It’s been a week of mixed messages from News Corp Australia.
Alan Jones, previously one of the media giant’s most bankable stars, was, according to the Murdoch enterprise’s own actions, both a man with a diminishing connection to his audience and a star whose light still burns bright.
The company took the axe to Jones’s column in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph – apparently because it did not “resonate” with readers – then lauded the broadcaster as a “compelling voice” with a big audience on Sky and a well-read column in the Australian. So a zero and a hero, it seems.
“The decision to no longer publish Alan Jones’s column in The Daily Telegraph was made by its editor, Ben English, based on the impact the column was having on the Telegraph’s objective to build its audience,” News Corp’s executive chairman, Michael Miller, told Guardian Australia.
“Decisions about what to publish in News Corp mastheads is the responsibility of the editor. These decisions should not be confused with the company’s corporate position or, in this case, a signal that News Corp Australia no longer supports Alan.
“Alan is one of Australia’s most accomplished broadcasters; his show on Sky News is achieving strong success and he has a widely read column in The Australian.
“He is a compelling voice that has long represented the values of many Australians and his relationship with News Corp remains strong.”
When news broke that Jones had been dumped there was immediate speculation about the future of his 8pm weeknight show on Sky News, which has just clocked up 12 months on air.
When Jones appeared to tone down his anti-lockdown rhetoric on air the next day, denying that he had encouraged protesters, it fuelled a perception he was on the nose with Murdoch executives.
His final Telegraph column last week criticised Australia’s response to Covid-19, which he argues is no worse than the flu for healthy people. Had he gone too far, even for News Corp?
Jones had attacked the New South Wales chief health officer, Kerry Chant, calling her “dumb” and “out of touch”. “How many villages are missing their idiot?” he said.
He had also defended the Sydney protesters and, in reference to a 38-year-old woman who died in Sydney on Sunday, said it was “highly unlikely” she had died of Covid-19.
Jones has since taken to the air to deny being an anti-vaxxer or encouraging illegal anti-lockdown protesters in an emotional broadcast.
And he is not going anywhere. He kept his sport column in the Australian and New Corp’s Holt Street headquarters praised him as someone “who has long represented the values many Australians”.
The defining hire of Sky New Australia chief executive Paul Whittaker’s tenure, Jones has not set the TV world on fire and has flagged publicly his desire to go back to radio. He has been unable to replicate the success he enjoyed as Sydney’s No 1 breakfast radio presenter over several decades.
At Sky his ratings are below those of Andrew Bolt and Peta Credlin, even though he was hired to be the station’s flagship presenter. This week he bounced between a high of 61,000 on Monday and a low of 39,000 on Wednesday.
But Sky’s business model does not rely solely on the ratings for its Foxtel channel.
Wounded after he was dumped by the Telegraph, Jones said he resonated with people online and had the figures to prove it.
“Well, thankfully, we live in the world of social media,” Jones told his audience after English said his columns didn’t “resonate” with readers. “I am staggered by the reach.”
The reach of the rightwing pundits on Sky is staggering and expanding.
Already boasting a reach of 9.1 million viewers each month across Sky News on Foxtel, YouTube, Facebook and other online platforms, on Sunday a new channel, Sky News Regional, will launch across free-to-air stations in regional Australia.
The Murdoch-owned broadcaster might be celebrating 25 years as Australia’s first 24-hour news channel but it’s outside the linear channel that the video content Sky pumps out daily is enjoying extraordinary growth.
Sky’s YouTube channel has grown in two years from 70,000 subscribers to 1.85 milloin, which is higher than ABC News or any other local media company.
One of the most popular videos, with 4.6m views, is Jones’s “Australians must know the truth – this virus is not a pandemic”, which was posted at the height of the pandemic last year.
“I’ve done a piece on Biden, President Biden, that’s gone around the world,” Jones boasted this week. “I’ve had emails from Israel. The views so far total 2.8m and 34,000 comments.”
In the 2020-21 financial year, according to Sky’s figures for potential advertisers, its videos were seen 1.3bn times. The more extreme the video the more popular it is on YouTube or Facebook, in particular those critical of Joe Biden’s cognition or China’s role in the pandemic.
The Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi says anti-lockdown videos have been a dangerous influence during the pandemic.
“Various Sky News presenters have taken a conscious decision to politicise and undermine widely-accepted public health measures in order to exacerbate community frustrations,” Faruqi told Guardian Australia.
“It’s no surprise that after weeks of this sort of rubbish, we saw thousands of people out on the streets last Saturday.
Jones is an incredibly skilled broadcaster, whether you agree with his point of view or not
Tim Burrowes, media commentator
“These frankly dangerous messages are being shared not only to a TV audience, but to a much bigger audience on YouTube as well.
“Sky News’ indulgence of far-right conspiracy theories and Covid-scepticism has gone on for far too long. It has to be called out.”
A tally of views on Sky News clips posted to YouTube between 18 and 23 July, leading up to the 24 July anti-lockdown rallies, found more than 1m views of 22 clips including explicitly anti-lockdown or lockdown-sceptical sentiments.
According to Sky’s own advertising sales pitch, only a quarter of its audience is now on Foxtel. The majority is across YouTube, Facebook, News Corp websites, skynews.com.au, free-to-air TV and Twitter.
“Sky News Australia is now reaching more than a third of the Australian population, with an average monthly audience of 9.1 million Australians across its extensive portfolio of media assets,” Sky’s commercial director, Cathryn Adams, told advertisers.
Sky News Regional will be available on two regional broadcasters after Sky signed a new deal: Southern Cross Australia across Victoria, southern New South Wales and Queensland, and on Win in northern NSW, Griffith and South Australia.
“We’ve listened to our regional audiences and adjusted the programming schedule to reflect their feedback, which includes our new live breakfast program, Sky News Breakfast, the return and live broadcast of The Bolt Report, plus more of Paul Murray Live and the continuation of its regional Our Town series which puts a spotlight on a different regional town each month,” Whittaker said before the launch.
The media commentator Tim Burrowes, whose book Media Unmade examines the upheaval in Australian media during the last decade, says Sky has evolved from a “straight news service and an advertising-safe environment” to a “subscription model which has identified an audience to the right side of the political spectrum”.
Burrowes wonders if the Telegraph terminated Jones because it was worried it might be targeted by the successful social media campaigns run by the activists Sleeping Giants and MFW, which led to advertisers deserting 2GB and Sky.
Jones has been in the headlines this month for what his radio rival Ray Hadley calls his “ridiculous stance” against the Sydney lockdown.
Sky was also forced to remove a video in which Jones and the federal MP Craig Kelly presented inaccurate information about vaccination safety.
“I think the question for me is, Jones is an incredibly skilled broadcaster, whether you agree with his point of view or not,” Burrowes told Guardian Australia. “He makes an argument well and he makes it entertainingly. So surely he must be an asset.”
“One of the things that gives presenters influence is the fact that, even if you have a relatively small audience, politicians take them seriously, and politicians also perceive them to be influential.”