Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has accused Sky News late-night opinion commentators of peddling “quackery” about discredited drug treatments for COVID-19, in a heated Senate hearing examining why the channel was suspended from YouTube.
“It’s not a laughing matter,” Mr Rudd said.
Liberal Senator Alex Antic later accused the former PM of being clouded by his personal animosity for News Corp.
Mr Rudd’s brief but fiery appearance via video link to the Senate’s media diversity committee came shortly after Sky News Australia CEO Paul Whittaker had vehemently denied the channel had pushed COVID “misinformation”.
That was the charge levelled at the media company by YouTube, which briefly suspended Sky News’ account in August after removing several videos that discussed hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin – drugs that Australian medical regulators have not approved and have expressly warned against using to treat COVID-19.
Australian medical authorities have warned use of Ivermectin can have side effects including diarrhoea, vomiting, tremors and rashes.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration said it had detected an uptick in attempts to import the drug into Australia, while a Sydney man was admitted to Westmead Hospital following an overdose of the drug.
YouTube representatives told the committee the platform had removed about 5000 videos in Australia that breached its COVID-19 content policies, including 23 from Sky News.
Mr Whittaker said Sky had “proactively” removed another 18 videos of its own accord, to ensure “ongoing compliance” with YouTube’s policies.
Mr Whittaker said the total number of videos removed represented “less than 0.01 per cent” of Sky’s YouTube output.
He went on to slam YouTube as “self-interested media elites” who he claimed were policing the “town square” of social media.
“We have committed to covering all angles of this evolving national and global public health and policy debate,” he told the hearing on Monday.
“Sky News Australia strongly supports vaccination. Any claims to the contrary are false and a blatant attempt to discredit and harm our news service.
“YouTube’s assertion that Sky News has ‘denied the existence of COVID-19’ is expressly rejected. That assertion is, frankly, ridiculous.”
Mr Whittaker said the videos deleted from Sky’s YouTube page were posted last year, when much about the pandemic was still unknown or developing.
That vaccines were unavailable at the time meant it was “very much in the public interest” that the controversial drugs be discussed, he said.
“Context and time in all these matters is very important,” Mr Whittaker said.
“It’s a scientific debate that continues to this day.”
Mr Whittaker denied Sky News had turned a blind eye to misinformation on its “after dark” opinion shows, claiming hosts were simply discussing studies about drugs being investigated as potential COVID treatments.
He was critical of YouTube deleting the videos.
“YouTube’s process lacks transparency and this should be concerning for all media,” Mr Whittaker claimed.
The committee was set up as a Senate response to Mr Rudd’s record-breaking petition calling for a royal commission into News Corp.
Appearing before the committee later in the day, Mr Rudd criticised Sky News’ discussions of Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
“My view, backed up by the chief medical officer of this country, is that anyone who seeks to advertise these treatments as being effective against COVID-19 is engaged in quackery. They are quacks, for which I make zero apology,” he said.
Referring to comments that the Sky News clips had only discussed the drugs, not promoted them, Mr Rudd said: “That’s not discussion, that’s advocacy.”
He alleged the content amounted to “misinformation”.
Senator Antic asked whether Mr Rudd’s criticism was fuelled by his well-documented animosity towards News Corp.
Mr Rudd suggested Senator Antic read his autobiography, where he set out in detail his concerns about media diversity and monopoly.
The committee also spent substantial time on a tweet by Sky host and former Liberal senator Cory Bernardi that read: “Ivermectin shall set you free.”
Mr Bernardi published the tweet last week but removed it soon afterwards.
Mr Whittaker said Mr Bernardi had been “spoken to” about the tweet and said it was “appropriate” that he had removed it.
Mr Bernardi’s Twitter account notes that his tweets are “deleted weekly to infuriate losers”.
Mr Rudd also criticised Mr Bernardi’s tweet, both in the committee hearing and on his own Twitter page last week.
Coalition senator Sam McMahon, a veterinarian before entering Parliament, took offence at Mr Rudd’s words and pointed out that Ivermectin – used widely to treat worms or parasites in livestock – also had human uses against illnesses, including scabies.
Senator McMahon pointed out that Mr Bernardi had not mentioned COVID in his tweet, and criticised Mr Rudd for “demonising” Ivermectin.
Lucinda Longcroft of Google Australia – YouTube’s parent company – told the hearing it was paying particular attention to content that discussed Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
“Where there are videos that, without further context, assert that those drugs are effective, we remove them because of the danger and medical harm that could be caused to users,” she said.