Bill O’Reilly, the biggest star at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, is leaving the cable news network after an independent investigation into claims that he sexually harassed several women.
“After a thorough and careful review of allegations against him, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not return to the Fox News Channel,” 21st Century Fox, Fox News’ parent company, said in a statement.
In an internal memo to employees, Mr Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, said the decision followed an extensive review done in collaboration with outside counsel, but they praised Mr O’Reilly for his outsized contribution to the highly profitable network’s ratings.
“By ratings standards, Bill O’Reilly is one of the most accomplished personalities in the history of cable news. In fact, his success by any measure is indisputable. Fox News has demonstrated the success of its talent bench. We have full confidence that the network will continue to be a powerhouse in cable news,” they said.
“Lastly, and most importantly, we want to underscore our consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect,” they added.
The news came before a board meeting on Thursday that had been expected to discuss Mr O’Reilly’s position. The company, which is separately awaiting a UK ruling on its £11.7bn bid for full control of Sky and a federal investigation into alleged concealment of payments to former Fox News employees, had faced mounting pressure to part company with the star.
Mr O’Reilly’s abrupt exit comes months after Roger Ailes, the channel’s former chairman, was fired following similar harassment claims. Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, the law firm that investigated the allegations against Mr Ailes, was also commissioned to look into claims about Mr O’Reilly.
The probe into Mr Ailes prompted a federal investigation into the possible concealment from 21st Century Fox investors of pay-offs to former Fox News employees.
Prosecutors have begun interviewing witnesses, including Mark Kranz, the former Fox News chief financial officer, who has been offered immunity in return for his testimony.
Mr O’Reilly had been off the air for more than a week and on Wednesday shook hands with Pope Francis while on holiday in Rome.
James Murdoch, chief executive of 21st Century Fox, had pointedly declined to offer his support and one person with knowledge of the investigation said he had pushed for Mr O’Reilly’s removal. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, the group’s executive chairmen, had also not voiced public support for Mr O’Reilly.
Mr O’Reilly is the second big loss from Fox News’ primetime line-up following the departure in January of Megyn Kelly, the star presenter who quit for NBC.
Nancy Erika Smith, the lawyer who represented Gretchen Carlson when the former presenter alleged harassment by Mr Ailes, said Mr O’Reilly’s departure was “window dressing” because while “it’s a big deal because these are prominent men they were also toward the end of their careers.”
“The people at Fox who enabled this and covered it up for many many years, who knew that this harassment was taking place and that these men left a wake of victims in their path, are still there,” Ms Smith added.
Mr O’Reilly is being represented by Marc Kasowitz, a partner with Kasowitz Benson Torres who has represented Donald Trump in litigation matters for more than 15 years. Mr Kasowitz said before the company announced his exit that Mr O’Reilly had been “subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America”.
Lisa Bloom, an attorney representing Wendy Walsh, a Fox News guest who alleged harassment by Mr O’Reilly, said that a new victim had come forward alleging sexual and racial harassment by Mr O’Reilly.
Mr Kasowitz said the latest allegation was “outrageous”, calling it part of an “orchestrated campaign by activists and lawyers to destroy Mr O’Reilly and enrich themselves through publicity-driven donations”.
Douglas Wigdor, an attorney representing Juliet Huddy, a former Fox News host who has accused Mr O’Reilly of sexual harassment, and three Fox News employees who allege racial discrimination at the company, said: “As someone who supported and contributed to the Trump campaign and who routinely watches Fox News, I can categorically deny, and find it offensive, that my firm is being accused of being controlled by far-left organisations.”
Mr Wigdor said that his firm planned to file additional lawsuits against Fox News “that will shed further light on the abhorrent, intolerable and unlawful working conditions that our clients have been forced to endure”.
Earlier this month Mr O’Reilly told the New York Times that he was targeted because he was “prominent”, adding, “In my more than 20 years at Fox News Channel, no one has ever filed a complaint about me with the human resources department, even on the anonymous hotline.”
Fox News’ blend of news and hard-hitting conservative opinion from presenters such as Mr O’Reilly and Sean Hannity has been a winning formula, generating profits estimated at $1.5bn a year, according to SNL Kagan, the research company.
Losing Mr O’Reilly would be a blow, but is unlikely to have an impact on the profitability of 21st Century Fox, according to Steven Cahall, analyst at RBC Capital Markets.
“We think Fox News’ brand affinity remains unique and unchallenged in conservative political news, hence viewers are likely to tune in to O’Reilly’s successor,” he said.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Rome