ANALYSIS: MEDIA

Mea culpa: Gretchen Carlson’s US$20 million payout from Fox over sexual harassment wasn’t nearly as surprising as the company apologising

Parent company 21st Century Fox praised Carlson’s skills and said it was “proud” she had been part of the organisation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 September, 2016, 12:17am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 September, 2016, 12:16am

The settlement 21st Century Fox announced on Tuesday regarding former anchor Gretchen Carlson, who filed a lawsuit this summer claiming sexual harassment by the powerful – and now ousted – Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, was extraordinary in many ways.

There was the speed with which the suit went from being filed, on July 6, to being settled, just two months later. There was the reported size of the settlement, US$20 million, which employment lawyers suggested is the largest single plaintiff pretrial settlement for sexual harassment charges they knew of – many are settled privately.

The last thing a plaintiff ever receives in a pretrial settlement is an apology
Debra Katz, lawyer

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the settlement was the company’s public apology to Carlson in its statement, a move employment lawyers said was ­extremely rare, if not unprecedented, when it comes to sexual harassment claims.

“Typically the last thing a plaintiff ever receives in a pretrial settlement is an apology,” said Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer who often represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment lawsuits.

“It clearly is a recognition that she was right that she was treated ­inappropriately, and that in and of itself is quite stunning.”

In its statement, 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News, where Carlson was a former anchor and Ailes was its powerful chairman until recently, praised Carlson’s skills and said it was “proud” she had been part of the organisation.

“We sincerely regret and apologise for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve,” the network’s statement read.

More typically, if a settlement is announced at all – many sexual harassment claims stay quietly under wraps – it comes with a “non-statement”, said Amy Bess, an employment lawyer at Vedder Price. The company denies wrongdoing and says it is moving on to avoid the distraction and uncertainty that comes with the legal process.

“What Fox is trying to do is demonstrate publicly that this is not business as usual,” Bess said. “[They’re trying] to make a statement to the public that this company is turning over a new leaf. It’s gotten rid of the evil doers, and they’re now focusing on a more positive, proactive, non­-discriminatory culture that is a good place for women to work.”

Most companies don’t make such a statement of regret because it could expose them to some risk. Yet in this case, employment lawyers said, Carlson is thought to have negotiated for and demanded nothing less than a public apology.

“Fox, in acknowledging she was treated badly, may be sig­nalling to other employees that there’s going to be a culture change, that they’re not going to tolerate this kind of behaviour,” Katz said. “But I’m confident that she insisted upon it.”

Blonde bombshell: former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson sues network boss Roger Ailes, claiming sex harassment

That is partly because it’s one of the most basic things plaintiffs desire when they pursue a sexual harassment suit, Katz said.

Besides an apology, one other thing Carlson will be getting, meanwhile, is a US$20 million ­settlement. The size of that payout is larger than any known pretrial settlement for a sexual harassment claim by a single plaintiff, Katz said, noting that such figures are often kept private.

While US$20 million may be larger than other settlements for similar claims, it’s also, interestingly, exactly half the size of the exit package Ailes was reportedly paid. After Ailes stepped down as the chairman and CEO of Fox News in July, just two weeks after Carlson’s lawsuit was filed, reports said he would receive more than US$40 million and remain an adviser to Rupert Murdoch.