Playing Favourites


Twelve years ago, I stepped into a barrister’s chambers for the first time. I was impressed by the décor all that smoothly varnished timber and luxurious leather.

One barrister I knew kept a painting of a naked woman reclined on a sofa in his office. When he sat in his chair, his head appeared to be comfortably nestled between her luxuriant breasts.

Barristers used to regularly shout expensive lunches after the matters I’d briefed them in had settled. After one such lunch, I asked my boss how these men in wigs and gowns could afford such opulence. He responded with the grace and candour characteristic of partners of Sydney law firms:

We pay for all that shit, Irfan. It’s because we give them so much fucking work. Mate, if it wasn’t for us, those bastards would be working out of a tin box. If I were you, I’d take all the free fucking lunches I can get!

A decade or so after this conversation, one of my favourite personal injury barristers was appointed to the bench. After many years of shouting lunches to junior solicitors, he now presided over a court list and regularly terrorised junior solicitors by exercising his power to strike out entire legal proceedings and ordering lawyers for unsuccessful parties to pay the legal costs of all sides. Ouch!

So did the solicitors who regularly briefed him in his previous life as a barrister receive favourable treatment?

Is the Pope a Hindu?

Plenty has been written and said on the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s 80-odd page decision concerning Alan Jones’s broadcasts in the lead-up to the Cronulla riots of December 2005. But what sticks out most in my mind is the sheer arrogance and hubris of the guilty parties.

In The Australian, Alan Jones was quoted as saying the Chairman of ACMA, Chris Chapman, ‘had more jobs than I’ve had feeds,’ and that ‘Mr Chapman has gone around this town on many occasions, to me and to others, seeking references to be written for his appointment to a stack of jobs.’

In the same article, John Singleton head of radio station 2GB, is also quoted as confirming he had a ‘personal friendship’ with Chapman ‘off the field’:

I don’t want to get personal with Chris, I like Chris but he has called on Alan and me for many favours over the years and we’ve both been forthcoming. So I’m personally disappointed, but maybe he had no legal alternative.

So Alan Jones expects favouritism from the official umpire in return for references rendered. John Singleton wished that favours were reciprocated had a legal technicality allowed it. Hardly the words of genuine defenders of ‘Struggle Street.’

Now let’s put all this into perspective. If I, as a solicitor, stood up before every ex-barrister judge I had ever briefed and demanded a favourable decision based on the number of briefs given, I’d be struck off the roll of solicitors. My colleagues would express outrage. I’d be accused of compromising the independence of the judiciary and of undermining that sacred democratic dogma we know as the Rule of Law.

And they’d be darn right. Judges are independent arbiters independent even of their former paymasters. As an independent arbiter, you have every right to bite the hand that once fed you. Especially if that hand is unlawfully and unjustly slapping others in the face.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Yet in the case of Jones, 2GB and ACMA, we see the Communications Minister effectively threatening to gag the communications watchdog she appointed just for doing its job. Helen Coonan, herself a former barrister, said:

Alan Jones has made an indelible mark on broadcasting during his long and outstanding career and I encourage the industry to address any concerns that they might have with the current Radio Code of Practice with a review to ensure it best reflects community standards.

Let’s translate Coonan’s words from Politicalspinlish to English:

I’m so pissed off with Chapman for picking on the Liberal Party’s favourite shock jock that I want all you commercial radio stations to gang up on him. Especially if Chapman’s decisions cost you money. That way, I’ll have the trigger to manufacture a different process so we can replace him with a less independent watchdog. Heck, if the ABC can be biased, why can’t I?

The fact that the existing Code was developed by the industry in the first place doesn’t seem to matter. Hence it is called a ‘Code of Practice.’ It’s not an Act or a Regulation. And as a major talkback broadcaster, 2GB would have had plenty of input in developing that Code.

It also doesn’t seem to matter that every other station and broadcaster has copped ACMA decisions on the chin. The Rule of Law has its costs. One is that if you disobey the law, you can expect to feel a little pain.

It gets better. In his defence, Jones named ACMA officials on air and claimed they had ‘little experience or knowledge of talkback radio.’

Yes, of course, Alan. Talkback radio is an esoteric science requiring years of education and training. It’s even harder than coaching rugby or teaching English. Only someone with experience in talkback should be umpire.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest to Minister Coonan that she consider replacing Chris Chapman with a candidate who has decades of real experience in talkback radio. Someone like John Laws.

But then, I dare say Jones won’t like Lawsy either. Especially after Laws accused Jones of threatening the PM in 2000 if he didn’t appoint his old friend David Flint as Chair of the broadcasting watchdog.

Or perhaps Jones would like to see Professor Flint returned? No, that is out of the question. What ‘experience’ does Flint  have in talkback radio? What ‘knowledge’ would he have?

Of course, Jones isn’t really worried about racism or riots or bikies or Lebs. What this really boils down to is dollars and cents for 2GB’s biggest ‘Struggle Street’ shareholders.

Jones says what he says because it brings him a large audience. Admittedly, most are over 55 but, with Australia’s ageing population this is a growing demographic with a lifetime of savings, investments and superannuation to splurge. Advertisers want this market, but they don’t wish to offend other customers or their staff. I doubt senior managers of Middle-Eastern origin such as at the NAB   would want their advertising budget spent on broadcasters who talk about bikie gangs taking on ‘Middle-Eastern thugs’ on the eve of Australia’s worst race riots this century.

Radio stations survive on advertising dollars, just as small businesses in Cronulla survive on crowded beaches. Your average Cronulla shopkeeper doesn’t mind if the dollars come from Middle-Eastern or Anglo-Saxon people. Yet they suffered because certain sentiments were played out senti
ments that they never expressed or condoned.

It’s only fair that a Sydney radio station and shock jock suffer a little pain. Jones didn’t have to read offensive and racist emails on air. He didn’t have to mention bikie gangs gathering at railway stations. If anything, Jones and 2GB got off lightly. They should cop the effects of the law, just like the rest of us do. If you commit the crime, you do the time.

Surely, shock jocks of all people wouldn’t want to see anyone get away with breaking the law.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.