Saturday Paper: The Four Stages of Sky News

Before the past couple of years, most Australians were either unaware of Sky News or considered it a bit of a joke. The consensus was that nobody watched it, and the people who did were out on the fringe. Anyone who maintains this today is simply not living in the present.

The truth is more than nine million Australians – one in three of us – watch Sky News every month. They do so across more platforms than any other news outlet. Foxtel makes up barely one-third of Sky News’s reach each month; most of it happens online, through YouTube and Facebook. Sky’s YouTube channel alone has twice the viewership of the ABC, and more subscribers than the three commercial networks combined.

To this, the Murdoch-owned Sky News has just added a free-to-air TV network broadcast throughout regional Australia, targeting the very markets hardest hit by Murdoch’s closure last year of 112 regional newspapers and the mass sacking of journalists. These were closed on the pretext of Murdoch being financially strapped amid the pandemic; in reality, News Corp has just recorded the best year in its corporate history, bolstered by tens of millions of dollars in annual payments from Facebook and Google.

So the reality is that millions are now watching Sky News, and this has largely escaped the attention of journalists, academics and even the political class. It’s happening under our feet and targeted at the critical seats that will decide the next election, particularly in regional Queensland.

It’s therefore misguided to think of Sky News as a cable news network with an online presence. It is a multiplatform behemoth whose feedstock is a 24-hour news channel. Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt may consider themselves television stars, but they’re really among Australia’s biggest YouTube influencers.

The revelation that YouTube – a platform known for its infamously light touch to neo-Nazis and flat-earthers – had suspended Sky News’s uploading privileges for one week surprised many Australians who don’t watch the network. Those who watch it closely understand that it has adopted the same business model that transformed Murdoch’s Fox News from a right-leaning news channel into one of the most potent forces in American politics. Indeed, YouTube’s action against Sky News was almost as predictable as the Murdoch media’s explosive response, which labelled it the “most extreme cancellation of free speech imaginable” and even invoked the Holocaust.

Of course, the shrill cries about an assault on “freedom” are a distraction. Press freedom has never come without responsibility to the truth. The alternative proposition – unrestrained free speech meaning the right to invent your own facts – would be untenable. Murdoch has spent decades resisting and undermining all efforts to develop substantial industry-led regulation. As the country’s dominant media organisation, which routinely censors facts it finds inconvenient, it can hardly complain about another company exercising its right to restrict the spread of dangerous misinformation. Of course, they know they’re in the wrong, which is why they’ve spent the past week purging their websites of incriminating videos.

Murdoch’s strategy for Sky News has four stages. The first step is to latch onto a segment of the Australian community and divorce them from reality. The Fox News model depends on the audience believing that all other media outlets – especially the ABC and any non-Murdoch newspapers – are endemically biased to the left and cannot be believed. Only Sky News, Murdoch newspapers and certain talkback radio hosts can be trusted. While it’s often argued that rusted-on viewers don’t expect expert opinion or unbiased coverage from Sky News, this is actually false; News Corp’s own market research suggests Sky News viewers believe they are getting expert commentary and accurate, unbiased coverage.

Second, Murdoch keeps these viewers in a far-right echo chamber where they are radicalised and taught to revile their cultural enemies. The key to this is the presentation of “experts” who are anything but. Anti-vaccination MP Craig Kelly, who was exiled from the Liberal Party for spreading lies about the pandemic, is the resident expert on epidemiology. Climate change sceptic Ian Plimer, a trained geologist and mining industry figure, joins Kelly as a go-to voice on climate science. Daily Telegraphpolitical editor James Morrow, who says Black Lives Matter is a “de-facto terrorist organisation” under the control of Joe Biden’s Democrats, is an authority on race relations. Watch enough Sky News and you’ll believe there is no pandemic, climate change is a hoax and Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States.

You can see this echo chamber playing out in live action online. In May, some Sky News viewers responded with utter jubilation online at the attempted murder of Sasha Johnson, a young female Black Lives Matter activist who was shot through the head in London. The sentiments hailed the “start of the fightback” and urged more killings. Another called for the forced deportation of Black people to Africa. One comment even quoted the Australian terrorist who committed the Christchurch mosque massacres. Perhaps most shocking, these were the comments that remained after they had been moderated. Imagine what was screened out.

Third, Murdoch uses this audience to make a boatload of cash. Once you have divorced your audience from reality and placed them in this echo chamber, there is no financial penalty for lying to them. In fact, there are only financial benefits. Fox News is now the jewel in the crown of the Murdoch empire, sweeping the top-five-most-watched shows in cable news. News Corp’s record revenue was buoyed by 170 per cent growth for Sky News on Facebook, and 248 per cent growth on YouTube.

Fourth, Murdoch deploys his captive audience to take over the conservative side of politics. The radicalised corps of Fox News devotees are now a major voting bloc inside the Republican Party, having helped to deliver the presidency to Donald Trump in 2016. In fact, it is inconceivable that any Republican could snare their party’s nomination without the support of Fox News. This same pattern is now being replicated in Australia. Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal colleagues infamously demanded he cosy up to Sky News to salvage his prime ministership. As Liberal MP Ted O’Brien said at the time: “It’s as though my branch members are having a meeting with Alan Jones and Peta Credlin every night.”

Murdoch and Sky have captured the Liberal and National Party base. And when you add that to the attempted Pentecostal takeover of entire state branches of the Liberal Party, as happened in South Australia recently, you are already well down the American far-right road. The latest Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Canberra finds the Sky News audience self-identifies as more right-wing than Fox News viewers do.

Few Americans anticipated the destructive potential of Fox News when it began eating away at the social fabric of the US. We have no excuse for such complacency. Australia is especially vulnerable given how Sky News compounds Murdoch’s stranglehold on commercial media: a national monopoly on daily newspaper circulation at about 70 per cent; the biggest-selling newspapers in every state east of the Nullarbor; a virtual 100 per cent monopoly in Queensland; the No.  1 commercial news website; ownership of one of only two national newswires, and with plans to muscle in on the competition; and, finally, a network of paid-up Murdoch commentators seeded throughout rival media outlets, including The West Australian and Nine’s talkback radio network.

Every single day, these outlets are flooding our public conversation and what passes for our national debates, with disinformation designed to advance Murdoch’s extremist ideological agenda and narrow commercial interests.

What then is the answer? My considered judgement after more than four decades in and around politics is a royal commission. A properly empowered royal commissioner would take a long, hard look at the pressures on media in Australia and around the world. More importantly, they can look at how different global jurisdictions are dealing with these challenges and recommend options to government.

The alternative is to continue this slide into oblivion – with increasing concentration of ownership and regular mass sackings of journalists – until we wake up one day to find that we are a second-rate country with a third-rate media and a democracy that has become basically ungovernable as Murdoch divides us into warring tribes whose only exchange is ritual abuse rather than something as quaint as fact-based debate.

For me, the question isn’t whether we have a royal commission. It’s whether we have one now, while there’s still time to reverse the trend of mass sackings, consolidation of ownership and rising disinformation, or whether we have one in the wake of an extremist outrage of the kind we saw in Washington on January 6.

Many Americans – including the former US director of national intelligence, retired Lieutenant-General James Clapper – wish they’d had an independent public inquiry long before their political system spiralled out of control. Such an inquiry now seems almost unimaginable, as partisan divisions are tied to cultural identity. We ignore this lesson at our peril.