Sky News and ACMA face scrutiny at latest media diversity inquiry hearing

Sky News Australia CEO, Paul Whittaker said during the media diversity in Australia senate hearing today that YouTube’s process in handing out a warning and subsequent ban “lacks transparency”, and added that  the ban was an “overreaching” of its powers.

Whittaker appeared in front of the Environment and Communications References Committee in relation to the broadcasters seven day ban from YouTube at the end of July. As a result of which, he said Sky News removed 18 videos, in addition to the 23 taken down by YouTube.

Committee chair Senator Sarah Hanson-Young appeared frustrated with Whittaker at one point, as she pressed him to say whether or not he accepted the assessment that Sky News had aired misinformation, which Whittaker ultimately rejected.

Sky News Australia CEO, Paul Whittaker

Whittaker in his responses said that YouTube, is a publisher and recommended to the committee that it be regulated as one, also questioning why a tech platform based in California is able to decide what constitutes misinformation in Australia. YouTube is owned by Alphabet Inc, the owner of Google.

During his opening comments, Whittaker also affirmed that while Sky News “does not shy away from a broad spectrum of opinions”, it does definitively support vaccines as a policy.

The committee putting questions to the witnesses was made up of senators Hanson-Young, Kim Carr, Alex Antic, Sam McMahon, Mehreen Faruqi and Gerrard Rennick.

When questioned over the absence of the Sky News presenter panel, which was due to appear at the hearing, before backing out on Friday, Whittaker said that they had the individual right to make the “personal decision”, indicating that they had no confidence in the process.

Committee chair, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young

Whittaker argued that the current media regulation policies are satisfactory, and does not advocate for a Royal Commission into media diversity, despite also arguing that YouTube, Google and social media giants are “completely unaccountable”.

YouTube’s actions reflected that of a totalitarian state, according to Whittaker, while calling into question the “very opaque” process that deems videos to have breached its policies regarding misinformation, with Sky News not being given the time to appeal YouTube’s decision before it was handed the ban.

Following Whittaker, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, questioned the hierarchy at Sky News, following Whittakers responses, also calling Lachlan Murdoch “utterly spineless” for refusing the show up, despite the power he wields at News Corp.

Rudd also questioned the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA’s) role as the regulatory body, as he said a private company is doing its work, calling for it to be abolished, as he labelled it “useless”.

Rudd said during his questioning that most Australian politicians “live in fear” of the News Corp outlets, that they can “crucify you” if you become a person that dares challenge its standing.

Rudd giving evidence to the committee at a prior hearing this year

Whittaker stated that the Murdochs have no role in directing Sky News’ editorial decision making, and he and Lachlan Murdoch were infrequently in conversation.

Within the removed videos, the content in question was in relation to Alan Jones repeatedly affirming that COVID-19 was “not a pandemic”, as well as the promotion of several different treatments for COVID-19, including the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

In the afternoon session, the AMCA chair, Nerida O’Loughlin and Crenia Chapman, ACMA deputy chair and CEO were called as witnesses, regarding the regulator’s role in enforcing policy over misinformation, and regarding YouTube’s decision to ban Sky News.

O’Loughlin deferred questioning on whether a change to the regulatory model is needed, as she said that would be a matter for parliament.

She faced pointed questioning from senators Hanson-Young and Carr over the ACMA’s ability to impose any sanctions, O’Loughlin said the regulator “does not monitor” and only becomes active when a complaint is made. The ACMA offers broadcasters the ability to respond to initial complaints, which leads to the lengthy process, stating that the regulator had received a total of 37 complaints in relation to Sky News’ editorial content in 2021, in relation to potential COVID-19 misinformation, with 24 of those being put to the broadcaster.

Hanson-Young labelled it “astonishing” that there exists such a drawn-out process without any active role for the ACMA, before it can start to even consider whether a breach of standards has occurred, Carr following up with the question :”I’m just wondering what you actually do?”.

O’Loughlin said that this case is a reflection of the business models in operation between YouTube and the editorial guidelines at Sky News, and that ultimately broadcasters are responsible for the content they publish. She also said that the ACMA does not have the ability to quickly enforce rulings on misinformation, in most cases broadcasters are given 60 days to respond to complaints.


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