If you want to stop Sky News Australia’s stream of misinformation and crackpot conspiracies you need to go hard, go early and above all get a lawyer. Go to the regulator? Forget it.
That’s the lesson from an on-air apology delivered last night by Sky presenter Peta Credlin, who was forced to retract claims she had made about former prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Credlin, the powerful Liberal Party figure who perversely has her own platform on the Murdoch-owned channel, had accused Rudd of running a “data harvesting exercise” with his online petition last year calling for a royal commission into the Murdoch media. The petition attracted more than 500,000 signatures, lodged by email.
“The misuse of the email addresses as claimed would have been a serious invasion of people’s privacy,” Credlin said last night. And then the hard bit: “I apologise to Mr Rudd for any damage caused to him by my false statement.”
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Credlin made her false claims on November 11 last year. Two days later Rudd asked Credlin to correct “her lies”, backed with a legal letter. There was no immediate correction but now we have it — the result of a confidential legal settlement and barely three months after the event.
Compare and contrast that with a complaint made against Credlin’s Sky stablemate Alan Jones, who made false claims about COVID-19, the effectiveness of masks and lockdowns.
Jones made the claims in August last year at the height of Sky News’ campaign against Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. The regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), investigated Jones’ broadcast after receiving a complaint. In mid-December — nearly four months after the original broadcast — it reported that Jones had got it wrong.
So what was the result? Sky got itself off the hook by running a short correction on its website, buried deep where no one goes. This was done inside a 30-day window allowed under the (anything goes) broadcasting rules. You can still find the video rant and accompanying text online. And that’s apparently fine when it comes to publishing misinformation on COVID.
For some wider context it’s worth looking at how the Murdoch media have played the misinformation game in the United States, where the consequences have been dire.
In the weeks after Donald Trump lost the presidential election in November, Fox News commentators gave full vent to the lie that vote-counting machines had been rigged to flip votes from Trump to Biden in swing seats. The lie continued unabated until the company at the centre of the vote-flipping allegations went legal.
“Fox News told its millions of viewers and readers that Smartmatic was founded by Hugo Chávez, that its software was designed to fix elections, and that Smartmatic conspired with others to defraud the American people and fix the 2020 US election by changing, inflating, and deleting votes,” read the 20-page legal notice sent to Fox on December 10.
“The damage your disinformation campaign has done, and will do, to Smartmatic’s revenue and business valuation will be measured in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.”
Soon after, Fox devoted a 30-minute program to debunking the dizzying array of claims it had aired relentlessly for weeks — claims the company said were easily disproven with a simple check.
How to get the truth published? Rudd said he was “fortunate to have the resources” to take on the Murdoch media “but there are so many who can’t”, including “ordinary Australians targeted by these bullies on a daily basis”.
One thing is sure: in Australia the near non-existent regulation of pay and broadcast television suits Sky News down to the ground. You’ll wait a long time for no real result. And as Sky builds audience on an outrage model, the odd correction here and there is really no penalty at all.