Why Bill O’Reilly was sacked

BILL O'Reilly's ouster on April 19 as host of an immensely popular television programme in the US, The O'Reilly Factor, highlights the challenge of dealing with sexual harassment by men holding lofty corporate positions and highly esteemed by their employers.

The talk show host's value to Fox News stemmed from two facts: The O'Reilly Factor attracted an estimated four million viewers each night and generated US$178 million (RM768.78 million) in advertising revenue in 2015, data from Kantar Media show.

Although a massive suit was filed against the news anchor in October 2004 – which was later settled by a US$9 million payment – this failed to stall O'Reilly's upward trajectory at Fox News. Recently, his contract was renewed for an estimated US$18 million annually.

That O'Reilly was finally sacked 13 years after allegations of sexual harassment first surfaced underscores the successful "Stop O'Reilly" campaign using social media and spearheaded by organisations like Ultraviolet and Media Matters.

Ultraviolet's aim is to fight sexism and expand women's rights while Media Matters is dedicated to monitoring, analysing and correcting conservative misinformation in the US media.

For women in Malaysia, the key issue is whether the same tactics that forced O'Reilly's ultimate employer, Rupert Murdoch, to fire an employee who was a major profit generator and was supported by US President Donald Trump, can be replicated successfully in this country.

In June last year, for the first time, the Federal Court introduced in this country the tort of harassment – including sexual harassment. Ruling unanimously in favour of two ex-employees of Lembaga Tabung Haji, the Federal Court upheld the award of RM120,000 in damages for sexual harassment.

More importantly, can tactics wielded effectively against O'Reilly be used to penalise politicians who utter offensive sexist remarks against female Members of Parliament in Parliament without being censured by their political bosses?

A major catalyst for O'Reilly's sacking was a New York Times (NYT) article published on April 1 revealing Fox News had paid US$13 million to five women to prevent them from proceeding with their legal suits, accusing O'Reilly of "verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and obscene phone calls", Graham Lanktree wrote in Newsweek recently.

By revealing the US$13 million settlement, the NYT article negated suggestions that Fox News regarded the allegations by the five women as lightweight or frivolous.

One tactic used by the "Stop O'Reilly" campaign was pressuring Fox News indirectly by targeting its advertisers.

After the NYT article was published, Sleeping Giants, an organisation run by marketing professionals, "tweeted to its tens of thousands of followers a checklist for action. There was a list of O'Reilly's advertisers, shared by Google Docs, at whom to tweet and an onslaught of "Bill O'Reilly facts" lifted from news reports to be shared", David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

As more women came forward with accusations of sexual harassment, the avalanche of adverse publicity prompted companies to question whether it was worthwhile to continue advertising on The O'Reilly Factor.

After the NYT revealed the massive payoffs to O'Reilly's accusers, at least 56 advertisers pulled their ads from The O'Reilly Factor, Lanktree added.

Admittedly, many advertisers moved their ads to other Fox News programmes. However, "targeting advertisers was more effective than calling for consumer boycotts, which are far trickier given the need for broad support and the habitual relationship consumers have with the brand", said Brayden King, a professor of management at Northwestern University.

Another factor in O'Reilly's dismissal was Trump's victory as US president last November.

In the leaked release of an Access Hollywood tape made in 2005, Trump was heard bragging "when you are a star, (women) let you do it. You can do anything," he said, including grabbing their genitals without their consent.

"I do think Trump helped educate the public about what consent means, considering that someone who was bragging about assaulting women became president. That was a huge wakeup call," Shauna Thomas, an Ultraviolet co-founder said.

That O'Reilly was dismissed – in contrast, Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was disregarded 25 years ago – may be an isolated victory rather than the norm.

In 2015, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed 52% of the 6,822 allegations of sexual harassment because it had "no reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred", Mona Chalabi wrote in The Guardian.

This contradicts a 2015 survey of more than 2,000 working women by Cosmopolitan magazine. More than 75% of those interviewed claimed they had been sexually harassed. Studies by the University of Colorado and in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggest women don't complain because they fear being ostracised and damaging their careers.

Ignoring sexual harassment, however, could be costly. Organisations suffer about US$22,500 a year in lost productivity for each affected employee, HBR says.

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com