Why Rupert Murdoch had no choice but to pull the plug on Bill O'Reilly

For more than 20 years, Bill O’Reilly has had it pretty good – and up until now, so has his employer, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.

After joining the conservative network in 1996, the blunt-spoken, boorish Irish American – frequently accused of sexism, misogyny and racism – rose to become the network’s most watched anchor. Industry data shows that from 2014 to 2016, his show, The O’Reilly Factor, earned Fox’s parent company $446m.

But every good thing must draw to a close. Amid a mounting backlash from companies pulling advertising following accusations of sexual harassment levelled at the 67-year-old, Fox News has decided that Mr O’Reilly must go.

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The news came as Mr O’Reilly shook hands with the Pope (L’Osservatore Romano)

Ahead of a board meeting of the parent company, 21st Century Fox, the company announced that was it cutting ties with the man who was paid $18m a year.

In an email to staff, the company said the broadcaster, who had for two decades pitched himself as the no-nonsense know-it-all, was leaving following a review of those accusations.

“After a thorough review of the allegations against him, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Mr O’Reilly will not return to the Fox News Channel,” it said.

Mr O’Reilly said in a statement it was “tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims”.

The decision by the company came as Mr O’Reilly was on holiday in Italy, where he shook hands with the Pope. Earlier on Wednesday, Gabriel Sherman, author of a biography of former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, had reported that a decision had been made to let go of Mr O’Reilly. 

Rupert Murdoch reportedly wanted to stand by its star, but his sons, Lachlan and James, have decided it is time for him to go, he said.

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“The Murdochs have decided Bill O’Reilly’s 21-year run at Fox News will come to an end,” Mr Sherman wrote.

The brothers were behind the move last summer to oust Mr Ailes, who also faced a series of sexual harassment allegations which he denied, but which the company decided to settle.

There had been a flurry of reports that the Murdochs were preparing to let go of their golden goose, who had been scheduled to return to work next Monday.

His slot will now be taken by Tucker Carlson, an old face among Washington pundits but a recently new hire by Fox.

In addition to Mr Sherman writing that the Murdochs were “leaning toward announcing that O’Reilly will not return to the air”, Matt Drudge, whose Drudge Report is the most influential curation of conservative news in the US, said ominously on Twitter: “O’Reilly has had tremendous run. Very few in the business get to decide when and how things end. Media is most brutal of all industries…”

Mr O’Reilly, who was once forced to issue a rare apology to The Independent for an inaccurate comment he made about one of its reports, said the allegations against him were the “unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with”.  

His lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, said his client was being attacked by left wing organisations. 

“Bill O’Reilly has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America. This law firm has uncovered evidence that the smear campaign is being orchestrated by far-left organisations bent on destroying O’Reilly for political and financial reasons,” he said in a statement. “That evidence will be put forth shortly, and it is irrefutable.”

Mr O’Reilly has been at the centre of speculation about his future since a report published earlier this month by the New York Times suggested that five women had revived a total of $13m after accusing him os sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour. Mr O’Reilly denied the allegations.

In a statement at the time, 21st Century Fox said it had addressed the issue with him. “21st Century Fox takes matters of workplace behaviour very seriously,” the company said. 

“Notwithstanding the fact that no current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously, we have looked into these matters over the last few months and discussed them with Mr O’Reilly. While he denies the merits of these claims, Mr O’Reilly has resolved those he regarded as his personal responsibility.” 

But even if Fox News opted to stand by its star, advertisers did not. Up to 50 major companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Mitsubishi Motors, BMW and Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, all moved their advertising from Mr O’Reilly 8-9pm show.

Reports suggested another factor behind the decision to terminate Mr O’Reilly’s tenure may have been the Murdochs’ anticipated $14bn  takeover of European pay-TV provider Sky. The British media regulator Ofcom, is next month set to judge whether the Murdochs are “fit and proper” to own such a large media property.

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