OPINION

It's happening here: the perils of Sky News After Dark

Donald Trump's lies about election fraud are being granted plenty of uncritical coverage on Sky News Australia's night-time line-up. Picture: Getty Images
Donald Trump's lies about election fraud are being granted plenty of uncritical coverage on Sky News Australia's night-time line-up. Picture: Getty Images

As the all-consuming spectacle of the American presidential election subsides, it is being replaced by the spectacle of soon-to-be-erstwhile-President Trump scrambling to retain some dignity in the face of his loss by spreading fabricated tales of massive, incorporeal voter fraud.

Conservative commentators, supporters and elected Republicans continue to back these claims, while Trump's lawyers, arguing in court, are unable to call into question enough votes to flip just one of the several states whose results would need to be overturned to give Trump his victory.

Trump's seemingly boundless capacity to deny inconvenient truths - he will never admit that he lost this election - is enabled by the support of the world's most powerful Australian, Rupert Murdoch, and the slavish sycophancy of Fox News, without whom it is unlikely Trump would ever have risen to power. Fox has been instrumental in polarising America, establishing an alternate universe in which Trump is a heroic emblem of masculine power, and spinning his hiring of loyalists whose primary interest is enriching themselves and their allies as successfully "draining the swamp".

In Australia, our attitude towards all this tends towards a smug voyeurism. We comment on the drama from a distance, focusing intently on the theatrics while ignoring the serious human stakes. This enthusiasm for American politics as a spectator sport is at least partly motivated by a belief that we remain invulnerable to the fractures that have transformed the United States into a country of permanent crisis (a process that a Biden presidency will slow, but not relieve).

What we too often fail to see is that Trump and his cheerleaders have modelled a way of doing politics that local conservative outlets are eagerly adopting. As our media landscape transforms, with some embracing increasingly conspiratorial and inflammatory rhetoric (a particularly winning strategy on social media), we risk an undoing of democracy by stealth.

Australia's half-baked but increasingly influential Fox replica, Sky News - also owned by Murdoch - has begun to find success in imitation, its night-time line-up disseminating conservative, opinion-based content that resembles right-wing talk radio in its rhetoric; infuriating, terrifying, and enlarging the political base with reactionary material energised primarily by fantasising about often non-existent leftist threats.

A Liberal Party member view Sky News' election coverage on the night of the 2013 federal election. Picture: Getty Images

A Liberal Party member view Sky News' election coverage on the night of the 2013 federal election. Picture: Getty Images

In the wake of the US election, following the universal projection of a Biden victory, Cory Bernardi, interviewed by Alan Jones on Sky, proclaimed that "those people who have said there is no evidence of any fraud or collusion, they've suspended any rational thought". Jones forcefully agreed. "Ultimately, I think the next president is going to be decided by the rulings of the Supreme Court," Bernardi said.

This outcome is extremely unlikely. Last week, two Pennsylvania judges dismissed six cases brought by the Trump campaign, where lawyers were attempting to have 9000 ballots thrown out. Biden leads in that state by over 60,000 votes.

Perhaps the most prominent Australian Trump advocate (aside from Murdoch himself) is Miranda Devine. Devine has long worked in various arms of the Murdoch empire, but this year become a columnist for the New York Post, writing articles reprinted in Sydney's Daily Telegraph. Appearing on San Diego's KUSI Local News, Devine exclaimed: "You can't underestimate the ability of the Democrats to keep stealing this election right in front of our eyes."

She went on to repeat Rudy Giuliani's baseless claims about Republican election observers not being permitted to witness ballot-counting in Pennsylvania (in court, a lawyer representing Trump conceded that there was a "non-zero" number of Republican observers in the room). The New York Times has since spoken with election officials across the country, who said there was "no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome of the presidential race".

Another favourite claim of those in the Murdoch ecosystem is that Joe Biden is senile, and was being propped up by advisers eager to get him across the line despite his supposed cognitive decline. Biden is old, and not the clearest orator by a long shot, but there is no indication he has dementia or anything similar. Politifact, tracing the rumour to Fox News, is among the outlets who have comprehensively refuted the claim, consulting a medical expert who labelled such pronouncements "a shameful display of ageism and ignorance".

The fact that the claim is, at the very least, highly contested, has not stopped Sky News fuelling the conspiracy. In a YouTube video from October, titled "There is no doubt Joe Biden is in 'cognitive decline'", Peta Credlin and The Australian's Greg Sheridan riffed on a clip removed from its context, using it to claim Biden had confused his opponent with George Bush. Biden was in fact addressing the interviewer, George Lopez.

Perhaps the most egregious example of Sky providing a platform for wildly dubious information was Sharri Markson's "exclusive" October interview with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon (currently on bail accused of defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors who gave to a campaign to build Trump's US-Mexico wall).

For 20 minutes, Markson prompted Bannon to delve into the apparent revelations printed by the New York Post, which had received information from Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, alleging Joe Biden was criminally implicated in his son's business dealings. This was a story major American media outlets, even Fox News, had deemed unverifiable, and it was later reported numerous journalists inside the Post doubted the information's validity, with one even removing his byline from the story.

A recent article in Business Insider revealed Sky News's growing influence, not as a TV channel - where it continues to attract audiences only in the tens of thousands - but as an online platform. Its YouTube channel, for example, currently receives around 3.7 million views per day. Next year, Sky is set to overtake the ABC to become the Australian media outlet with the most YouTube subscribers, largely on the back of videos that mimic Fox's sensationalist cultural conservatism.

While several Sky commentators appear to be willing to uncritically regurgitate Trump's lies, Andrew Bolt has become a notable holdout. He has often praised Trump, and hoped for a Trump win, but he has accepted Biden's victory and has gone so far as describing Trump's denial of the electoral facts as "reckless, dangerous, and selfish".

But his protestations may have come too late. Commenters on his Herald Sun blog already vehemently disagree with his assessment.

"Do you think we are fools?" asked one.

  • Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.
This story It's happening here: the perils of Sky News After Dark first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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