Netflix CEO Reed Hastings defended the streamer’s decision earlier this year to censor an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj,” during an interview at the New York Times DealBook Conference on Wednesday. The episode, which criticised Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi investment in Silicon Valley, was pulled for users in Saudi Arabia after the Saudi government complained.
“We’re not in the news business. We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain,” Hastings told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin.
Hastings made it clear that Netflix is a huge international business and the U.S. only makes up 5 per cent of the world’s population. And Hastings went on to argue that it can actually do good in the world by playing ball with the Saudi government’s censors.
“We can pick fights with governments about newsy topics, or we can say—because the Saudi government allows us to have shows like Sex Education that show a very liberal lifestyle.”
Other brands around the world have faced intense criticism for bowing to political pressure by authoritarian regimes in order to make more money. The NBA and China was just one recent example, where the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey got into hot water over a tweet supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
When Sorkin pushed Hastings on the fact that Netflix is now complicit in censoring critics in the Middle East, Hastings again trotted out the argument that Netflix is merely an entertainment channel rather than a new channel.
“We’re an entertainment brand, we don’t feel bad about that at all,” Hastings said.
Hastings went on to say that if the Saudi government asked him to take down gay content, he wouldn’t do it, but he again seemed to believe there was some bright line distinction between fictionalised drama and hard news critique—something that Hassan Minaj apparently stepped over with his show about Saudi investment in Silicon Valley.
“It’s tough. If you want to be a news brand, then you have a different set of things that you do,” Hastings said. “And if you want to be an entertainment brand, and that’s really about sharing lifestyles, then you do have to draw hard lines, but they’re around things that are around lifestyle, not around the current news.”