Is the country that gave us Rupert Murdoch finally ready to tackle misinformation?

Does YouTube, that great repository of cat videos and plumbing tips, have more exacting standards of journalism than Australia’s official media regulator?

That was the conclusion some have drawn after YouTube introduced a temporary ban on Sky News Australia — the channel controlled by media baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

While YouTube declined to identify the at-fault programs, the platform deleted a series of Sky News videos promoting hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as treatments for covid-19.

YouTube’s speedy action has been contrasted to the approach of Australia’s broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The authority is tasked with enforcing broadcast standards, but critics say its powers are limited and often not enforced. Under Australia’s system of media self-regulation, complaints must first go to the broadcaster, who then has 60 days to respond. Citizens can complain to the regulator only if unhappy with the broadcaster’s response.

One lawmaker, Greens’ senator Sarah Hanson-Young, is particularly critical of the system. “ACMA appears to be sitting on its hands while a tech giant upholds standards the government regulator doesn’t seem to have,” she said.

Sky News has become increasingly controversial in Australia, broadcasting items and specials that appear designed to appeal to right-wing groups and websites internationally. Adding to the heat is the role of Murdoch, with critics claiming he is trying to shift Australian politics to the right, following a model established by his U.S. network Fox News.

Murdoch remains a controversial figure in Australia, his homeland. Though he relinquished his citizenship as part of building his media empire in the United States, his mastheads still command about two-thirds of all Australian daily newspaper sales.

Two former prime ministers, from both sides of politics, have recently staged a campaign against what they see as Murdoch’s noxious influence. A petition to Parliament launched by former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd accuses Murdoch of using his power to attack those with contrary views, who are then “intimidated into silence.” The petition received more than 500,000 signatures. Another former prime minister, Liberal politician Malcolm Turnbull, was one of the signatories. He later told a Senate inquiry that Murdoch had wanted to have him removed as prime minister. He described the company as “a danger to democracy.”

Despite that petition, and the Senate committee that was established in its wake, Murdoch’s power in Australia remains undented. But could covid-19 strengthen the hand of those who believe that more must be done to strengthen both media standards and diversity of ownership?

While Australia had early success in controlling the spread of covid-19, it is now facing a serious outbreak of the delta variant, particularly in Sydney. Due to a poorly handled vaccine rollout, experts say the country has been left vulnerable.

The surge in cases may have produced one constructive outcome: a less-tolerant attitude to those who spread misinformation. One of the Sky News broadcasters, Alan Jones, recently saw his newspaper column dropped by Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph. Jones’s views on covid-19 have also been attacked by his former radio stablemate, Ray Hadley, a self-described “right-wing shock,” as “scurrilous, contemptible and undignified.”

Meanwhile, Hanson-Young is now calling for YouTube, Sky News and ACMA to appear before the Senate committee into media diversity, which she chairs. As she put it this week: “The obvious question is if the spread of misinformation isn’t allowed on the internet why is it on television broadcasts?”

Covid-19 has brought much misery to the world, but — in Australia at least — it’s also breeding a new hostility to those who use misinformation, outrage and conspiracy theories to drive ratings.

For the country who gave the world Murdoch, it’s about time.

Richard Glover presents the "Drive" show on ABC Radio Sydney. He’s a former news editor and European correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and author of 12 books, including the best-selling memoir “Flesh Wounds."

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