As the backlash set in after Sky News’s interview with Blair Cottrell, one activist group turned its sights to the channel’s corporate sponsors. By Alex McKinnon.

Sleeping Giants fuel Sky News backlash

Blair Cottrell (right) is interviewed by Adam Giles on the Sky News channel this week.
Blair Cottrell (right) is interviewed by Adam Giles on the Sky News channel this week.
Credit: Facebook

The sight of a retired Aboriginal politician wishing success to a self-described racist, who once called for a photograph of Hitler to be hung in every classroom, may not be the strangest thing Sky News has ever thrown at the viewing public, but it has to be up there.

“Well, Blair Cottrell, good luck,” said former Northern Territory chief minister Adam Giles to the former United Patriots Front leader, convicted arsonist and Hitler fan at the end of their 10-minute interview on Sunday. “I hope it all goes well for you. Thanks very much for joining us. Stay out of trouble.”

The exchange drew quick and emphatic condemnation from Sky News journalists. Heads Up host Janine Perrett called Cottrell “a convicted criminal with a dangerous record”. Newsday host Laura Jayes described him as “a far right-wing fascist who’s a self-confessed Hitler fan”. The Latest host Helen Dalley, who announced her resignation from the network on Monday for unrelated reasons, said the broadcast of “a violent thug” was “too outrageous for words”.

The network itself responded with the false confidence that comes from much practice dealing with crises. In a statement, Australian News Channel CEO Angelos Frangopoulos said, “we deeply regret featuring the interview on our channel”, calling it “an error of judgement”. The network suspended The Adam Giles Show and its presenter to “review the production format and structure of the program”. On the other hand, Sky News director Greg Byrnes, who admitted to his role in approving Cottrell’s booking on Wednesday, was promoted to the impressively vague position of “acting program director”.

“I don’t even know what that means,” one Sky News insider told The Saturday Paper. “I never know what anyone’s title is, or what it means they do.”

The only wrinkle in an otherwise seamless response was former Labor trade minister Craig Emerson quitting as a Sky News commentator in protest, citing his father’s internment in a German concentration camp during World War II. “My father would never have understood me appearing on a television network that hosted anti-Semitic racists,” Emerson said in an opinion piece for The Australian Financial Review. “Seven and Sky have sought to normalise racism and bigotry to boost their ratings and advertising revenue.”

The Sky insider told The Saturday Paper the Jekyll-and-Hyde divide between the network’s daytime journalists and its night-time shock jocks, combined with the network’s severe staffing shortages and almost total absence of oversight, has produced toxic results.

“There are lots of good people at Sky who genuinely care about news and a robust exchange of opinions, and there are people who want to fight a culture war. The night-time is increasingly populated by the culture warriors,” they said. “There is so little editorial oversight or advice at Sky. The journalists are smart enough to manage that on their own – they know what makes a good interview, they know what’s appropriate and what isn’t. But you combine a culture warrior with a lack of editorial oversight and direction, it’s no surprise you end up where we are now.”

Two days after the Cottrell blow-up, normal service had resumed at Sky News. Delivering one of her trademark monologues to camera, presenter Peta Credlin used the milestone of Australia’s population passing 25 million to warn that migration is, in her opinion, too high.

“Now don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of immigration,” Credlin said. “The way I see it, ordinary people in everyday suburbs have finally found their voice on the issue of immigration. They’re angry and they’re refusing to be cowed by claims of ‘racism’ when they know this is not about race, it’s about quality of life and the sort of country we want tomorrow.”

The appearance of racist agitators Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux on the network in recent weeks to peddle their particular brands of white nationalism triggered no introspection from the network. In a Herald Sun column titled “No to Cottrell”, Sky News regular Andrew Bolt said it was wrong for the channel to “give a platform to a thug, bully and anti-Semite like Blair Cottrell”. In a column the week before, Bolt claimed a “tidal wave” of non-English speaking migrants was “changing our culture”, singling out Jewish, Chinese and Indian communities.

The most tangible consequences for Sky News putting a neo-Nazi to air have come from online activists Sleeping Giants Oz. Since the Cottrell interview, the lobby group has directed followers to voice their concerns with companies that advertise on Sky, to considerable effect. Baby product brand Huggies, eyewear retailer Specsavers and American Express have pulled advertising from the broadcaster, with the finance giant saying, “recent content on the channel does not reflect our brand values”. Virgin Australia, which broadcasts Sky News in its frequent flyer lounges, has promised an “internal review” of the arrangement. On Thursday, Victorian transport minister Jacinta Allan announced the state government will pull Sky News from its train stations, stating, “hatred and racism have no place on our screens or in our community”. Home affairs minister Peter Dutton labelled the move “absurd”.

“That you would ban the whole network is an absurdity and frankly, as I say, it’s just a political statement,” he said on Melbourne radio station 3AW.

“I would have thought in Victoria at the moment there are higher order priorities than the music that’s been piped at train stations across Victoria.”

Sleeping Giants Oz also claims to have scared advertisers such as Citibank, ANZ, NIB, Bayer and UBank away from Sky News’ Outsiders since Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm made misogynistic comments about Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young on the program.

Sleeping Giants Oz is the Australian offshoot of a lobby group that started in the United States on the day of the 2016 presidential election. Originally targeting far-right portal Breitbart, Sleeping Giants has since run campaigns against former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and far-right news outlets in Canada, France and Italy. At least 3000 companies have pulled advertising from Breitbart, which has suffered plummeting web traffic and ad revenue since the 2016 US presidential election.

If nothing else, the Sleeping Giants campaign has made Bolt sit up and take notice. “This mistake is being used by our enemies to fuel the campaign to kill Sky News,” he said on Monday night. “There is a campaign to drive Sky off the air – to stop people from screening it, to stop advertisers from funding it, to stop you from watching it.”

In July, Matt Rivitz, one the co-founders of Sleeping Giants, was outed by far-right news outlet The Daily Caller, which also published names of his friends and family members. Speaking to The Saturday Paper, Sleeping Giants Oz administrators said they chose to remain anonymous as their work made them “prime targets for harassment and in some cases real physical danger”.

While divestment campaigns may have an impact on traditional media platforms, figures such as Cottrell overwhelmingly rely on social media to reach like-minded followers and build their support. As the Cottrell saga played out in Australia, a similar controversy in the US suggested many of the tech giants have belatedly realised the role they play in megaphoning bigotry and are becoming more assertive in acting against it.

A host of platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Apple, Spotify, MailChimp and Pinterest, have banned or permanently deleted all content produced by far-right Texas conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars media group. Jones is fighting a lawsuit brought by the parents of children murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, who assert rampant harassment by Infowars listeners has driven them into hiding to the point where they cannot visit their children’s graves. The broadcaster has long claimed Sandy Hook was a hoax perpetrated by progressives to boost support for gun control, and that parents of the murdered children are paid “crisis actors”.

What started as actions against individual pieces of hateful content quickly became something much bigger, with platforms deleting myriad pages, channels and videos that made up the bulk of Jones’s online presence. In less than a week, Jones went from a conspiracy-media behemoth to a fringe-dweller, his ability to reach a wide audience severely reduced.

Twitter is the lone holdout. Chief executive Jack Dorsey has defended the platform’s decision not to ban Jones and Infowars, saying Jones “has not violated our rules” and it was not Twitter’s place to hold him to account. “Accounts like Jones’s can often sensationalise issues and spread unsubstantiated rumours, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best,” he said on Wednesday.

Closer to home, Facebook shut down the page of Melbourne racist extremist Avi Yemini last week, after he shared the personal phone number of ABC journalist Osman Faruqi, prompting a wave of death threats. Yemini has taken to Twitter to complain he is being silenced by Facebook’s “outrageous #censorship”, pledging to travel with Australian Liberty Alliance founding president Debbie Robinson to Facebook’s Californian headquarters “to track down Zuckerberg to get some answers”.

For his part, Cottrell was delighted at how the Sky News saga shook out. Not only did he score a soft-ball interview on a commercial news network, he got to play the victim of censorship to his followers. While Sky has pulled the interview from its website, Cottrell is playing whack-a-mole with his own copy, uploading it to various social media platforms as fast as they can take it down. A version on his Twitter account was viewed more than 17,000 times before being removed.

“I am so hated by the left and their corporate masters that if you’re a presenter for mainstream media in Australia, you’ll literally lose your job if you interview me,” he boasted.

In a since-deleted tweet, Cottrell also joked about raping Laura Jayes. “I might as well have raped @ljayes on the air, not only would she have been happier with that but the reaction would’ve been the same,” Cottrell wrote. While Twitter suspended Cottrell from tweeting for a week, his account is still up and will soon, no doubt, be back in action.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 11, 2018 as "The Sky is flailing".

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