Politics

Sky News Didn’t Make A Mistake With Blair Cottrell. This Is Their Business Model

Sky News is deeply sorry for hosting Blair Cottrell — a vile, islamophobic, far-right, nationalist  — on one of its shows on Sunday evening. Just like it was deeply sorry for slut-shaming a (female) federal senator a few weeks ago.

In the past, Sky News has been deeply sorry for linking a (female) former state Premier to corruption, deeply sorry for poking fun at a (female) journalist’s disability, and deeply sorry for suggesting a school boy was gay because he’d appeared in a video about feminism.

Every broadcaster makes mistakes from time to time. But eventually we have to stop viewing the incidents that prompt these apologies as isolated, and start seeing them for what they are — a long-running pattern of deliberately over-stepping the mark, then walking back the comments only when called out.

Blair Cottrell

Each time it happens, the boundary of what’s acceptable gets pushed a little further until eventually no one thinks twice about putting an avowedly islamophobic far-right agitator to air.

What happened on Sky News last night wasn’t a mistake, it was Sky’s business model in action.

Sky News After Dark

There’s a running joke about Sky News in political and media circles (the only circles in which the station has any real influence). They talk about “Sky after dark” — a reference to the fact that once the sun sets, Sky’s character changes, like a werewolf with a Family Court grievance.

Apart from the pensioners who are able to watch TV during the day, Sky’s core constituency is a handful of influential people — Politicians and staffers in parliamentary offices around the country, and journalists. Most Australian newsrooms will have at least one TV tuned to Sky News every day.

During the day, Sky is staffed by a team of well-respected journalists like David Speers, Laura Jayes and Kieran Gilbert. They break stories and cover breaking news, which is why it’s the station of choice for politicians looking to push their agenda through a quick interview.

But after dark, the station changes. The respected journalists leave the building, and the respect goes with them. They’re replaced by a team of culture warriors yelling into the void. Andrew Bolt, Paul Murray, Chris Kenny and Peta Credlin flick the switch to opinion and do their best to push a conservative agenda (not necessarily the government’s agenda. None of the people mentioned here are huge fans of the PM).

As Media Watch noted last year, there’s been a “Foxification” of Sky News since News Corp took full ownership of the channel in 2016. And just like Fox News in the US, which also employs some great journalists, Sky News is attempting to make a name for itself with outlandish opinions, polarising panel shows, and bias confirming news aimed directly at the dark heart of conservative Australia.

It’s a channel for people who think Malcolm Turnbull is too far to the left, and Pauline Hanson represents the “heartland” of middle Australia. There’s only one problem: It doesn’t work.

Fox News Without The Views

It was Kristina Keneally (the aforementioned NSW Premier), who hit the nail on the head about the big problem with “Sky After Dark”. Between her time as NSW Premier and a federal Labor senator, Keneally hosted a daytime show on Sky with another man who wouldn’t make the cut on Sky at night, Peter Van Onselen.

It was a fun, amiable show that mixed news, views, and a light-hearted approach to the goings-on in Canberra. The hosts had chemistry and charisma, so it’s no wonder the show didn’t last.

Speaking on a panel in 2016, Keneally used her unique vantage point to explain why an Australian version of Fox News never really stood a chance of working: Australia is just too small.

“The one thing to remember about America is that Fox is narrowcasting to a diminishing portion of the American population,” she said, via Mumbrella. “In Australia, we have to be able to talk to a broader range of people because a network of the scale of a Sky or The Daily Telegraph couldn’t get away with talking to such a narrow proportion of the population.”

But that’s exactly what Sky attempts to do now, it just doesn’t have the resources. For a country that loves a culture war, Australia’s right-wing provocateurs are laughably second-rate by international standards. That’s why outlets like Sky and News Corp so readily roll out the welcome mat to every alt-right faux intellectual who visits Australia.

But there are only so many right-wing hacks willing to make the long flight down under to flog their book, and most of our homegrown culture warriors already have their own shows on Sky. So Sky and its producers have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find guests to fill the airtime.

What happened on Sky News last night wasn’t an aberration. This is the station that told the Australian-born Race Discrimination Commissioner to go back to where he came from. This is the station that invited David Leyonhjelm on and allowed him to slut-shame a senator, then suspended a junior producer for repeating what Leyonhjelm said. This was the station that gave Mark Latham a platform long after he’d proven he didn’t deserve one.

The latest incident is being met with the usual blowback. There’s discussion of boycotts and some contributors are wavering. But Sky News is still going to air, and when the sun sets tonight, the usual suspects will be back on screen. It’s not a mistake. It’s a business model.