Ever since the voting machines maker Dominion secured a blockbuster settlement last week in its libel suit against Fox News, it felt inevitable that someone at Rupert Murdoch’s channel would have to shoulder the blame.

No company likes to make expensive, self-inflicted mistakes but Fox’s airing of baseless claims that Dominion was complicit in rigging the 2020 election for Joe Biden cost the channel a cool $787.5mn. With another manufacturer of voting machines, Smartmatic, bringing a second libel action over similar allegations, the final bill for Fox could be larger still. A scalp seemed unavoidable.

On Monday, it initially appeared as if the fall guy would be Tucker Carlson, the network’s biggest star, when the company said it would “part ways” with the presenter. He was among the Fox employees whose emails and texts were released during pretrial discovery: they revealed a presenter with views very much at odds with those he expressed on air, where he entertained Donald Trump’s outlandish claims of election rigging in front of millions of his viewers, despite privately disparaging them to colleagues.

However, Carlson wasn’t the only Fox star to give credence to the election-rigging claim. Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo also disparaged the conspiracy theory in legal testimony but promoted it on air. Yet they have kept their jobs, as has Suzanne Scott, the chief executive of Fox News. So why did Carlson go?

The decision to fire him was made on Friday night by Lachlan Murdoch, chief executive of the Fox parent company, and Scott, according to one person with knowledge of the situation. Fox was tight-lipped about the precise reason for the dismissal, which caught Carlson completely by surprise, but the answer may lie partly in private messages revealed in discovery.

Only some of these messages have been released, including one in which Carlson criticised colleagues over an early election night call, when Fox called Arizona for Biden, to the outrage of the Trump campaign. “Those fuckers are destroying our credibility,” Carlson said of Fox’s election night management.

A trove of other messages was redacted but has been seen by Fox executives. They are known to have fuelled a growing sense within the company of a star who had come to believe that he was above reproach.

In 2021, a New York Times piece on Carlson that revealed him to be a willing and eager source for political journalists — despite his frequent criticisms of the so-called mainstream media — caused consternation within Fox.

His on-air output, meanwhile, increasingly drew outrage outside the company. Carlson suggested the January 6 attack on the Capitol may have been a “false flag” operation by the US authorities to discredit true American patriots. His views on Covid-19 vaccines also angered many when he said mandatory vaccines were akin to “medical experiments” by the Nazis.

Carlson has promoted the “great replacement” theory, which holds that a conspiracy is seeking to eradicate the white population in the US. The Anti-Defamation League says the theory is associated with racist and antisemitic ideology. He is a defendant in a lawsuit in which some of the producers for his show are accused of making antisemitic comments in front of a Jewish guest booker, who is suing Fox for wrongful termination (Fox says her lawsuit is “riddled with false allegations”). 

It is unclear if Carlson’s broadcasts or views alarmed Fox executives; if they did, the executives never commented on them publicly. Viewers, though, tuned in in their droves. He was the channel’s most bankable star, drawing an audience of more than 3mn a night, easily outperforming rival shows on CNN and MSNBC, and will leave a hole in the Fox line-up that will not be easy to fill. The channel has weathered such departures before, though, parting company with former primetime star Bill O’Reilly over a sexual harassment scandal in 2017 and eventually attracting a bigger audience in his time slot. At Fox, no one is bigger than the channel.

For Carlson, a run for office or a career on a smaller, rival network may await: maybe RT, formerly Russia Today, will appeal, given his frequent comments in support of Vladimir Putin (the network tweeted an apparent job offer to him on Monday, saying: “Hey @TuckerCarlson, you can always question more with @RT_com”). He could be hired by Elon Musk, another contrarian provocateur who he interviewed last week, or ponder a move to a rightwing think-tank. On Friday, after presenting what would be his final Fox News show, he delivered the keynote address at the 50th anniversary of the Heritage Foundation. Its president, Kevin Roberts, then made an unknowingly prescient offer. “If things go south for you at Fox News there’s always a place for you at Heritage.”

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