YouTube’s suspension of Sky News Australia for numerous COVID misinformation clips was “ridiculous”, the channel’s chief executive claims, lashing the video giant as a “self-interested media elite” for the seven-day ban.
In a blistering Senate hearing on Monday, former prime minister Kevin Rudd slammed the News Corp network for broadcasting “quackery” about discredited COVID treatments Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, and tangled in heated debates with Coalition senators.
Chair of the Senate’s media diversity inquiry, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, accused Sky of spreading “COVID lies”; a charge CEO Paul Whittaker strongly denied.
“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.”
The committee, set up as a Senate response to Mr Rudd’s record-breaking petition calling for a royal commission into News Corp, held a special hearing to investigate YouTube’s decision to temporarily suspend Sky News from its platform.
The video-sharing platform claimed several Sky clips constituted “misinformation” on the pandemic, including support for Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine; drugs that Australian medical regulators have not approved, and have expressly warned against using, to treat COVID.
YouTube representatives told the committee the platform had removed about 5000 videos in Australia that breached its COVID content policies, including 23 from Sky News.
Mr Whittaker denied claims Sky promoted misinformation, pointing out that the channel broadcast daily extended press conferences and interviews with politicians, medical experts and scientists.
“YouTube’s assertion that Sky News has ‘denied the existence of COVID-19’ is expressly rejected. That assertion is, frankly, ridiculous,” he said.
Mr Whittaker said the videos deleted from Sky’s YouTube page came from 2020, when much about the pandemic was still unknown or developing. The fact that vaccines were not available at that 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,.”
However, he also conceded Sky had “proactively” deleted another 18 videos on its own, to ensure “ongoing compliance” with YouTube’s policies.
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.
Mr Whittaker slammed YouTube’s policies as “inconsistent, and incapable of compliance”, claiming the platform allowed other questionable content such as violence, drug use and “a rich diet of crackpot conspiracy theories” to remain public.
He 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. However, he also revealed Sky host Cory Bernardi had been “spoken to” about a tweet last week where he expressed support for Ivermectin.
Mr Whittaker said it was appropriate Mr Bernardi, a former Coalition senator, had removed the tweet, which read “Ivermectin shall set you free”.
Mr Bernardi’s Twitter account notes that his tweets are “deleted weekly to infuriate losers.”
Murdoch host Cory Bernardi continues to undermine vaccines by advancing the far-right conspiracy theory that dark forces are hiding the supposed real cures for COVID-19. On the same day we learned a NSW patient was hospitalised after taking ivermectin. Irresponsible & dangerous. pic.twitter.com/BvV45hjieT
— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) September 2, 2021
Appearing before the committee later in the day, Mr Rudd also criticised Mr Bernardi’s tweet, calling people promoting Ivermectin “quacks”.
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.
“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,” Mr Rudd said.
Mr Rudd also had brief arguments with Coalition senators Alex Antic and Gerard Rennick. Senator Antic claimed Mr Rudd’s involvement was animated by his personal disagreements with News Corp, while Senator Rennick took offence to the characterisation of “quackery”.