The Sky after dark positioning in the outrage-economy took a tumble late last week, when newly appointed CEO Paul “Boris” Whittaker sacked Outsiders co-host Ross Cameron over on-air comments depicting Chinese people in racist caricatures.
It was Whittaker’s first major decision since he was appointed CEO last month and may indicate that News Corp is reassessing the financial limits of outrage — particularly racialised outrage.
It’s also a sign that the regulatory rules for Sky have changed now that it’s broadcast on free-to-air through the regional WIN network. It’s subject to the supervision of the Australian Communications and Media Authority like any other broadcaster.
The sacking followed reports out of the US that boycotts led by activist groups like Sleeping Giants and Media Matters are continuing to hurt advertising on the Fox network. The controversial Laura Ingraham was targeted after she mocked a school-shooting survivor, and Fox has confirmed that ad take on the program she hosts remains down.
In Australia, Sky advertisers were targeted by the Australian arm of Sleeping Giants after its now-notorious interview with right-wing fascist Blair Cottrell in August: A “commercial terrorist campaign”, outgoing CEO Angelos Frangopoulos, told Sky’s sister paper, The Australian, in an exclusive interview.
Politicians were also targeted after independent data site ausgov.info published a list of those MPs receiving free Foxtel subscriptions (revealing inter alia how Sky after dark parleys its small audience into political influence).
Hunting a name, The Australian “outed” consultant Denise Shrivell as one of the activists, following that exclusive with a further exclusive report of similar attacks on Sleeping Giants and Shrivell in a speech to Parliament by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
Sky is right to be concerned. The US Sleeping Giants campaign against Breitbart News cost the right wing site about 90% of its (largely programmatic) advertising. Breitbart is now threatening to sue Sleeping Giants for “unfair, fraudulent, and deceptive practices intended to cause Breitbart economic harm”.
But for the outrage artisans in the media workshops, it can still be tricky to understand just where the line should be drawn. Whittaker said Cameron’s offending Outsiders segment had been taken off all platforms. However, News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt — outraged by the outrage — printed the transcript of the discussion on Saturday in his Herald Sun blog, saying Cameron’s spiel was, in fact, pro-Chinese.
Meanwhile, on the day of the Cameron sacking, Whittaker’s old paper, The Daily Telegraph, bannered a Friday exclusive “SCIENCE KOORICULUM”, with the kicker, “Outrage over Indigenous school scheme”. It was a story about proposals to integrate aspects of Indigenous learning into school science, apparently as “a silly distraction to appease the PC crowd”. (You can read Luke Pearson on what the proposal was actually about here.)
It came with the appallingly obligatory editorial cartoon mocking Indigenous learning.
Of course, hierarchies of race have always been at the heart of racism and it may still be that, in the outrage economy, racist remarks about Chinese people is seen as bad while racist coverage of Australia’s Indigenous community remains less impacting. Or it’s possible that the Telegraph is simply slower to respond to the shift in the outrage economy.
The action by Sky suggests a dawning recognition of the real economic constraints on outrage. Macquarie Media came to the same view after its star broadcaster, Alan Jones, was forced to apologise for his bullying interview of Opera House CEO Louise Herron.
The old rules of the outrage economy no longer apply. Sure, outrage (and racism) still brings in passionate and engaged readers and listeners. Read the Bolt comments (where Whittaker is apparently a Walkley Award-winning lefty). Once, that sort of audience was enough for advertisers to quietly tag along. But now advertisers have to be confident that their values align with the values of the content their ads are supporting.
As media pivots to reader revenues, outrage can put a strong floor under sales. That’s been the News Corp strategy in its tabloids, both here and in the UK. But it also locks in a hard ceiling. That can still work for Fox in the US market, particularly when it’s aligned with the president’s supporter base.
It’s a lot more challenging for a monopoly cable player like Foxtel, in a much smaller market like Australia.