Why on earth was the ABC so foolish as to contemplate publishing a book on Alan Jones? The answer is that tired old mantra: it was in the public interest. But the ABC's role, indeed its raison d'etre, is to accommodate the public interest through broadcasting, and surely this was satisfied with the Four Corners program on ABC television in 2002.
Of course, the ABC's commitment to balance means that we should have also seen similar programs on high-profile commentators across the ideological spectrum, perhaps including those on the ABC payroll.
Don't think you missed them: there weren't any.
Now, some irate readers will no doubt recall Mandy Rice-Davies's immortal line: He would say that, wouldn't he? And it's true: I admire Alan Jones. I have met him about a half-dozen times and, yes, I have sent him the occasional note. (Mike Carlton, take note: I know this kills my chances of being invited on to your low-rating breakfast program.)
My admiration is based on the fact that Jones is a principled and superbly effective communicator and a successful radio identity. He takes on an extraordinary workload. He is compassionate and charitable to those in need. And he eloquently speaks for the silent majority on issues from his opposition to the politicians' republic and an apology to Aboriginal Australians, to his strong support for border protection and the war on Islamic terrorism. To be sure, I don't agree with everything he says. His support for protectionism and agrarian socialism, for instance, are just a little left wing for my taste.
But back to the Jones book that has been on the ABC agenda for several years. Why is the public broadcaster in the publishing business in the first place? After all, it is not as if there is no commercial outlet for books from the Left side of the political divide.
Several years ago I went to a mainstream publisher with my proposed book Twilight of the Elites, which argued that the upper-middle-class small-l liberals were horribly out of touch with mainstream opinion in Australia on a variety of social and cultural issues. The publisher told me: "Yes, it's a good read. But only books from the Left sell and a book about them would not." And when a colleague asked for a book of mine at an ABC shop, he was told: "We wouldn't carry a book like that, but you can get it at Dymocks. I saw it there at lunchtime."
In an article in these pages several years ago, Greg Sheridan argued that about 25 per cent to 30 per cent of books published in the US on politics and foreign affairs were written from a conservative viewpoint. "If this were duplicated in Australia," he said, "it would represent an astounding liberalism in the great Australian narrowness in publishing."
If you are not persuaded, ask yourself why conservative historian Keith Windschuttle resorts to his own publishing house.
Now, the ABC did not just agree to publish a book that some eager writer off the street happened to ask them to publish. No, at the very time it was crying poor, claiming to be unable to broadcast more than a ludicrously small amount of Australian drama, the ABC decided to spend a vast amount of money and executive time in planning, commissioning and "legalling" a book against a commercial and an ideological rival.
This is not to say that Jones should not be exposed to investigation. People in public life cannot and should not escape scrutiny. Nor should they reach for the defamation writ to stop the legitimate investigation of their public activities. While the use of the stop writ has receded, all parliaments recently reaffirmed the right of the media to investigate and the right of public and indeed private figures to protect their reputations and their privacy. They declined to follow the US model that allows the publication, with impunity, of unsubstantiated rumour and gossip.
It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the ABC had decided to target its commercial rival in a way it has targeted no one else. The indications clearly are that a purpose from the outset - indeed, the primary purpose of this enterprise - was not so much the public interest but to do damage, if not mortal damage, to Jones. By publishing a book, the ABC could evade the letter of the broadcasting codes without stopping it from launching the mother of all free and uncosted TV and radio advertising campaigns for the Jonestown tome. It could broadcast anything from the book without breaching the code. Everything in the book, you see, would be in the public domain and no longer private.
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