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Top news anchor in US fired despite Trump backing

Bill O’Reilly had developed a following in India as well with at least one star news anchor widely believed to have modelled his own abrasive take-no-prisoners on-screen persona on the Fox News anchor.

world Updated: Apr 20, 2017 17:55 IST
Yashwant Raj
Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly poses on the set of his show The O'Reilly Factor in New York.
Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly poses on the set of his show The O'Reilly Factor in New York.(Reuters File)

Bill O’Reilly had dominated America’s nightly 8 pm prime time news slot for decades, bringing millions of ad dollars hectoring guests, lecturing viewers already complicit in his worldview, brazenly hawking his books and once famously interrupting then president Barack Obama 48 times during a short interview.

But none of that was as egregious as the number of settlements Fox News had quietly reached with several women who alleged they were sexually harassed by the anchor. The company finally let him go, saying on Wednesday he would not be returning to work.

“After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel,” Fox News’ parent company 21st Century Fox said in a statement.

Support from President Donald Trump, a friend of both Fox and O’Reilly, didn’t work. “I think he's a person I know well — he is a good person,” he had told The New York Times in an interview, adding, “I don't think Bill did anything wrong.”

Though not beamed into Indian homes every night, O’Reilly had developed a following in India as well with at least one star news anchor widely believed to have modelled his own abrasive take-no-prisoners on-screen persona on the Fox anchor. But he never went as far as O’Reilly.

The New York Times started the countdown with a report in April that Fox News and O’Reilly, who is 67 and had been with the cable news channel since 1996,  had reached settlements with five women who had alleged sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour going back to 2004. 

In all, they were paid $13 million.

But that wasn’t really a lot compared to money Fox News was making from The O’Reilly Factor, which had been the top rated cable news programme for 15 years, bringing in around $100 million in ad revenues annually.

The company might have been forced to take a decision, as seemed inevitable, after a string of advertisers began decamping following the NYT expose — including top brands such as Mercedes, BMW, Lexus Allstate insurance and Advil.

Fox News worried about its own brand as well. While Rupert Murdoch, patriarch of the family that controls the channel, was inclined to let O’Reilly continue, his sons Lachlan and James Murdoch disagreed, according to reports.

It was a familiar situation for them, having faced nearly the same questions some months ago when the channel’s powerful CEO Roger Ailes was accused of sexual harassment by a news anchor. The younger Murdochs had prevailed then as well.

That should have signalled how the next set of sexual harassment allegations would play out. The company hired a law firm to looking into the allegations immediately after the NYT report, and O’Reilly proceeded on vacation just a few days after.

The news anchor  had defended himself then saying he was targeted as a celebrity, which he repeated on Wednesday saying he found it “tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims”.