little murky, whose on-screen behaviour was not always part of that team game, or indeed whose demeanour towards the opposite sex was revealed to be appallingly inappropriate, then one word should be enough to put them straight: ratings. The money they bring in makes it worthwhile tolerating the eccentricities.
And there is no more frightening example of the tyranny of ratings than the rise and rise of Bill O’Reilly, top-rated host at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). No other host has come close to matching Bill-O in not just ratings, but the consistent delivery of them. O’Reilly has been top dog at Fox for years. And ratings mean income, keeping the advertisers on board, bringing in more of them. But at a cost.
When former Fox boss Roger Ailes was removed from his perch over a series of accusations of, shall we say, inappropriate conduct, brought notably by former host Gretchen Carlson, and then confirmed by the channel’s rising star Megyn Kelly, some may have thought it ended with him going out the door. But now we know not only that Bill-O had been the subject of complaints, but that his accusers had been paid off.
So was he forced out? But you know the answer: ratings. A New York Times investigation found “Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and the network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, have paid about $13m in settlements to five women who accused the anchor of sexual harassment or verbal abuse … The women accused O’Reilly in cases from the past two decades. According to the newspaper, the settlements were made ‘in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their accusations’”.
The NYT report observed “The reporting suggests a pattern … As an influential figure in the newsroom, Mr O’Reilly would create a bond with some women by offering advice and promising to help them professionally … He then would pursue sexual relationships with them, causing some to fear that if they rebuffed him, their careers would stall”.
A classic case of using a position of primacy and trust and then roundly abusing it. Fox, to no surprise at all, asserted “21st Century Fox takes matters of workplace behavior very seriously”. But, tellingly, there is also this statement: “While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility”.
That is as close as you will get to an admission that the inappropriate behaviour took place. And while “O’Reilly suggested he had been targeted by people who sought to harm him and Fox News”, the NYT has noted “The two previously known cases involving O’Reilly concerned former Fox News employees”. One of them involved a $9m payoff.
The idea that those who can’t behave themselves at work would get sent down the road for leaving their employers with a seven-figure tab to pick up seemingly does not extend to Fox News. It may well not extend to other commercial broadcasters - even those in the UK. They get away with it because … ratings.
Would that situation worsen if Murdoch got his hands on 100% of Sky? You may wish to ask that. I couldn’t possibly comment.