News National John Birmingham: How Sky News became Australia’s Fox News

John Birmingham: How Sky News became Australia’s Fox News

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp took control of Sky News in 2016.
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Who would have thought that if you unleashed three jabbering trolls with throbbing persecution complexes inside a television studio and let them run wild without adult supervision, they might end up breaking things and hurting people? Especially if breaking things and hurting people is your business model.

But that’s how they roll at Sky News After Dark and this week’s embarrassing grotesqueries with guest troll Senator David Leyonhjelm’s attempted slut-shaming of the Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young wasn’t so much a failure of Sky’s editorial policies as it was the inevitable result of them.

Sky News has long been a Jekyll and Hyde operation; its daytime schedule offering unimpeachably professional work by the likes of David Speers and Kieran Gilbert.

Sky News’ evening line-up, however, is a hideous meta-horror stitched together from the rotting body parts of a failed experiment in building a new media life-form based on Roger Ailes’ successful but deeply profane creation: Fox News.

The weird transition from sombre, serious daytime Sky, to the carnival of howler monkeys kicks off at six every weekday with Peta Credlin’s endless voodoo ceremony to reanimate the disintegrating corpse of Tony Abbott’s career, and warms up at seven when News Corp’s maximum trolluminst Andrew Bolt starts beating the drums of culture war. (This week, I’m guessing, in defence of plastic bags).

But the crazy hot drool really starts flying at eight on Mondays and Thursdays when the widely unwatched Rowan Dean and Ross Cameron undo their belts, drop their strides and let it all hang out for Australia.

This is Mark Latham’s old Outsiders crew, and it was Mr Latham who first drew all the wrong sort of attention to the After Dark line-up with his increasingly bizarre antics on Outsiders, culminating in his sacking for a series of outrages against fellow network contributors and, yes, a group of school children.

But it would be wrong to imagine that Mr Latham was an aberration. Better to think of him as stress-testing the business model. The model in question is the hugely profitable Fox News template of monetised outrage trolling.

sarah hanson-young
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said she was seeking legal advice after her colleague David Leyonhjelm made comments about her sex life on Sky’s Outsiders program. Photo: AAP

Fox, like Sky, actually has a working news operation. Staffed by actual journalists. Who do actual journalism.

But Fox News is famous for for its entertainment division. This was headlined by Bill O’Reilly until he fell in what can now be seen as one of the opening battles of the Me Too era. But Fox remains a glittering freak show of Trumpian nastiness.

It does turn a decent quid, however, and wields enormous influence over US politics, and the fervent hope of the Murdoch family was that Sky News could be turned into an Australian variant.

News Corp took over Sky News in late 2016 and according to Mark Day, a media writer at The Australian, began ‘Foxifying’ the network, adding a roster of right-wing bloviators to the evening schedule with a view to building out an operation that could eventually take over the ailing Ten Network — as soon as Canberra tweaked the media ownership laws.

Unfortunately for House Murdoch, before that could happen America’s CBS bought Ten as part of its own experimental re-engineering for the streaming era. And Sky News was left behind as a bizarre – and ultimately failed – attempt to recreate Fox News down under.

This week’s disaster, with two of After Dark’s worst presenters egging on one of the Senate’s most volatile wingnuts, was not some weird deviation from the norm. It was what the norm was supposed to look like a year or two from now if the Murdochs had their way.

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