Walter Cronkite once famously observed "If you get your news from me, you must be an idiot." This doesn’t mean that people who watch Television news are idiots, rather that they watch it for something other than straight news. As goes TV so goes radio talkback. In all of the analysis of the 2UE cash for comment scandal, this is a point that really only seems to have been picked up by John Laws, and then only in his own defence.
Before I proceed, let me first lay down a few personal positions. I find both Laws and Jones to be intellectually sleazy. This is a position that I held before the ABA inquiry, and which was not particularly heightened by its findings. Secondly, I believe that they both acted unethically. This essay seeks not to defend them, but to take a look at the landscape of the affair from a different view-point.
Many commentators have been puzzled that the ratings of the two men have held up, despite everything. They reason that Laws’ and Jones’ lack of ethics should have repelled audiences. These commentators have missed the point.
What do the listeners of 2UE (and its syndicated stations around the country) expect to get when its call sign appears in their LED displays? Both men are blowhards – the sort of bloke who on a lower income might wear a permanent crease into a corner of your local bar and lecture any who will listen on what "aorta" do here there and everywhere. You know that they don’t really know what they are talking about in any deep sense. But you are fascinated by how they fracture and rearrange reality, romanticising it, mythologising it, regularising and simplifying it. Making it appear at the one time more miraculous than it is and yet more mundane and safe.
What the 2UE audience is after is not just entertainment. They also seek large dollops of reassurance, relaxation, fantasy, and a community to which to belong. The integrity of the story-teller does not enter into the equation, except that one knows instinctively that as no one human, even with a team of producers, can be so all-knowing and prescient, then some elongation of the truth must be occurring.
There is something Falstaffian about the commercial radio talk-back presenter. Yet unlike Henry V, the audience will never outgrow him. They live lives relatively lacking in power, so they do not need the skill of sifting fact from fantasy required by the exercise of power. They can afford to indulge themselves in make believe.
Part of the thrill of consorting with a Falstaff is the knowledge that he is a scoundrel. You do not drive a fleet of rollers, only go to the kitchen to check on the caterers, and live in the sort of house that has his and hers helipads unless you are getting paid better than most. Listeners know why Laws is getting paid well – because he sells. Selling is what he does non-stop during his shows. More obviously, during live reads, and less obviously as they merge into his conversational patter. The woman caller rings up and tells him that she has bought his favourite car – a Toyota. She knows it is not his favourite car. That Ferraris, Benzes, Aston Martins and so on are much more up his driveway. That is part of her joke.
It is also part of being a member of the community. This is a community where all can participate, as long as you are prepared to buy the fantasy. The ABA inquiry assumes an almost fiduciary relationship between broadcaster and listener, but in the worlds of Laws and Jones we are all consenting adults, in on the same joke, with no-one owing a duty of care to anyone else.
No wonder then that most of the calls to 2UE support Laws and Jones. Their denizens must be wondering why the rest of us took so long to catch on. It is also no wonder that calls to other talk back shows are running against Jones and Laws. This is a tribal gig. ABC Radio talkback callers, for instance, have chosen not to listen to Laws and Jones. Criticising 2UE affirms this choice.
How is it that Jones and Laws are such good salesmen if their credibility is so severely circumscribed? This question only arises if you mistakenly believe that credibility is a large part of selling. It isn’t. Sometimes notoriety can be just as important. Laws and Jones are both high profile, and through their spots on 2UE and around the country, they have access to a large daily audience plus the ability to attract the attention of a much wider group. Their spruiking comes with integrated amplification. The first problem in selling is to get the customer’s attention. They can do that.
The second problem is to put the proposition in terms and language that the prospect will understand and to which they will react positively. This is a question of rhetoric, not character, and they are both great rhetoricians. In fact, if someone you trust and respect tells you something which you find hard to believe, you don’t change your mind about the proposition, you tend to think less of the person.
This is the most piquant irony in the banks' $1M sponsorship of Laws and 2UE. Nothing Laws could say would improve the image of the banks, unless it was something that the public could accept as being true in the first place. And if it were true in the first place, then a much less expensive campaign, using real people, would probably have worked just as well. In the 1990 Election, John Singleton’s "whinging Wendy" ads for Labor were devastatingly effective. Wendy was unknown, but she got a head nod, and that is all that is necessary. Contrast that with the "Yes" campaign for the 1999 Republic Referendum. It was all celebrity marketing, but without the right message, so it failed. Celebrity of itself is not a sufficient sales tool.