Just why exactly are we all talking about Alan Jones anyway? Why should a few throwaway lines by a right-wing radio host be so important? After all, he made them to a private function, and few of us really care what Alan Jones says — even if it was admittedly in poor taste and about the Prime Minister. So why did his remarks spark off such a media firestorm?
That’s the question Jones’ managers at 2GB must be asking themselves today, as the furore over Jones’ remarks that Julia Gillard’s father "died of shame" keeps rolling and rolling. Such is the consumer backlash against advertisers on Jones’ show that some estimates have 2GB losing $80,000 a day.
For someone of Jones’ prominence and influence, it must be a disconcerting experience. For decades, hosting a high-rating AM radio show in Sydney made the person who hosted it something of a modern feudal overlord. As Chris Masters’ wonderful biography of the man relates, Jones has immense influence and no little power in Sydney. He has the ear of the rich, the powerful and the elected. Masters wrote that there was a senior member of the Howard government who was effectively the "Minister for Alan Jones".
In retrospect, perhaps the fall of the Howard government was the first sign that the Jones empire could not last forever. Jones, like his audience, is ageing and increasingly out of touch with the values of younger Australians, particularly on social issues such as gay marriage, feminism and the environment. Unlike a Malcolm Turnbull, whose easy social liberalism seems effortlessly wedded to a belief in the power of free markets, Jones is a social conservative with an increasingly cranky veneer. The ascension of a childless female to the position of Prime Minister — in alliance with the Greens, no less — seems almost perfectly calculated to discombobulate the sensibilities of a conservative older man like Jones.
For a long time, Jones’ misogyny went unpunished, if not unnoticed. After all, his views were shared by his listeners, and there were plenty of them, enough to keep Jones comfortably atop the ratings, enough to keep plenty of advertisers calling. For those angered by his remarks — and there were many — there were few ways to strike back at his power base.
But social media has changed that, by giving ordinary people a vastly amplified ability to register their disapproval. Change.org, the organisation responsible for the petition against Jones’ advertisers, is an intriguing case study. It is a tiny start-up with just a handful of full-time staff. Essentially, it is just a website that facilitates online petitions. Its philosophy might be loosely described as left libertarian, combining a degree of social liberalism with a belief in the power of online technologies to effect social change.
When I visited the offices of Change.org a month or so ago, the atmosphere was closer to IT start-up than earnest lobby group. Nick Allardice, the youthful executive director, had just returned from a visit to an affiliate in Indonesia. He was genuinely excited about the ability of the site to expose the endemic corruption in Indonesia that the tightly regulated media there was unable to tackle.
Change.org does something very well, something that other forms of media have barely started to understand. It coordinates political speech from the ground up. Old media organisations, in contrast, dictate from the top down. They are broadcasters, not organisers. Jones is almost the pure example of a one-to-many demagogue.
Media guru Clay Shirky was alive to this distinction nearly a decade ago. Way back in 2005 he gave a TED speech in which he pointed to the ability of social networking technologies to substitute collaboration for institutional structures.
In the old days, Shirky pointed out, if you wanted to meet up with your friends at a cafe, you had to contact everyone beforehand, make a plan, set a time and hope that everyone would stick to it. Now that everyone has a mobile phone, planning is far more flexible. "You’ll have experienced this in your life whenever you bought your first mobile phone and you stopped making plans," he says in the speech. "You just said, ‘I’ll call you when I get there, call me when you get off work.’ Right? That is a point-to-point replacement of coordination with planning."
Big media organisations struggle with such flexible collaboration, because their entire business model is about building high walls around content and then charging for access at a toll-gate. They are one-to-many gatekeepers. The equation is simple. You want to talk to Alan Jones’ audience? You can either make friends with Alan Jones, or you can pay.
As anyone who’s had to argue with a bouncer will know, getting to be the gatekeeper can give you an enhanced view of your own abilities. Big media has long suffered from such gatekeeper arrogance. It even seems to infect younger journalists at daily newspapers, who definitely should know better. Just yesterday, we got to see the Daily Telegraph’s Joe Hildebrand telling a hapless freelancer that "getting published in the Telegraph at all is a pretty massive deal for an aspiring journalist mate and you just blew it. Take your piece elsewhere." What he did instead was take Joe’s email to media site Mumbrella.
This genetic difference in business models is the key reason that newspapers, television networks and talkback radio stations have struggled to come to terms with online campaign sites like Change.org and GetUp! Collectively, they simply don’t understand the bottom-up, peer-to-peer nature of these websites. They’re too wedded to the old systems of command-and-control.
The same might be said for many of the companies who advertise there. They too have long enjoyed a hierarchical relationship with their customers. Many have struggled to adapt now that customers find it so much easier to talk back. This is why they have long found it easier to ridicule GetUp!, rather than genuinely engage with it.
Former GetUp! Director Simon Sheikh had a good article in Fairfax yesterday in which he pointed out that 2GB’s reaction is typical for big corporations when faced with an unexpected consumer backlash.
"I’ve seen the same two reactions emerge as the standard formulaic response," he writes.
"First, they belittle the people contacting the company in question, calling them ‘keyboard activists’ as though their opinion somehow counts less because they’ve sent an email rather than filled out a customer survey form."
"Soon, the target of a corporate campaign begins to realise that the message is starting to bite, regardless of the medium. They then move on to their next tactic: attempting to silence the feedback by claiming they’re being bullied."
This is indeed the playbook being followed by 2GB. In recent days, it has tried the laughable argument that a backlash by angry citizens against its advertisers is somehow "bullying", or an assault on free speech. It’s a nonsensical argument, as Malcolm Turnbull pointed out in a speech last night.
Big media and big business better get used to this sort of consumer activism. The old beliefs, along the lines that Jones has nothing to worry about because his listeners still love him, have rapidly been shown to be false. What we’re seeing is the first real evidence that social media platforms can destroy value even in industries they are not competing against directly. Just as Wikileaks changed our understanding of what constitutes journalism, and Anonymous changed our understanding of what constitutes cyber-activism, social media campaigning is rapidly changing the relationship between the powerful in our society and the increasingly networked masses. That’s a change that will bring adverse side-effects as well positive benefits. But it is a trend that’s here to stay.