Netflix CEO: Sure, we'll censor our programs for foreign governments

I knew this moment was coming, I just didn’t think it would arrive so soon.

During an interview at the The New York Times Dealbook Conference, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was asked about a recent decision to pull down a particular episode of Hasan Minhaj’s show Patriot Act in Saudi Arabia. The episode in question had offered some harsh criticism of Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman aka MBS. In response, the government sent Netflix a letter demanding it be removed. Hastings complied with that demand. When asked about it today, he said Netflix is an entertainment company, not a news company.

“Well, we’re not in the news business,” Hastings said. He continued, “We’re not trying to do truth-to-power. We’re trying to entertain. And we can pick fights with governments about newsy topics or we can say—cause the Saudi government allows us to have shows like Sex Education that show a very liberal lifestyle and very provocative and important topics. And so, we can accomplish a lot more by being entertainment and influencing a global conversation about how people live than trying to be another news channel.”

Interviewer Andrew Ross Sorkin quoted a NY Times op-ed which said of Netflix’ decision “by making the episode unavailable in Saudi Arabia, Netflix has become complicit in pervasive censorship…”

Hastings shrugged it off, saying the NY Times is a “truth-to-power brand…but we’re an entertainment brand, and so we don’t feel bad about that at all.”

And here’s where the company’s hypocrisy kicks in. Just a few months ago, Netflix said it might “rethink” its production of shows and movies in the state of Georgia if the state passed a restrictive anti-abortion law. Asked about this apparent contradiction, Hastings again shrugged it off.

“No one likes foreign interference. In the US, we are a US company so we can be a participant in that. That’s a lot different than us being a participant in say the French election or the British election,” he said.

That’s an absurd dodge. No one was suggesting Netflix should interfere in any foreign election. That wouldn’t be comparable anyway for at least two reasons. First, their statement about Georgia’s abortion law didn’t involve an election. Second, Saudi Arabia is a monarchy that rarely holds elections.

No one criticized Netflix for failing to attempt to influence foreign elections. What people have said is that Netflix shouldn’t censor content to please foreign dictators. If you’re going to play at being a woke Hollywood company at home, the least you could do is show a little spine abroad. That means not caving into demands the moment a foreign potentate makes them. That’s a much, much lower bar than messing around in foreign elections and Netflix still managed to fall on its face.

Hastings said there is a limit though: “If they came to us and said you can’t have gay content, we wouldn’t do that.” So at some point the company is willing to stand up for American values, we just haven’t reached that point yet.

Here’s the full interview. I’ve cued this up to the question about Saudi Arabia:

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Jazz Shaw 10:00 PM | June 12, 2024