For a man who loathes talking about himself, as he so frequently claims, Alan Jones can do it terribly well. He did little else for three full hours last week, on the morning after the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) released its findings against him.
The ACMA media release of 10 April began:
ACMA has found that the licensee of commercial radio service 2GB Sydney breached the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice (the code) by broadcasting material that was likely to encourage violence or brutality.
ACMA has also found that the licensee breached the code by broadcasting material that was likely to vilify people of Lebanese background and of Middle-Eastern background on the basis of their ethnicity. While ACMA has found that the material was presented for a purpose in the public interest, being discussion of factors contributing to unrest in the Cronulla area of southern Sydney in December 2005, ACMA was not persuaded that the relevant comments were presented reasonably and in good faith.
The breaches arose from material broadcast during the program Breakfast with Alan Jones between 5 and 9 December 2005.
For the first time in his career, Jones said, he found it necessary to defend himself against public scandal, on his program, and he did, with all the cantankerous spleen, outraged outbursts and skilful leaps of logic he has made into a style all his own.
Jones’s outburst is interesting because it reveals a great deal about the man himself, and about how he sees his role and the role of his program. It also contains some real insight into the state of the media and its regulation in this country.
Jones’s main line of defence was that the three excerpts on which he was condemned constitute less than 10 minutes from over a week’s worth of broadcasting that they needed to be heard in the context of the entire show.
ACMA dismissed this claim, saying it is unreasonable to expect that audiences would tune in for such extended periods of time and that it is likely these excerpts could have been all they heard.
Jones’s contempt for this was twofold. First, he claimed that his audience does listen to his entire show (which broadcasts from 5:30 to 10:00 am) and a plethora of callers offered him support do back this up. Secondly, he believed it unreasonable for ACMA to expect him to moderate the views of his callers, as this goes against both the logistics and the democratic function of talkback radio.
What is immediately obvious is that while Jones’s regular audience may indeed listen to his entire show, they are not the kind of people who would have felt vilified by his comments. They are people, like ‘Fernandez’ of Castle Hill, who leave comments such as this in Jones’s guestbook:
20 years ago when we had a lot less Muslims we were not like this, so let’s be honest and admit that some people do not integrate into society as easily and as readily as others.
Casual listeners, on the other hand, are likely to come from a broader demographic pool and could quite easily find such comments offensive. It’s clear that one audience’s ‘common sense’ is another’s ‘vilification.’
But what’s more important here is the articulation of Jones’s view of his own role as a talkback host in defending himself, he claimed that he could not moderate the views of the public, despite the fact that this is exactly what he does.
All talkback hosts comment upon and make conversation with their callers, and as such are responsible for the way in which the opinions put forward are framed. It is important that a diversity of voices and opinions go to air, and that they are treated as fairly as possible. But Jones cannot pretend that this happens in a neutral environment, or that he has no sway on how the comments are received and especially because he inspires such devotion from his listeners, and such parroting of his own comments by his callers.
It was during this particular part of his spiel last week that Jones took a call from a ‘long time listener’ who told him how unfair it was that he was being blamed for the Cronulla riots, when they were clearly the fault of violent and criminal Lebanese gangs. ‘It’s a fair point,’ Jones said. A small sentence and very mild words but enough to demonstrate this point. It is these small comments that make a talkback host an advocate of the views expressed on their show, and which give them some responsibility for any offence that they may cause.
Jones’s other main objection with ACMA’s finding lies with the source of the original complaint. The investigation was launched as a result of three anonymous complaints one of which came from Perth, where Jones’s show is not broadcast.
Jones firmly believes that the people who made these complaints did not listen to his show. Rather, they were offended by later reports about it in the media, most notably a Canberra Times article, which attributed another host’s comments falsely to him, and on the ABC the pinko, politically correct, bleeding-hearted, latte-sipping, Labor-voting ABC, that is.
And to some extent, he does have a point. In the social soul-searching that followed the Cronulla riots, talkback radio became a major focus of the commentariat and many an opinion column was penned, blaming Jones and his ilk for stirring up community anger. The ABC report that Jones finds particularly obnoxious did end by detailing just what viewers could do if they wished to make a complaint. Jones was not alone in making comments that could incite violence and racial hatred at the time. But it was his name and his program that the media picked up on and made prominent in the public consciousness.
So, Jones maintained that the charges were a kind of tall poppy syndrome. In a way, especially after the phenomenal success of Chris Masters’s biography of him, Jonestown, Alan Jones has become more than just a talkback broadcaster. He has become the talkback broadcaster, a kind of symbol of talk radio and the mass media, and especially everything that is seen as wrong with them. So, the complaints and charges made against Jones were, perhaps, more about the media as a whole, with Alan Jones as their representative.
The remainder of Jones’s self-defence was more personal. Like much of his editorialising, it was based on ire and bombast, and only illustrated that he does not fully understand just what ACMA’s findings mean. To begin with, Jones said, he could not possibly have vilified anyone of Middle-Eastern ethnicity, as he had plenty of Lebanese and Muslim callers during the week of the riots. Besides which, he is an ‘Anglo-Saxon ethnic’ himself. Material which offends and vilifies, he seems to believe, is fine so long as it is broadcast alongside more moderate comments.
As for inciting violence, Jones says that it was not 2GB listene
rs, with their average age of 50, who were throwing punches at Cronulla. (‘ Looking at the newspaper photos and TV coverage of the Cronulla riots, I didn’t see anyone wearing an Alan Jones or 2GB T-shirt or flag,’ wrote ‘George,’ of Emu Plains, last week.) Albeit implicitly, Jones gave his first public response to Jonestown as part of his defence mentioning that the media have recently said that he has no real power, and they can’t have it both ways. Obviously, he does not see the difference between the charge of inciting violence, and actually causing it.
ACMA didn’t know what they are talking about, he maintained their case continually referred to his show as ‘Breakfast with Alan Jones,’ when it has never had this name. Throughout his tirade, Jones stated repeatedly that he was being targeted and persecuted, as well as defamed and, yes, vilified.
It’s a rather elaborate conspiracy, which involves the ABC joining forces with the NSW ALP in an attempt to silence Jones’s voice of criticism and ‘common sense.’ It has been well-timed, of course, to coincide with the lead up to the Federal Election, where ex-ABC journalist Maxine McKew will stand against John Howard in the seat of Bennelong. I’m not sure if this claim was made more or less absurd on 11 April by Howard publicly referring to Jones as ‘an outstanding broadcaster,’ and ‘a person who articulates what a lot of people think,’ and by Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd saying on the same day, ‘ In terms of the future appearances [on]Alan Jones’s program, there’s nothing I’ve read at this stage that would cause me not to go on.’
In three hours of prime time radio, Jones gave himself the right of reply that he maintained ACMA had denied him. His defences were predictably angry and egotistical and often ill-conceived, but they demonstrate that he does believe in talk radio as a democratic tool and a true ‘voice of the people.’
It does also seem likely that the original complaints have more to do with Alan Jones as a metonym for the wider medium or even Alan Jones as a personality than with Alan Jones as a presenter and broadcaster. It could even be plausibly argued that he has been defamed. But if Alan Jones’s unremitting self-defence demonstrated anything, it was that both he and his callers feel he has done no wrong. Rather, they believe that it is he who has been wronged. And it is unlikely that any punishment imposed will be enough to make Jones change his mind or his ways.
Or as Terry Mathis, of Goulburn put it, ‘Spot on, cobber! Always the truth and the facts from a True Blue Aussie icon. No compromises, mate. Ever!’
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