The Monday media section in The Australian newspaper, which is mainly just a platform for News Corp to promote its interests and attack its enemies, excelled itself on February 6 with this suggestive but essentially meaningless statement:
After a strong showing in the US presidential election on the back of the Donald Trump phenomenon, Sky News suddenly has wind in its sails.
Whatever the intended meaning, it did invite a look at how Sky News covers politics. It also invited a comparison with its US counterpart, Fox News, which was a cheerleader for Trump the candidate and remains a cheerleader for Trump the president.
So, is Sky News the Australian version of Fox News?
Well, yes and no.
Both are ultimately owned by Rupert Murdoch: Sky by News Corp Australia, and Fox News by a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox.
Both share the same right-wing bogeys – Muslims, immigrants, climate science, the “liberal” media, homosexuality. But there are significant differences too.
Ratings show that not many people watch Sky News – the ratings outfit OZTAM has reported that between 8pm and 10pm its viewing numbers peaked at about 18,000 during 2016 – so a brief description might be in order.
Sky has a kind of split personality. During the day, it runs a professional, no-frills TV news service. This has value because it lets its coverage run without too much editing or interruptions. So you get the whole prime ministerial door-stop, rather than just quick grabs wrapped up in a news report.
This news service and the daytime current affairs segments sprinkled through it are, on the whole, straight and sensible. The admirable David Speers hosts some of them. It also has a continuous tickertape of headlines running along the foot of the screen.
This makes it a useful window on the world for businesspeople, politicians and rival media, so in many workplaces the vision is permanently on with the sound off. Its ratings might be low, but the people who see it include a lot of decision-makers, and Sky does not seem to have any trouble getting high-powered guests to appear.
But when darkness falls, it becomes a different beast altogether. The Bolt Report is a nightly piece of right-wing punditry in which Andrew Bolt does his more-in-sadness-than-in-anger routine.
Yet he looks a model of reason by comparison with Paul Murray, a crass vulgarian who swaggers about the set unburdening himself of a string of grotesqueries (“the 10,000 women who marched against Trump were the same 10,000 women who marched against genital mutilation”).
In their own ways, Bolt and Murray are pale imitations of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox News.
O’Reilly is an avuncular former schoolteacher. His shtick is an appeal to reason and conservative common sense, a tone that Bolt gives the impression of trying to emulate.
Hannity, by contrast, is a gloves-off brawler. He presides over wild shouting matches in which his guests try to outdo each other in outrage. Murray is Sky’s specialist in shouting matches.
But Sky has all to itself the egregious Ross Cameron, whose well-publicised hate-filled rant against homosexuals at a dinner for the Islamophobic Q Society on the weekend of February 11-12 made even Murray look civilised by comparison.
Cameron shares a weekend panel called Outsiders with former Labor leader Mark Latham and self-proclaimed satirist Rowan Dean. Cameron also pops up here and there during the week to add a touch of the lash when things need livening up.
The Sky uglies are not the whole picture, however.
Certainly its stable of commentators and panel chairs is skewed to the right – Peter van Onselen, Peta Credlin, Alan Jones and Peter Reith all have solid right-wing credentials – but it also includes two former centrist Labor premiers, Kristina Keneally (New South Wales) and Peter Beattie (Queensland), a former adviser to Julia Gillard, Nicholas Reece, and respected independent journalists such as Patricia Karvelas and Jim Middleton.
Such catholicity is not to be found on Fox News, and that is a significant difference between the two.
An important criterion in any test of media impartiality is whether the outlet in question presents what are usually called “the principal relevant perspectives” on a story: did all sides who have a stake in this issue get a hearing?
Fox News fails this test comprehensively. For instance, when on February 9 the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeal upheld the injunction restraining the Trump administration from implementing its immigration ban, the Fox commentariat was uniformly incandescent.
This was the “most left-wing court” in the country, they claimed. It was incapable of understanding the simple need to protect the country from terrorism. The TV celebrity Judge Judy waved around a copy of the US Constitution and shouted that the administration’s case was unassailable.
Nowhere was there a voice arguing the other side. Even a rational voice like that of Washington DC district attorney Channing Phillips was drowned out when he tried to explain the court’s reasoning.
Someone who watched only Fox News would get a very distorted view of the world. That is not true of Sky. Its news service and its more sophisticated panels include a range of perspectives, even on major stories with an ideological bent, such as climate change and energy policy.
So, it is too glib to say that Sky is just an Australian version of Fox News, but the Murdoch connection is a critical factor.
The Australian, in the article quoted above, announced increased integration between Sky and News Corp newspapers in Australia, including the titles in regional Queensland owned by Australian Regional Media, a company recently acquired by News Corp.
The alliance is likely to give greater exposure to the newspapers’ content while beefing up Sky’s news-gathering capacity. It makes the Murdoch operation even more of a force to be reckoned with. It also makes the concept of cross-media ownership law look even more outdated than it already is.
Authors: Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne