Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on Wednesday defended the company’s decision not to stream an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” that criticized Saudi Arabia in Saudi Arabia after the country’s government complained.
“Well, we’re not in the news business. We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power,'” Hastings told Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times’ DealBook Conference. “We’re trying to entertain.”
The second episode of “Patriot Act,” which originally streamed in October 2018 shortly after the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, strongly criticized the Saudi government and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA concluded personally ordered the hit. Minhaj also criticized Silicon Valley for taking investments from Saudi Arabia.
In January, the episode was removed from Netflix in Saudi Arabia after the Saudi government complained it violated its anti-cyber crime law. In response to harsh criticism at the time, the company said “we strongly support artistic freedom worldwide,” and that it only pulled the episode because “we had received a valid legal request — and to comply with local law.”
On Wednesday, Hastings suggested additional factors also played a role in the decision, telling Sorkin that Netflix could opt to pick fights with foreign regimes over “newsy topics” if it wanted to, but it’s better off not going that route. Instead, he pointed to the Saudi government letting shows like “Sex Education” — which show a “very liberal lifestyle,” Hastings said — run in its country; this was as a sign of the regime’s relative openness, according to Hastings.
“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,” Hastings added.
Sorkin pointed out that Netflix has in fact taken political positions in the U.S. in the past. Notably, Netflix said it would “re-think” filming in Georgia last year if the state passed an anti-abortion bill.
In response, Hastings indicated there was a line Netflix wouldn’t cross when it came to Saudi censorship, saying the company wouldn’t comply if the Saudi government asked it to censor content showing LGBTQ characters or storylines. But Minhaj’s case was different, Hastings said.
“This was a truth to power [moment]. Hasan’s enormously funny, interesting, and he’s you know, one more quite justified critique of MBS. But that’s just not our core brand.”