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This is the second part of a two-part series on Sky News Australia. Read part one here.

Sky News Australia’s outrage model of inflammatory “after dark” commentary reaches well beyond the relatively small number of Foxtel subscribers.

It has also spread well beyond the reach of Australia’s system of media regulation.

As Inq reported yesterday, Sky essentially regulates itself on what is broadcast on subscription television, and that unregulated content is available to millions more viewers via digital platforms and free-to-air television in regional Australia.

WIN’s winning television deal

Just over two years ago Sky News Australia began to spread its influence outside metropolitan Australia and into regional and rural Australia. It did so via a deal in September 2018 with the WIN television network, a free-to-air service covering regional Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, and across Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

The deal came about in the ashes of a failed bid by Lachlan Murdoch to take over the Ten Network in 2017.

Murdoch had proposed to use Sky News for the Ten Network but his bid was rejected. He had joined forces with fellow Ten shareholder Bruce Gordon — a lesser-known media magnate, but a magnate nevertheless.

Gordon, now living in Bermuda, owns WIN Television and is a veteran of the Australian media scene.

Within a year of the Ten deal collapsing, his regional network had struck a content supply deal with Murdoch and Sky News. Industry publication Mediaweek reported Sky News on WIN had increased its audience by 26% between 2019 and 2020, reaching 3.1 million unique viewers in regional Australia, according to Nielsen Television Audience Measurement.

The free-to-air broadcast of Sky News in regional Australia and its impact has gone largely unnoticed by Australia’s city-based media.

Politicians, though, are aware of the potential influence of Sky’s pro-coal, climate-change-sceptic commentary in regional NSW and Queensland where the question of mining-related employment is a political fault line, especially for Labor.

Spreading far and wide

Sky has pursued a digital strategy which has magnified its reach and influence via video clips on YouTube and Facebook.

An investigation by technology reporter Cam Wilson revealed that its partisan video content has experienced explosive growth online. Wilson found:

  • Sky’s YouTube channel has nearly 900,000 subscribers — behind only ABC News, which has more than 1.2 million
  • Its videos have been viewed 500 million times and are being watched more than 3.7 million times a day on average
  • An Alan Jones video downplaying the risk of COVID-19 — “Australians must know the truth — this virus is not a pandemic” — has been viewed 2.2 million times on YouTube
  • A video implying election fraud — “There is ‘something odd about postal votes which have magically materialised’ for Biden” — was viewed more than 330,000 times in 18 hours on YouTube.

The legislation which covers broadcasting in Australia, the Broadcasting Services Act (1992), was framed at a time when pay TV was beginning and no one imagined how the internet would be harnessed to destroy the idea of truth.

It has left the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), with no power over digital websites.

ACMA is now playing catch-up by working with digital platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, TikTok, Apple and Amazon to halt the spread of disinformation online with a voluntary code of conduct.

Yet it was a similar self-regulation approach which allowed misinformation and baseless conspiracy to flourish on subscription television in the first place.