Sky News Australia will face a Senate inquiry next week after the broadcaster was suspended for seven days for posting numerous videos which violated YouTube’s Covid medical misinformation policies.
The hearing comes as former prime minister Kevin Rudd calls on the Australian media regulator to take a tougher line on the broadcasting of contentious Sky News material on subscription TV and free-to-air television in regional areas.
The Sky News Australia YouTube channel, which has 1.8m subscribers, has been issued a strike and was temporarily suspended from uploading new videos or live streams for one week. It resumed posting and livestreaming on Thursday evening.
About 12 Sky News videos questioning the effectiveness of masks and lockdowns or promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin as treatments for Covid have been removed from YouTube.
The Google-owned US platform took action under its Covid-19 medical misinformation policies to “prevent the spread of Covid-19 misinformation that could cause real-world harm”. But Sky News has not been sanctioned by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
“Specifically, we don’t allow content that denies the existence of Covid-19 or that encourages people to use hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin to treat or prevent the virus,” YouTube said on the weekend.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Rudd separately want Acma to explain why it has not acted when YouTube has.
Hanson-Young has recalled the upper house media diversity inquiry which she chairs to question executives from Acma, Sky News Australia and YouTube, who will attend.
The senator has also invited the chief health officers from every state and territory to appear next week. Prof Paul Kelly, Dr Kerry Chant, Prof Brett Sutton, Dr Jeannette Young and Prof Nicola Spurrier have been invited to give evidence via a livestream on Friday 13 August.
Rudd has written to the chair of the Acma, Nerida O’Loughlin, to ask if the watchdog has sufficient powers to intervene.
“I am writing to ask: will you act in response to Sky News’s health misinformation during this public health emergency?” Rudd said in the letter seen by Guardian Australia. “If you are unable to act, what deficiencies exist in your powers that should be remedied?”
Acma oversees a co-regulatory regime and generally only acts when complainants are not satisfied with the response from the broadcaster.
Acma said “broadcasters have the initial opportunity to respond to audience complaints and take action when they identify they have breached their code of practice”.
“The co-regulatory scheme is designed to put responsibilities directly on media to balance protection from harmful content with Australians’ implied right to freedom of speech in news and current affairs,” Acma said in a statement.
“Consistent with the co-regulatory scheme, Acma is monitoring Sky’s response to ongoing community concerns about its coverage, as well as whether the current code provisions and the way they are managed by broadcasters are adequate.”
Rudd told Acma that claims broadcast on Sky included: “Covid-19 is not a pandemic; the vaccinated are more likely to die than the unvaccinated; hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are proven, safe treatments for Covid-19; the medical profession are concealing these treatments from the public for political purposes and face masks do not inhibit the spread of Covid-19.”
“While it is unrealistic to believe that we can ever stamp out misinformation, especially in the age of social media, it is especially alarming that so much of this content has been crafted and distributed by the country’s largest media company, News Corporation, principally through Murdoch’s Sky News,” Rudd wrote.
“Freedom of expression is essential to the functioning of our democracy, but Australians expect that opinions will have a reasonable basis in fact.”
The Guardian has approached Sky News Australia for comment.
Hanson-Young said she wanted to ask the media watchdog why the spread of misinformation wasn’t allowed on the internet but appeared to be OK on TV.
“Google-owned YouTube has taken action to uphold its policies around medical misinformation on its platform and that is welcome,” she said. “Acma appears to be sitting on its hands while a tech giant upholds standards the government regulator doesn’t seem to have.”