Claims that Sky News Australia is spreading COVID-19 misinformation are “frankly ridiculous,” according to CEO Paul Whittaker, who issued a stinging criticism of video-sharing giant YouTube, at a parliamentary inquiry on Monday.
Fronting the Standing Committee on Environment and Communications, Whittaker questioned why the Google-owned tech giant could be an arbiter of content.
“There is no expectation that our viewers agree with every opinion expressed by every host, guest, or panellist,” he said. “But it now appears commonplace to discredit any debate on contentious issues as ‘misinformation’.”
“YouTube’s actions make clear that it is not a neutral platform, but a publisher selectively broadcasting content and censoring certain views, while allowing videos that are patently false, misogynistic, and racist to proliferate,” Whittaker said.
“Why does a tech giant, YouTube, and faceless, nameless individuals backed by an algorithm, based in California, get to decide that holding governments and decision-makers to account is ‘misinformation’? Why do they get to decide what is and isn’t allowed to be news?” he said.
The committee is investigating the state of media diversity and concentration in Australia.
The inquiry was launched following a petition spearheaded by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to investigate the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
In early August, YouTube suspended Sky News’ for one week for allegedly posting “COVID-19 misinformation,” issuing a “first strike” against the 24-hour news channel—akin to a warning under its three strikes policy.
Lucinda Longcroft, Google Australia’s director of government affairs and public policy, told the inquiry earlier that the tech giant enforced its own code on COVID-19-related content, claiming to work with health and media authorities to combat false and harmful content.
“Where there are videos that, without further context, assert that those drugs [ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine] are effective we remove them because of the danger and medical harm that could be caused to users,” Longcroft said.
Over 5,000 “dangerous and misleading” videos were traced to Australian IP addresses and removed by YouTube between February 2020 to March 2021, including 23 videos posted by Sky News.
Longcroft said Sky News’ content was removed due to violations of the code as well as two breaches of political integrity guidelines.
However, Whittaker countered by saying that it was in the public interest for alternative drugs to be discussed, especially because no vaccines were available last year.
“Sky News Australia strongly supports vaccination. Any claims to the contrary are false and a blatant attempt to discredit and harm our news service,” he said. “It’s a scientific debate that continues to this day.”
The CEO also said YouTube’s review process lacked transparency and was “incapable of compliance.”
“Unlike other publishers’ policies, YouTube’s process for review and removal of content lacks transparency and a clearly articulated process which affords channel operators the opportunity to address concerns or to challenge an assessment prior to a suspension occurring,” he said.
He claimed Sky News had attempted to seek confirmation from YouTube on whether historical content would trigger any further action but said no response was given.
“With no transparency provided, Sky News took the proactive approach of removing a batch of videos all published during 2020 from online platforms to ensure ongoing compliance with YouTube’s arbitrary editorial guidelines,” Whittaker said, noting it was not an admission of failure to comply with YouTube’s regulations, but “merely an attempt to navigate opaque polices.”
He also raised comparisons with authoritarianism.
“If we’re saying that YouTube is the model that we want our regulator to abide by. That means we are saying they should be able to shutdown a major TV network with 30 minutes notice, with no complication, no explanation, no written justification, no procedural fairness. That to me sounds more like authoritarianism or a totalitarian state, rather than a liberal democracy.”
Whittaker said it was “beyond debate” that YouTube should be deemed a publisher that selectively edited content for political and commercial reasons.
“But unlike traditional media it does not accept any of the regulatory or legal burdens that being deemed a ‘publisher’ carries with it,” he said, calling for “vigorous debate” on treating YouTube as a publisher.
Sky News has uploaded over 50,000 hours of content on YouTube and has garnered over 1.98 million followers.
The channel has consistently covered updates on global efforts to track down the origins of COVID-19, some of which were initially dismissed as “conspiracy theories,” however, other news outlets have since recognised the viability of these explanations.