alan jones miranda devine sky news
Alan Jones and Miranda Devine on Sky News (Image: Sky News Australia)

As alarm builds over the key role of Fox News in spreading disinformation in the United States, it turns out that in Australia the Murdochs write their own rules when it comes to what is acceptable on News Corp’s Sky News Australia. Because of a little known set of arrangements, a Murdoch front organisation is at the centre of regulating subscription television in Australia.

Inq‘s investigation into the apparent free-for-all reveals that while there are limits to what Sky’s commentators can say, the task of regulating the channel has been largely outsourced to the industry itself — with Murdoch interests dotted throughout.

The resulting spread of disinformation is now such that it would be “on the radar” of Australia’s media regulator the Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA), according to UTS regulation expert Professor Derek Wilding, who has held senior roles with the regulator.

“It might not have been in previous years,” Wilding said, but the combination of experience overseas and “changes in the way such [news] programs were presented” meant the regulator would be “more alert to the possibility of harms of some kind from subscription television programs”.

How Murdoch regulates Murdoch

Sky News is broadcast on Foxtel, the pay TV platform majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. As a broadcaster Foxtel must obey a code of practice which is developed by subscription television industry body the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA).

ASTRA might sound like an umbrella group for a wider industry. In reality it appears to be little more than a front for Foxtel and Murdoch interests.

ASTRA’s chairman is Foxtel’s CEO Patrick Delaney. Foxtel provides the secretariat for ASTRA, and ASTRA’s board includes Foxtel’s chief communications officer Paul Edwards — a fact disclosed by Edwards when we spoke to him. There may be more Foxtel or Murdoch executives on the board but Edwards, speaking for ASTRA (from his Foxtel office), refused to provide Inq with any detail.

As we discovered, it is impossible to find any current information on ASTRA on the public record, despite it being a powerful body which has a charter to lobby the federal government on regulation and broadcast content.

The group’s website is several years out of date and provides little organisational detail. According to Edwards it had “not been ASTRA’s practice to disclose additional details of its membership or its board” on the site.

Certainly there is no disclosure of the dominance of Murdoch and Foxtel interests, particularly from 2016 when News Corp took 100% ownership of Sky News.

ASTRA’s powerful legacy

ASTRA has a record of being led by chairmen with powerful political connections. They include former NSW premier Nick Greiner, former Victorian premier Steve Bracks and, from 2013, former Business Council of Australia chair Tony Shepherd. It’s unclear when Shepherd, an Abbott government favourite, ended his role. But the collective legacy is profound.

ASTRA lobbying has produced a subscriber television code of practice which hands enormous power to Foxtel and Sky. The regulator ACMA “co-regulates” the pay TV industry. It signs off on the code and can investigate possible breaches of the code. It is nominally in charge, but the industry has the run of it.

If a viewer has a complaint about Sky then it must first be handled by the broadcaster, Foxtel. The regulator will only get involved if there’s no resolution.

According to our inquiries, there has only been one ACMA investigation into a possible breach of code in the last three years.

Back in 2018 ACMA investigated a Sky interview with far-right nationalist figure Blair Cottrell who, a complainant alleged, had advocated “racism, Islamophobia and intolerance”. ACMA found that Foxtel had not breached the industry code because the high threshold test of “intense dislike, serious contempt or severe ridicule” was not met. It has done no more since.

So are there rules at all?

It might appear that Sky can say whatever it likes, no matter how extreme or how false, under the guise of a commentator’s opinion.

In its coverage of the US elections, Sky appeared to be more Fox even than Fox TV. As the likelihood of a Trump win receded Sky’s commentators adopted discredited conspiracy explanations pushed by Trump and far-right US online sites, attacking the bona fides of the election outcome. 

Examples included Alan Jones promoting a conspiracy theory about a computer glitch that allegedly took thousands of votes from Trump in Michigan, and comments from Miranda Devine promoting the Trump campaign’s baseless claims of electoral fraud.

But the industry’s code of practice does not give Sky carte blanche, according to Wilding.

The code stipulates that news must be presented “accurately, fairly and impartially”, and that news and current affairs programs must clearly distinguish the reporting of factual material from commentary, analysis and opinion — a fraught area given that Sky’s commentators frequently mix strident opinions with false information.

Sky is also bound by the code to make “reasonable” efforts to correct “significant errors of fact at the earliest opportunity”. This, Wilding told Inq, meant Sky could be held to account for falsehoods, even if wrapped in commentary.

“The fact that the code anticipates inaccuracy and that this applies to current affairs programs means that just because it’s a Sky after dark current affairs program doesn’t mean that it is free of any obligations relating to accuracy,” he said.

“These can be applied by ACMA in the case that they were looking at any specific program.”

Why doesn’t the regulator act?

At time of writing there was only one factual correction on Sky’s website, despite a torrent of false information. The correction was for comments made by Jones during a diatribe on face masks and COVID-19 lockdowns.

The correction came more than two months after Jones’ broadcast — and you have to look hard to find it.

In the United States, an Ipsos study showed the key role that Fox played in promoting false conservative narratives on the spread of COVID-19 — 68% of Fox viewers did not believe official figures on the number of COVID-19 deaths.

A Pew research study in April found Republicans trusted Fox News more than any other outlet while Democrats distrusted it more than any other outlet, reflecting the deep divisions of the United States.

So what can ACMA do to halt the assault on truth which has corroded democracy in the USA?

Wilding told Inq that ACMA had the power to initiate investigations into a possible code breaches rather than wait for a complaint to come its way. It also had the power to “formulate enforcement action”. But then what?

“The greater concern really is what they might do if they find a breach because the regulatory framework doesn’t provide an appropriate remedy,” Wilding said. “It doesn’t allow for any kind of enforcement action that is direct and immediate.”

ACMA investigations take a long time — 10 months in the case of Jones’ 2019 misogynistic attack on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

This, coupled with the lack of meaningful penalties, has led people to take action of their own. One of those is Jenna Price, a journalism academic and Nine columnist who cofounded the digital citizen activist group Destroy the Joint to take on Jones and his on-air misogyny.

“ACMA has zero impact. It’s an embarrassment,” Price told Inq. “What do they do that has led to lasting change? Nothing.”

She warned though that direct action groups such as Sleeping Giants and Destroy the Joint faced an uphill battle against Sky News Australia, which was financially strong and less vulnerable to campaigns targeting advertisers. 

“The regulator’s interest has to be the public interest rather than serving vested interests,” she said.

According to Wilding, the real problem for the government regulator lies in the Broadcasting Services Act which says the public interest should be addressed “in a way that does not impose unnecessary financial and administrative burdens on providers”.

This represented an obstacle to stepping in and “actively monitoring and then responding quickly to matters that might be of community concern,” Wilding said.

The pay TV industry has sold the idea that its relationship with subscribers is akin to inviting a guest into your home: you know what to expect, and you are free to cancel if you don’t like it.

It’s a recipe for building an echo chamber audience that sees no reason to complain about hyped-up, fact-free commentary which reinforces audience prejudices.

What Foxtel says

Inq asked Foxtel to comment on Jones and Devine pushing baseless conspiracy theories during Sky News’ US election coverage.

It answered: “Foxtel believes that Sky News Australia is compliant with the relevant ASTRA codes of practice. Foxtel investigates any complaints received in relation to potential program code breaches, and refers subscribers to the ACMA in the event they are not satisfied with the response received from Foxtel.”

Next: Can the law — and the regulator — keep up as Sky spreads its influence?