Our media writer spends a fortnight watching the channel’s best-known presenters preaching to the converted
By Margaret Simons
When YouTube announced recently that it was suspending Sky News Australia’s account for a week because it was transmitting misinformation about Covid-19, I felt the social media company had tapped into my brain.
I have been watching Sky News — a lot of it — recently, focusing particularly on its notorious “after dark” period, when the network’s mostly conventional daytime live news service morphs into strident opinion from Alan Jones, Chris Kenny, Peta Credlin, Andrew Bolt and other News Corp mascots.
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The ban has provoked a fresh round of hand-wringing among media commentators about Sky News and its influence. Underlying their comments is the assumption that the Murdoch organisation is succeeding in its attempt to establish an Australian equivalent of America’s Fox News, with all the fracturing of our body politic this would imply.
I wanted to see what was being put to air, and to assess whether we are watching the development of a fresh brand of media pathology. I certainly found a sea of spin and self-promotion, but my conclusion is: no need to panic — yet.
Establishing a local equivalent of Fox News was always going to be hard. Unlike in the United States, pay TV news has never been mainstream in Australia, and seems to be going backwards. Research by the Australian Communications and Media Authority in 2020 showed that Foxtel — the pay TV service that carries Sky News — was losing audience share in the subscription market to the streaming services Netflix and Stan. Just 23 per cent of Australians subscribed to Foxtel in 2020, compared with 27 per cent in 2018.
Television ratings have long shown that Sky News’s line-up of right-wingers attracts quite small television audiences, with the most popular programs gaining about 70,000 viewers. (The ABC’s Q&A, by comparison, regularly attracts more than 300,000.)
Since 2018, rural viewers have been able to access Sky News free-to-air on either WIN or now Southern Cross Austereo. This might raise the spectre of a US-style political division, with rural Australians treated to a very different set of “facts” and opinions. But there, too, the audiences are only modest. According to figures provided at my request, Sky News on WIN reaches an average of 136,000 unique prime-time viewers across all regional markets in Australia each weekday.
After two weeks of watching Sky News, I am not surprised by those figures. I wasn’t so much provoked as bored.
The Sky News after dark format consists of a series of half-hour slots hosted by Bolt, Credlin and the others, in which they speak direct to the camera. Often the hosts interview each other: Credlin interviews Alan Jones; Jones interviews Credlin. All of them draw regularly on the wider stable of News Corp journalists.
At other times, we see split-screen “interviews” — more like mutual bolstering — with “experts” and other invited guests. Jones, for example, says that all he does is present scientific evidence on Covid. But any scientific consensus is regarded with suspicion on Sky News — sometimes even taken as evidence of conspiracy. Jones likes the outliers.
Last week he interviewed Ramesh Thakur, introducing him, with a flourish, as emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. Thakur was talking about the stupidity of lockdowns — views he has also aired on other media outlets, including the ABC. But neither he nor Jones mentioned that Thakur is an expert, not in public health, epidemiology or even civil liberties, but in nuclear disarmament and international security.
Credlin spends a lot of time examining the entrails of conservative politics. Given her background, this can be sporadically interesting for political nerds like me, but it is hard to imagine it appealing to a wide audience.
In fact, Sky News demonstrates what happens when highly opinionated people are given access to a broadcasting platform without the usual discipline of producers and editors who have audience appeal uppermost in their minds. It is hard to imagine members of even its modest audience sitting glued to the set, as I did. Rather, I suspect Sky News is often background noise in homes and venues where the TV is always on.
That hasn’t stopped News Corp and its critics from encouraging a view that Sky News is taking the country by storm through its video replays on social media, and particularly Facebook and YouTube.
It is quite alarming how quickly this view has taken hold. Last year, Business Insider made the claim, widely quoted by others, that Sky News was becoming the biggest news brand on social media. Using the automated online analysis tool Social Blade, it suggested that Sky News videos were viewed sixty million times more than those from ABC News. I used Social Blade to do my own analysis, and couldn’t arrive at anything like that figure. Perhaps it’s me. Others should try.
Meanwhile, Sky News last month released audience research, conducted on its behalf by the Hoop Research Group, which made the heroic claim that a third of all Australians “engage with” Sky News every month “across more platforms than any other news provider.” According to Hoop’s report, as well as 3.2 million monthly viewers on Foxtel, 4.1 million Australians access Sky News on News Corp websites each month, with another 3.3 million on YouTube, 3.2 million on Facebook and 2.5 million on WIN. Twitter, Sky News podcasts, iHeart radio, the mobile app, and newsletters and emails made up the balance, for a total of 9.1 million unique viewers.
The founder and chief executive of Hoop, Liz Farquharson, tells me the figures used to make the “one-third of Australians” claim were the result of combining “inputs from official audience measurements services” with weighted data from an online survey of nearly 7000 Australians.
But while the Twitter figure equates broadly to Sky News followers on that platform, allowing for differences over time, the figures for the News Corp website — the largest portion of the claimed audience — are impossible to check, as are the figures for Facebook.
Farquharson says the survey was designed to overcome the shortcomings of the data sources and remove duplication. “We relied on currency data” — actual numbers of followers or subscribers — “where it provided the complete picture, like Twitter, and survey data where it didn’t.”
Independent media analyst Steve Allen, director of strategy and research for Pearman Media, says Hoop’s methodology meant that every single interaction was counted — even if there was no real engagement. If the ABC or commercial television channels adopted the same approach, he says, they would probably be able to claim that more than 80 per cent of Australians access their content.
And for companies looking to advertise, the figures were meaningless, says Allen, because to reach an audience across so many platforms would be prohibitively expensive. Which might explain why, on Foxtel at least, the advertising on Sky News after dark is hardly prestige. Ad breaks are frequent but filled largely with plugs for other Foxtel content. Otherwise, promotions for subscriptions to Spectator magazine butt up against home-delivered pizzas and “ring now for a special deal” spruiking of heaters and massage chairs.
Which brings us to YouTube, which is touted as the great Sky News success story. The content that got Sky News banned by YouTube includes interviews “coordinated” by a Melbourne-based group of Covid-sceptic doctors. A September 2020 Kenny Report segment, for example, promoted ivermectin, and a November 2020 Outsiders segment plugged hydroxychloroquine, both of them highly controversial Covid-19 treatments.
Responding to the YouTube ban, Sky News rejected the idea that any of its hosts had “denied the existence of Covid-19.” This is probably true, but it is high-octane spin. As those two examples demonstrate, hosts have given a platform to people promoting ineffective treatments, encouraging them to attack the public health response and downplay the seriousness of the disease.
The Murdoch organisation is making a big play on YouTube with its Sky News content, but a check on the channel shows that this is not mainly about the Australian audience. Rather, Australia’s Sky News is providing a stream of content for the much larger US market.
The most popular videos, including but not only those featuring the after dark commentators, all deal with international issues — and largely with Donald Trump and Joe Biden — and the comments make it clear that those viewing them are not primarily in Australia. Some of the content doesn’t even seem to have been screened on Australian television. At the time of writing, the most popular video on the Sky News YouTube channel, with eight million views, covered “China’s Deadly Coronavirus Cover-up” and was first screened a year ago. The second most popular — at 6.4 million views — was a two-year-old item about Trump visiting North Korea. Also popular was a Chris Kenny item from two years ago eviscerating the American writer Naomi Wolf.
Early this week, the most recently uploaded video covered Biden’s approval ratings, followed by coverage of the NSW lockdown. The videos dealing with Australian issues have viewing numbers in the low tens of thousands.
Thankfully, there’s an independent source of information about Sky News’s reach. It is the annual Digital News Report, published by the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre as part of an ongoing international survey of news consumers coordinated by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
The 2021 report revealed that the ABC was the most accessed news brand in Australia, both through its traditional broadcasts and online. “Offline” — on traditional TV, in other words — the ABC was followed by the three commercial networks and SBS. Sky News came well down the field in eighth position, with just 10 per cent of the audience, a drop of two percentage points from the previous year.
Online, the ABC led again, with news.com.au in second place. Sky News came in tenth, with 7 per cent of the audience, level-pegging with CNN and the Daily Telegraph, and behind progressive outlets such as the Guardian (11 per cent), BBC News Online (10 per cent) and the Nine newspapers (Sydney Morning Herald, 10 per cent; the Age, 8 per cent). Once again, Sky News’s audience was down two points on the previous year.
As for audience trust, the ABC led the field, with 70 per cent regarding it as trustworthy, up nine points on the previous year. Sky News ranked twelfth. While half regarded it as trustworthy, it was the media brand with the highest number of people — a quarter of all respondents — regarding it as not to be trusted.
Lastly and not surprisingly, the Sky News audience — online and television — was the most skewed to people who described themselves as right-wing.
I asked the lead author of the University of Canberra study, Sora Park, to comment on the Hoop research and the claim that Sky News was being accessed by a third of all Australians.
She said the Hoop study appeared to claim a level of news consumption among the Australian population that was too high, compared with other research. Park noted that the University of Canberra study looked at weekly reach, whereas the Hoop research quoted monthly figures. “Australians are very light news consumers, so people don’t regularly access news.” Therefore the Hoop research was probably capturing largely “sporadic news consumers” over a longer period.
And, as I can attest after a week of cross-platform Sky News, once they have you in their sights they keep hitting you up with texts and posts and prompts and ads laced with clickbait headlines. Which makes me wonder whether I will forever be counted in their audience figures.
So what are we to make of all this? Is Sky News growing in influence and reach, its after-dark presenters skewing public debate in the way their American counterparts have?
The evidence suggests that Sky News preaches mainly to the converted in its after dark commentary, and is not widely trusted.
The University of Canberra research suggests the ABC is Australia’s strongest news brand — which is doubtless one of the reasons it is so regularly attacked by News Corp.
Nevertheless, News Corp’s right-wing commentators form part of the background rumble to public and political life in Australia. On Sky News, they are at their most florid and least constrained by the traditions and disciplines of the conventional newsroom.
I don’t mean to suggest that Sky News is unimportant, but it is not, or not yet, anything close to Fox News in the United States in terms of its reach and influence. To think otherwise is to take it at its own estimation. •
The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
*Margaret Simons is a journalist and writer. Her books include Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, co-written with Malcolm Fraser, and Penny Wong: Passion and Principle.
*This article first appeared on the insidestory.org.au website