'Sky News After Dark': A digital Nuremberg Rally
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'Sky News After Dark': A digital Nuremberg Rally

It might seem a big deal, Sky News admitting that it made a terrible mistake giving a platform to Blair Cottrell, the human protein slab, convicted criminal and Adolf Hitler superfan. But all of this has happened before on Sky News After Dark, and all of this will happen again.

Cottrell’s appearance was not a mistake, or an aberration. It was a perfectly routine part of Sky’s business model. When the working journalists clock off for the day, the network ceases to report information. Instead it offers meaning. A human centipede of jabbering trolls tries to explain the world in a way that identifies who are friends, who are enemies, and what must be done to protect the former from the latter.

Blair Cottrell's appearance on Sky News was no aberration.

Blair Cottrell's appearance on Sky News was no aberration. Credit:Matthew Lynn

Sky News After Dark isn’t a news operation, it’s a digital Nuremberg Rally. That’s how somebody like Cottrell ends up looking like a legitimate contributor to the national discourse, at least for the short time he’s in studio framed by green screen effects and the ever present chyron.

Nor is there any mystery about why otherwise intelligent professionals would debase themselves and their network by interviewing the likes of Cottrell. The old advertising based media business model has been shattered by new media disruptors such as Facebook and Google. Sky, like everyone in news, is desperately looking for a new way to make money. People might not want to pay for basic information any more, but they will still hand over their credit card details to anyone who can confirm their biases. And the stronger that confirmation bias? The more addictive and profitable feeding it becomes.

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In this way Alex Jones’s Infowars can morph from a monstrous freakshow into a monstrously profitable freakshow. At least until somebody takes a bit of responsibility and kicks his ass to the kerb. Apple, Facebook and YouTube finally did so yesterday, yanking Jones’ podcasts and channels from their platforms. They are private businesses so the First Amendment to the US Constitution doesn’t apply.

The tech companies had been wary of acting before now for a bunch of reasons. Many of their customers are also consumers of Infowars’ brand of hyper insanity. But more importantly, mainstream conservatives who would once have crushed Jones and Infowars as a clear and present danger to the polity, now count him and his fan base as fellow travellers if not allies. Trillion-dollar businesses have a lot to lose if they get into a cage fight with hostile legislators. (On the other hand there’s probably no political difficulty which can’t be solved by a big enough donation nowadays, so they always have that option.)

While Jones and Cottrell have now experienced some real push back, their rise to prominence demonstrates something else that is broken about the old media model. It is not just the business model that has failed. One of the core precepts of traditional reportage is the idea of good faith, the idea that two people, especially in politics, could hold very different views, but do so sincerely, while recognising the legitimacy of alternative viewpoints. The role of journalism was to present those views ‘without fear or favour’ and let the readers, viewers or listeners decide.

But that commendable even-handedness fails when confronted by actors who are either actively hostile to the system, like Cottrell, or completely nuts, like Jones.

Nazis, lunatics and obvious bullshitters didn’t used to get invited onto national news programs to discuss their take on the events of the day. Once upon a time, the only thing Nazis got from us was a bullet. Lunatics got treatment, and bullshitters were laughed off stage.

The tech companies, in finally cutting the legs out from under Alex Jones, have given a lead to news media in how it should think about dealing with bad faith actors. It’s not just maniacs like Alex Jones, or Hitler fanbois like Blair Cottrell.

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been yanked off reputable host sites.

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been yanked off reputable host sites.

The entire system has been debased. One of the ways we got into this mess was by treating both sides of the climate change ‘debate’ as though there actually was a debate. There’s not. There’s the science. And there’s a trillion-dollar fossil fuel industry, ultimately owned by a comparatively small number of super wealthy individuals and families, which has used its wealth and the power that comes with that wealth, to deform and damage the political system.

Journalists can’t feel smug and superior about seeing off a Blair Cottrell, if they go back to work supporting the same broken system that allowed him to float up from the bottom of the pond in the first place.

John Birmingham is a columnist and blogger for the Brisbane Times. He is also an award winning magazine writer and the author of Leviathan, the Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, which won the National Award for Non-Fiction. He amuses himself in his down time by writing novels which improve with altitude.