Looking back on Alan Jones

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Alan Jones has never shied away from controversy. Relentlessly pounding various positions for decades, he has remained, till his recent announcement that he would be retiring, immoveable. He ducked accusations; he prevailed in the face of storms and juggernauts. At Sydney radio station 2GB, he maintained a degree of authority from the fear of politicians.

Alan Jones at press conference (Getty Images/Matt King)

Current and former prime ministers on Jones’ aisle of politics were congratulatory and reflective. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on hearing the news of Jones’ impending retirement, was warm. ‘You’ve always spoken your mind to everyone, including me, and we’ve had one or two disagreements, but you’ve always done the right thing for your country.’ Tony Abbott suggested that Australia’s ‘national conversation will be different and poorer without @AlanJones on radio every morning.’

Predictably, praise was absent in other quarters. Writer John Birmingham’s response to Abbott’s meditation was simple: Australia would be able to find another bottom-barrelled racist. Such views served to highlight the point that all Jones touches, or is touched by, turns to controversy.

Finding that paragon virtue of balance seems nigh impossible. When the biography Jonestown was published, fury fumed in both Murdoch and Fairfax presses. Andrew Bolt suggested that the work by Chris Masters had served to ‘out’ Jones by focusing on his time as a teacher in charge of boys. Ditto Paul Sheehan, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald. Masters’ ‘examination of Jones’s time at the school, is, like so much of the book, suffused with sexual innuendo.’ David Marr was left with the balancing act, retorting that the biography made no allegations of sexual impropriety.

The reaction to Jonestown underlined the force Jones had, and continues to have, as the most prominent of Australian shock jocks. The shock jock is cocooned and Teflon coated, a survivor of the firestorm controversy that would sink most public figures. He survived the disclosure of that most unsavoury of speeches about Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father having ‘died of shame’. (That venture saw a loss of $1.5 million in revenue.) He lasted the maelstrom that was cash-for-comment. As Marr has observed with some astonishment, the 1999 revelations ‘that he sold his opinions for millions should have left him scuppered, washed up, wrecked and finished, there and then.’ The backers remained; his audience forgot.

Perhaps, most remarkably, the leader of shock jocks lasted that most relentless, brutal and, for the most part, unregulated of pack animals: the social media platform. The comments on Gillard and paternal shame triggered howls of stormy offence but did little to dislodge Jones from his ratings perch.

But in August 2019, this almost changed. With politicians gathered at the Pacific Islands Forum, Jones had some unsolicited advice for Morrison: to ‘shove a sock down the throat’ of his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern for constantly raising the issue of climate change. Things threatened to crumble for Jones. Morrison was unimpressed.  His predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, called for on an apology for this ‘latest misogynistic rant’. But it was the social media campaign naming and shaming sponsors of Jones’ program that exerted most pull. Support from such giants as Coles and the Commonwealth Bank evaporated. Unsettled, 2GB’s management was forced into warning Jones that he was on ‘his last strike’.

 

'Jones had a performance to give, and found a participant.'

 

As with all shock jocks, Jones thrives on confrontation (in Masters’ words, ‘tough, ruthless and took no prisoners’) and theatre. His opponents often made the mistake of supplying the oxygen, thinking that cold evidence survives the heated amphitheatre of public debate. When accused of taking a contrarian view on the contribution of carbon to climate change on the ABC’s Q&A program, he simply brought out favourable ammunition from his 2GB castle: an interview with the controversial Swedish climate scientist Nils Axel-Mörner, a critic of the rising sea thesis. That Axel-Mörner is himself the grand jester of controversy, claiming to have paranormal powers for divining water and metal, was neither here nor there. Jones had a performance to give, and found a participant.

For all this, such performances courted danger and exerted undue influence. A blight among many in his broadcasting career must always be the ignominious role he played in the Cronulla riots in December 2005, sparked by exhortations to white Australians to reclaim the beaches from those of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’. Instead of calming crowds and lifting the red mist, Jones turned demagogue in inciting them. The NSW Administrative Appeals Tribunal subsequently found in 2009 that Jones had ‘incited hatred, serious contempt and severe ridicule of Lebanese Muslims’.

The enduring presence of Jones leaves the sociologist and media analyst with a puzzle. As Masters pondered, the shock jock could be ‘extremely unfair and vicious’ at times. He was also to his listeners an 'advocate for the little person who was on struggle street.’ A similar view was expressed by his most perennial critic Media Watch. ‘There’s been many stoushes but Jones’ commitment to his listeners, his tireless work ethic and ratings success, is to be congratulated.’

This is the sort of situation that sits uneasily for the public relations micro-managed creature that is the twenty-first century politician. Fed by round-the-clock pollsters, such a figure bends to the less than sweet calls of shock jock sirens who have their fleshy fingers on the pulse, who know the disturbed mood. Where politicians fear to seize the day, the punditry and shock jocks will.

In 2018, the ABC’s Laura Tingle suggested that the current political class, estranged from voters and the public, had become allergic to the courageous advocacy of policy positions. Preference was instead given to emphasising ‘a point of political difference with their opponents.’ In such an environment, the shock jock revels, sensing the cowardice and forcing a view. At least they can speak their mind; why can’t politicians?

 

 

Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Alan Jones at press conference (Getty Images/Matt King)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Alan Jones, auspol

 

 

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Existing comments

thanks, Binoy - a clever thoughtful piece
Anne | 15 May 2020


Jones is an older strain of social media ‘influencer’, like his contemporary John Laws who, when confronted with the legal consequences of his own ‘influence’, outed himself as an ‘entertainer’. And that pretty much sums up the substance and worth of the two strains.
roy chen yee | 15 May 2020


I can say that I've never listened to Jones' radio program. Many people have listened to him though and were loyal listeners. This gives us pause for reflection as Binoy has so ably done. There will be someone to take his place, perhaps not quite as influential as Jones. We can refuse to tune in to shock jocks but there is an audience out there.
Pam | 15 May 2020


Alan Jones has been a shocking stain on Australian media. He is full of hypocrisy and hatred of women. Jones took pleasure in abusing those he didn’t like. He had too much control over some politicians. I hope he goes away and we don’t have to hear from his racist, vile voice ever again. But I have my doubts.
Kate | 15 May 2020


No matter how anyone describes Jones and his nasty trade that is only half and the most obvious part of the phenomenon. If leadership is finding a procession to get in front of, he sure managed that superbly. The procession fumes with resentment, abhors what they cannot understand, and longs for anyone who will rage on their behalf and help appreciate their snake oil. There is a heap of hypocrisy in current culture and governance. So who will call this out and govern for all? Or better not if you want to succeed like the president of the United States.
Michael D. Breen | 15 May 2020


Dr Kampmark quotes ABC journalist Laura Tingle. But those who listen to the ABC wouldn’t listen to Alan Jones, and vice versa. It’s all political now. The “social media campaign” carried out against Jones was led by Sleeping Giants, an organization founded in the US by Matt Rivitz after Trump’s 2016 election. Its goals were to attack conservative broadcasting such as Breitbart and Fox by pressuring advertisers to pull their ads. Even now, as the origins of the Russia/Trump collusion hoax are being exposed, those in the media who cheered the hoax on are unapologetic. They don’t care about, or don’t even know, truth anymore! And our “tolerant” ABC has a track record of foul-mouthed vulgarity directed at those with whom it disagrees: A Chaser sketch depicted journalist Chris Kenny having sex with a dog; a tweet aired by Q&A had the handle @Abbottlovesanal; guest Clementine Ford referred to News Corp columnist Miranda Devine as a “c..t”, amongst many others. Yet although political opponents, ALP stalwart Graham Richardson and Alan Jones co-host a TV show—Richo & Jones. Richardson lauded Jones as “the most generous human being I have ever met.” Perhaps they belong to a better era.
Ross Howard | 15 May 2020


The appointed successor to this obnoxious racist, anti-papist and science denier from the deep north was, I understand, educated as a 'man for others' by the Jesuits. If so, hopefully he won't forget his lessons in humanity and follow in Jones' ignominious footsteps. The great unanswered conundrum surrounding Jones comes in two parts; 1. Who had the lack of understanding to nominate him for the Order of Australia (AM) and 2. Why wasn't it taken from him when he displayed his true colours over recent years.
john frawley | 16 May 2020


I am disappointed that once again, the work of the MFW coven is not mentioned. The efforts of members bombarding the pages of those who advertised on Jones’ show, monitoring and sustaining the onslaught are largely responsible for his “retirement”. He was sacked. Too much revenue lost and lack of relevance.
Jennifer Selth | 16 May 2020


T'would be interesting to draw up a profile of whom his loyal band of listeners were. I encountered them in taxi-drivers, many of them quite articulate but seething with the kind of pent-up cynicism and fury that people who regard themselves as put-upon and the helpless victims of injustice often complain about. Leaving aside their obvious racism and imperviousness to having their views interrogated, one is forced to uncomfortably ask: how have the rules of democracy, intended to reflect a broad-spectrum of responses relating to management of the polis, sunk to such a low state of affairs as to ensure that only another tub-thumping demagogue is seen to speak for them?
Michael FURTADO | 17 May 2020


Decline in educational standards - particularly in learning that requires serious reading and writing - is, I suggest, a significant facilitator of the sort of demagoguery "shock jocks" are able to exercise on the air waves and via other forms of media; to the detriment, as Michael Furtado observes, of democracy.
John RD | 19 May 2020


Late in the 19th Century, WS Gilbert opined "...you are either a little liberal or just a little conservative..." Still true today it would seem, as liberals foist a fussilade of deprecatory comments on Alan Jones imminent retirement from his morning radio program. I would disagree with Alan more often than agree with him and he has, like all who have ready access to an audience, said things at times that were reprehensible. But he has stood in the stocks and survived the censures, he has always researched his position and offers arguments that are open to engagement, he is a consummate performer and he does have a track record for untrumpeted generosity towards needy persons. And as far as I know, he will still be speaking his mind on the Sky channel on Tuesday evenings.
carey burke | 19 May 2020


From my limited listening of Alan Jones, he is highly articulate, well-researched, open to opinions on all sides> He's interviewed = contra mainstream and ABC - many whom he's disagreed with on a host of issues - eg Nicola Roxon, which I've found interesting and stimulating. He has a great sense of humour, calls a spade a spade, and is impatient with hypocrites. Also, I understand, he is privately generous and I can believe that. I disagree with him on a small number of rather complex issues (he's against fracking on prime agricultural land). But I don't doubt his sincerity, and that he has considered with considerable acumen all sides of the case, no doubt much more than I have. I'm sure he has his intellectual and personal weaknesses - who doesn't? - but if he's the archetypal "shock jock", then the biased, anti-intellectual and crushingly boring mainstream press today could do with a lot more of them. The only thing I'll struggle to forgive him for is being a speech writer for Malcolm Fraser, the PM who more than any other snatched ideological defeat from the jaws of victory. But I'm sure he did his best. In fine, he can lay out a valid argument and stick by it. One can disagree with the premises all one likes, but he understands the value of logical reasoning. What a rare breed, today! Vale, Alan Jones, and God bless. BTW, I'll be very sorry when Phillip Adams retires, too. Quite frequently, he brilliantly illuminates profound truths. Just as AJ does. Are we as a society capable of living in the tension? If not, we're doomed.
HH | 19 May 2020


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