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Good bile and bad: tolerating Alan Jones

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Wednesday, 3 October 2012


Oh what fun it is to be a maligned shock jock. The shoe, sitting now so well on the other foot, and the attack being waged on several fronts against the man whose voice has filled Australian airwaves for years. "Long before this issue occurred," claims Alan Jones, "there was this unbridled hatred towards me from some sections of the media and beyond." He is certainly right to think that the hatred was there, long before his off-colour remarks about Prime Minister Julia Gillard's late father "dying of shame".

What is peculiar about this particular attack on Jones, as deserved as it might be seen in some quarters, is why it did not happen earlier. Jones has always had controversy follow him like an enthusiastic horse fly, but such outrage over grossly insensitive remarks is striking. Are there, indeed, areas of conversation where one, however offensive, cannot tread? Are prime minister's personal lives immune from off colour insensitivity in a private setting?

Collective assertions are always dangerous, erroneously usurping the views of others. The petition "It's time for 2GB to sack Alan Jones" has, as of this writing, 80,737 supporters. Various postings on the petition being circulated through online media have assumed a collective disposition to Jones. One, by Janet Wilson, suggests that, "His behaviour is appalling and demeans all Australians." Another posting by Annette Bennett sends "a loud and clear message to Jones – Australia is sick of your bile and repugnant vile commentary!"

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Certainly many Australians might well find such bile reprehensible, but Jones' durability suggests that the assertion is more complicated. Having never himself changed his spots of vulgar confrontation, one wonder's whether it's his opponents who have developed a different tack.

For one thing, his power – or at least the perception of it – has made him near impregnable. As was noted by David Salter in The Monthly in May 2006, the Parrot "can summon prime ministers, premiers, police commissioners, sports stars, celebrities and captains of industry with a single phone call." Take the companies keen on buying his admiration on air. To suddenly see corporate moralists step forward, individuals such as JJ Metro West managing director John Megalli, smacks of disingenuousness. "We disagree 100 percent with what Alan Jones said and we have already contacted the station [2GB] with our concerns about the comments." Investment management firm Challenger has similarly pulled advertising from Jones's program, with a spokesperson claiming that "we're not sure the apology reflected the degree of offence they would have caused". These acts of corporate indignation are remarkable, given Jones's famed record of blustering and badgering his targets.

The question that should be asked is precisely what is tolerated, and what isn't. Personally offensive remarks, be they deluded or ill-informed, often the stuff of "private" functions – even those of a national party, are suddenly intolerable. Australian attitudes to public debate are problematic and ill-defined – an Andrew Bolt will be taken to task for violating the Racial Discrimination Act for careless, googling journalism, but a Jones, flying close to the wind of vilification on a weekly basis with his opinions, will not. Even more on point, Jones has been allowed to get away with an extraordinary array of misdemeanours, the exonerated fiend of Australian public life.

There may be a few reasons for this. Jones is very much the institutionalised vicious clown, the "entertainer". He is coarse, mannered in the way he composes his sentences, feted rather than not, forgiven for his indiscretions and naughty infractions against people. What has been forgotten in this entire context is that the school for scandal never claimed Jones the way it should have.

In 1999, "cash-for-comment" broke with a certain fury but left him generally unscarred. Media regulators have occasioned slapped Jones, though nothing too serious in the scheme of things. A degree of corruption in the media and corporate sphere has always been acceptable. In April 2004, the Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, David Flint, was shown to have penned various gushing letters to Jones. (This, incidentally, made fellow shock jock John Laws suspicious – were the two having it off?) In 2004, Jones was cleared for other "cash-for-comment' related deals apparently made with Telstra, courtesy of Flint. The plot thickened just that little bit more.

With breathtaking indifference to the consequences of his remarks, Jones helped fuel the Cronulla riots in 2005. "What kind of grubs?," he asked on Radio 2GB on December 5, 2005. "Well I'll tell you what kind of grubs this lot were. This lot were middle eastern grubs." His suggestion was to encourage "the biker gangs to be present in numbers at Cronulla railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive". Remarkably, no legal consequences attended this foray into racial violence, and the moral police, furious in some quarters, proved distinctly toothless.

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The loathsome, populist presence Jones has managed to cultivate over the years is certainly something many Australians don't mind, contrary to the apoplectic reaction that is gathering steam via the petition. The bully is vicariously revered, and in some cases, adored. Jones trucks in nastiness and half-truths with terrier like dogmatism, but that is of little concern to most people, evidenced by the fact that he exists with such prominence, a fateful reminder, a tolerable symptom.

What is striking is that this particular viciousness should be so highlighted, noted, merely because, one suspects, it has targeted a prime minister's deceased father. Associate Professor Sally Young speculates that his comments "crossed the line because they were about family, they were personal, offensive and intruded upon a daughter's grief". The corollary of that is that the Prime Minister is female, bringing Jones's well documented record of verbalised misogyny into the picture. Young further suggests that a "heightened sensitivity" to "the intimidation of women at the moment" exists, given the killing of Jill Meagher in Melbourne.

Jones may be terrified of women, a misogynistic bully and indifferent to truths. But pulling the sponsors and withdrawing the funding should have come earlier over graver assaults on civic tradition. That is has come to this suggests a deeper confusion about proportion over what is deemed acceptable in the public sphere of debate. Even more starkly, it suggests that high profile bullies will go far.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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