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Sky News Australia temporarily suspended from YouTube for allegedly spreading coronavirus misinformation

The Murdoch family acquired full control of Sky News Australia in 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

SYDNEY — Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News Australia has been banned from posting new videos and live-streaming on YouTube for a week after violating the platform’s policies by sharing clips that allegedly spread misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

The ban comes amid growing concern among some Australian political and media commentators about the way in which the once-niche pay TV station, which some have called the “Fox News of Australia,” has expanded its reach on social media by adopting methods that have helped make the Murdoch-controlled Fox News successful in the United States.

These include featuring some right-wing personalities that discourage viewers from taking the coronavirus threat seriously.

A YouTube spokeswoman said the company has “clear and established COVID-19 medical misinformation policies based on local and global health authority guidance, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 misinformation that could cause real-world harm.”

“We apply our policies equally for everyone regardless of uploader, and in accordance with these policies and our long-standing strikes system, removed videos from and issued a strike to Sky News Australia’s channel,” the spokeswoman told The Washington Post in an email.

YouTube didn’t disclose which videos violated its regulations and many remained visible on Sky News Australia’s channel Monday, including clips discussing potentially risky or unproven covid-19 treatments with limited context.

In October, Sky News produced a video in which Alan Jones, a high-profile Australian commentator, expressed doubts about mask-wearing and lockdowns, citing U.S. skeptics. Another video by Jones, titled: “Australians must know the truth — this virus is not a pandemic,” posted in September, garnered millions of views on Facebook. It isn’t clear if these videos were shared on YouTube.

(After having warded off the pandemic through a mix of geographical isolation and tight borders, Australia is facing a delta variant wave that it has struggled to quash.)

Hundreds of soldiers patrolled Sydney on Aug. 2 to assist police officers with enforcing coronavirus restrictions. (Video: Reuters)

Sky News, which is no longer related to its better known British namesake, said in a statement Monday that it “expressly rejects that any host has ever denied the existence of COVID-19 as was implied, and no such videos were ever published or removed.”

Jack Houghton, an editor at Sky News, described the suspension as a “disturbing attack on the ability to think freely.” In a column posted Sunday, he wrote that “Holodomor, Auschwitz and Mao, are just three historical examples” where the “freedom to engage in debate and challenge conventional thinking and wisdoms were not always accepted as human rights.”

The Murdoch family took full control of Sky News Australia in 2016, through the local arm of News Corp. Its executives deepened the lineup of right-wing opinion shows that focused on hot-button topics such as immigration, climate change and, more recently, the pandemic.

News Corp. didn’t respond to a request for comment. Fox News, which is owned by another Murdoch company, has also made a public service announcement featuring its anchors and correspondents encouraging vaccination. A Sky News Australia spokeswoman said the broadcaster supports “broad discussion and debate on a wide range of topics and perspectives which is vital to any democracy.”

Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of the center-left Labor party, on Monday accused the broadcaster of “following the Fox News model” and “deliberately cultivating an anti-fact, non-science base of support around Australia.”

Sky News’s YouTube channel has grown rapidly in recent years from fewer than 100,000 to 1.85 million subscribers. These are relatively modest numbers by global standards, but it is more than the news platform of the state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp. commands and sizable enough to give it large political sway, critics say.

“There’s a belief among Australian elites that nobody watches Murdoch’s Sky, but they’re wrong. Nine million Australians — that’s one in three of us — already do, and mostly online through YouTube and Facebook,” Rudd wrote in an email to The Post. “This is creating an alternative media ecosystem that encourages viewers to disbelieve science, disbelieve facts because Murdoch gets to make a boatload of money out of it.”

Rudd last year launched a petition calling for an inquiry into the political influence wielded by Murdoch’s Australian media empire, which he and at least one other prime minister have blamed for their political fall. The petition has garnered more than half a million signatures.

Murdoch, who was born in Australia and started building his empire there, has repeatedly played down his purported political influence in public over the years.

Sky News says it has published more than 20,000 videos on its YouTube channel over the past year. The clips draw viewers globally, including in the United States.

“Sky’s Australian stories get tiny audiences, but stories about the United States get vastly bigger ones, suggesting Sky has developed a following in the United States,” Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, wrote in an article in the Conversation earlier this year.