YouTube reverses ban on UK’s TalkRadio for COVID-19 policy breaches

YouTube has reversed a controversial ban on the account of TalkRadio, a News Corp.-owned U.K. national radio station that covers news and current affairs.

The station revealed yesterday its channel had been removed from YouTube but said it had not been provided with an explanation for the suspension.

The decision to suspend the account of a high-profile national broadcaster appears to have been related to its policies on COVID-19 misinformation. Reuters reports that some of its presenters have been critical of government measures to slow the spread of coronavirus as excessive or ill-targeted.

However, the tech giant’s decision to ban a national broadcaster was quickly criticized by cabinet minister Michael Gove, who went on TalkRadio yesterday to defend its right to ask questions about government policy vis-à-vis the coronavirus.

The ban also triggered an intervention from News Corp.’s executive chairman Rupert Murdoch, according to the i newspaper, which reports that Murdoch accused the Google-owned service of setting a “dangerous precedent” and “censorship of free speech and legitimate national debate”.

In a statement today confirming it has reinstated TalkRadio’s account, a YouTube spokesperson told us:

TalkRadio’s YouTube channel was briefly suspended, but upon further review, has now been reinstated. We quickly remove flagged content that violate our Community Guidelines, including COVID-19 content that explicitly contradict expert consensus from local health authorities or the World Health Organization. We make exceptions for material posted with an educational, documentary, scientific or artistic purpose, as was deemed in this case.

It’s not clear which type of exception YouTube is applying in TalkRadio’s case to justify reinstating the station — given opinionated radio could span all categories, depending on the specific content.

Per the i, TalkRadio had received earlier strikes in October and December for YouTube policy breaches. The third strike that led to its (brief) suspension is thought to relate to an interview between one of its hosts, Julia Hartley-Brewer, and former National Education Union president Amanda Martin about whether teachers should be given the highest priority for COVID-19 vaccines.

The TalkRadio ban-reversal is just the latest in a long-running saga of tech giant moderation decisions colliding with concerns for freedom of expression — even as the stuff that platforms choose to leave up can often be no less controversial. (Although concern about risks to public health from coronavirus misinformation spreading and being amplified online have undoubtedly added extra pitfalls to platform moderation business as usual.)

The common thread of concern is powerful, private entities — which are not regulated in the same way (U.K.) broadcasters are — continue to have their hands on the “acceptable speech” lever.

Change is coming in the U.K., though: The government is working on a legislative proposal that will bring big tech under Ofcom’s regulatory umbrella. (And as TalkRadio points out in its earlier statement, its output is already regulated by Ofcom.)

The Online Safety Bill, which is slated to be put before parliament this year, will propose a “duty of care” for tech platforms to protect users from a range of illegal and harmful content. 

Under the plan Ofcom will oversee platforms’ compliance and get the power to block non-compliant digital services from being accessed, as well as the ability to levy huge fines for breaches.