Australia’s media watchdog has failed to determine what content prompted internet giant YouTube to slap Sky News Australia with a ban, despite the suspension making international headlines two weeks ago.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has confirmed with The Klaxon that it doesn’t know what content prompted the high-profile ban – and has repeatedly declined to comment when asked whether it has made any attempt to find out.
US internet content platform YouTube on July 29 placed a seven-day ban on Sky News uploading content over spreading misinformation about Covid-19.
The revelations come as the owner of Sky News Australia, News Corporation, has today run in the nation’s two biggest selling newspapers, a prominent article headlined “Some rules were made to be broken”, in reference to Covid-19 lock-downs.
The article, published in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Herald Sun, both owned by News Corporation, is written by columnist Andrew Bolt.
Bolt’s Covid reports on Sky News, including his spruiking of unverified Covid “remedy” hydroxochloroquine, were central to the YouTube banning Sky News for misinformation.
Clippings of an article published today in News Corporation’s Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph. Source: Supplied
Publishers are permanently banned from YouTube if they breach its guidelines three times within 90 days.
“Clearly, many Australians have worked out that some virus bans are too cruel or pointless,” Bolt writes in today’s Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph.
“We’re making our own virus rules and our politicians should quit playing Big Brother and let us.”
ACMA is responsible for television and radio broadcasting, while the Australian Press Council is responsible for overseeing articles appearing in print.
YouTube banned SkyNews for spreading Covid-19 misinformation, including posting videos denying the disease’s existence.
ACMA, Sky News and YouTube had been scheduled to give evidence on Friday before the senate inquiry into Australia’s media diversity, however the hearing was cancelled because of a Covid-19 outbreak in Canberra.
ACMA has come under heavy scrutiny since news of the ban emerged.
Experts have asked why it was left to a foreign internet company to police Sky News for spreading Covid-19 misinformation when the same content had appeared on free-to-air Australian television, which is ACMA’s remit.
ACMA has also come under pressure amid The Klaxon’srevelations last week that it had investigated just 4% of the complaints it received in the 2019-20 financial year.
The regulator has subsequently pointed to its governing legislation as the reason for its lack of action.
ACMA Broadcasting complaints and investigations 2019-2020. Data: ACMA. Graphic: The Klaxon
The regulator has subsequently pointed to its governing legislation as the reason for its lack of action.
“We can only do what’s set out for us under the act,” ACMA spokesman Kevin McAlinden told The Klaxon.
“We can only do what’s set out for us under the act” — Kevin McAlinden, ACMA spokesman
ACMA costs Australian taxpayers over $100 million a year and in the 2019-20 financial year it had a total of 435 full-time and part-time employees, who were collectively paid $57.8 million.
As reported last week, in 2019-2020 (the most recent published data), ACMA received 1,326 complaints from the public, but started investigations into just 54 of them (4%).
That was down 28% on the 74 investigations it launched in 2018-19.
After news of YouTube’s Sky News ban emerged publicly on August 1 (which was three days after the ban was implemented) ACMA provided a ten-sentence response to media.
“The ACMA is not aware of the content on which YouTube based its decision,” the statement said.
On Thursday, after repeated approaches to ACMA by The Klaxon, spokesman McAlinden confirmed ACMA still remained unaware what content sparked the YouTube ban.
McAlinden, ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin and ACMA CEO Creina Chapman, have all repeatedly declined to comment when asked whether ACMA had made any attempt to establish what content prompted the ban – or whether ACMA had contacted YouTube regarding the matter.
The ban related to videos denying Covid-19’s existence and spruiking unproven Covid-19 “remedies” hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.
“Specifically, we don’t allow content that denies the existence of Covid-19 or that encourages people to use hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin to treat or prevent the virus. We do allow for videos that have sufficient countervailing context, which the violative videos did not provide,” Guardian Australia on August 1 quoted a YouTube spokesperson saying.
On August 10 Guardian Australiareported Sky News had deleted at least 31 videos, including videos featuring Bolt and fellow Sky News personality Alan Jones.
Sky News deletes at least 31 videos, Guardian Australiareports. Source: Guardian Australia.
“As I have said all along, there is no epidemiological justification for any of this. Lockdowns, face masks, social distancing,” Jones says in one of the since deleted videos.
Jones made the statements in response to his guest on the program, a Canadian pathologist, who had said Covid was the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public”.
Former Australia prime ministers from both major sides of politics – former ALP Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – are among those to have raised active concerns about Sky News and the actions of its owner News Corporation.
On August 5 Rudd wrote to ACMA chair O’Loughlin raising concerns about Sky News distributing “dangerous and unscientific misinformation”.
“Like most Australians I have been disturbed by the distribution of dangerous and unscientific misinformation online during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Rudd writes.
“While it is unrealistic to believe that we can ever stamp out misinformation, especially in the age of social media, it is alarming that so much of this content has been crafted and distributed by the country’s largest media company, News Corporation, principally through Murdoch’s Sky News.
Some of former PM Kevin Rudd’s recent social media posts. Source: Instagram.
“According to News Corp’s own data, more than 9.1 million Australians – or more than one-third of the population – engage with Murdoch’s Sky News every month, across more platforms than any other current affairs outlet,” he writes.
On social media, Rudd has also highlighted Sky News’ recent deletion of videos from the internet.
“Dozens of videos have vanished with no explanation, no correction and no apology,” Rudd posted to social media platforms last week.
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Journalist Code of Ethics states journalists are to “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts,” and “do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors”.
In response to the YouTube ban, Sky News commentators have accused YouTube of being “left wing” and “against conservative voices”.
News Corporation papers last week reported that Sky News Australia CEO Paul Whittaker had written to YouTube, arguing its policies were “internally inconsistent and incapable of compliance”.
When the scandal broke, ACMA said it had “received 23 complaints about Sky’s coverage of the Covid pandemic” since the start of 2020.
The Klaxon’s scoop, August 9. Chair Nerida O’Loughlin, pictured. Source: The Klaxon.
Last week The Klaxon exclusively revealed that ACMA has assessed just one of those 23 complaints.
ACMA has said it will “consider the matter” if any of the 23 people who made the complaints about Sky News’s Covid-19 coverage “refer the complaint back to the ACMA”.
The YouTube case has highlighted a key flaw in the regulator’s processes – it doesn’t even assess a complaint until a watcher or viewer has first gone to the alleged wrongdoing broadcaster itself.
If the person does so, the broadcaster is then given up to 60 days to respond.
Only if the person then comes back to ACMA – up to two months or more after the program initially aired – does ACMA assess the complaint for the first time.
At this point, ACMA decides which complaints it will and won’t investigate.
Of the 1,326 complaints ACMA received in 2019-20 it “assessed” 179 of them. It chose to investigate 54 and to not investigate 125.
ACMA produces “quarterly” reports detailing the number of complaints it has “assessed” in each three-month period, and how many it has decided to investigate.
As revealed by The Klaxon, until last week ACMA had not posted its “quarterly” reports for any period beyond the June-September quarter 2020.
Kevin Rudd’s August 5 letter to Nerida O’Loughlin. Page 1/2. Source: Supplied
On August 9, following our queries, ACMA published two of the missing quarterly reports, but its report for the March-June quarter of this year remains outstanding.
Regarding its 23 Sky News Covid-19 complaints, ACMA directed the complainants to Sky News itself “in the first instance”.
ACMA said one complaint has come back to it.
It opted to investigate that complaint, and ruled that no breaches had occurred.
The senate inquiry into media diversity, chaired by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, has said it will proceed with its plans to have ACMA, SkyNews and YouTube give evidence.
A hearing date is yet to be finalised.
On Thursday afternoon, ACMA spokesman McAlinden told The Klaxon he was unable to obtain responses from either chair O’Loughlin or CEO Chapman because of ongoing preparation for the senate hearing, which was then scheduled for the following day.
Hours later, after it emerged the hearings had been scrapped because of the Covid-19 outbreak, The Klaxon again requested responses to our questions directly from O’Loughlin and Chapman.
Kevin Rudd’s August 5 letter to Nerida O’Loughlin. Page 2/2. Source: Supplied
We have received no response.
O’Loughlin, who has been ACMA chair since October 2017, was paid $601,567 in 2019-20.
ACMA CEO and deputy chair Chapman, who was appointed under a five-year term in June 2018, was paid $462,849 in the year.
Before becoming ACMA CEO, Chapman worked as an executive at News Corporation Australia, Nine Entertainment, and as a senior policy advisor to a string of senior Liberal Party figures.
Chapman was a senior policy advisor to Tony Abbott in the lead-up to his 2013 election win; to then Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey in late 2013 and 2014; and earlier to Senator Richard Alston, who was Federal Communications Minister from 1996 to 2003 under the Howard Government.
ACMA’s 2019-2020 annual report, lodged on September 9 last year, contains a two-page opening statement from ACMA chair O’Loughlin.
“The rise of digital platforms as a source of news and information has brought with it concerns about the spread of potentially harmful false, misleading, or deceptive information online—or ‘misinformation’,” O’Loughlin writes.
“Misinformation has the potential to cause serious harm to the wellbeing of individuals and to society more broadly.”
*Update: At 4.57pm, shortly after this article was published, ACMA provided The Klaxon with the following statement:
“The ACMA can confirm it has had correspondence with Google in regards to its seven day suspension of Sky News from uploading any new content onto YouTube. The ACMA first raised the matter in a letter dated Friday 6 August. Google has not publicly disclosed, and the ACMA remains unaware of which Sky content was removed from their platform.”
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