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In defence of Alan Jones

Broadcaster Alan Jones addresses the media in Sydney on Sunday after it is revealed he told guests at a Sydney University Liberal Club dinner Julia Gillard’s father had “died of shame” over his daughter’s “lies”. AAP Image/Warren Clarke

So, Sydney shock-jock Alan Jones has disgraced himself with his appallingly tasteless and hurtful comment, recorded at a recent Sydney University Liberal club dinner, that the late John Gillard “died of shame” over his daughter Julia. He compounded the ignominy with his bizarre 45 minute “apology” on Sunday. His comments have led to an explosion of justified schadenfreude by the many people who lament his shtick, a tiresome combination of hate, misogyny and misinformation. Politicians, media figures, and thousands and thousands of “ordinary folk” on social media have expressed outrage at his comments. Numerous ALP figures have finally decided that they will no longer indulge him with appearances on his show.

A prominent manifestation of this outrage is an online petition, calling for Radio 2GB to sack Alan Jones, which has attracted over 100,000 signatures. It and similar campaigns have convinced many companies to remove their sponsorship from Jones’ program. Of course, the advocates of these campaigns have every right to run them: they, like Jones, have a right of free speech. But while I am no fan of Jones’ nasty oeuvre, I am not sure that these campaigns are positive developments for discourse in Australia.

Let us put these campaigns into perspective. 100,000 + signatures does not equal Jones’ reported audience. And it takes a lot more effort to listen to his show than it does to sign an online petition or like a facebook page. Sure, many sponsors have pulled advertising. But they may have simply moved them to 2GB’s other shows, which include the equally charming Ray Hadley. Some sponsors have announced they are “suspending” advertising, perhaps signalling a return to the fray once the controversy dies down. Finally, Jones is an equity holder at 2GB, so the chances of it sacking him are minimal to nil.

But what if the campaign succeeds? Are we really getting to a stage where a default reaction to an outrageous comment is that “something must be done”, in particular a person should be shut down and taken off the air? Are the campaigners really saying that Alan Jones’ show, which they do not listen to, simply should not exist?

What about the wishes of Alan Jones’ listeners and their tastes? Wouldn’t a better strategy be to use his outrageous comments to convince his listeners that they should stop listening? Would it not be better to try to diminish their number with the power of argument, rather than to seek to deprive them of “their” guy because “we” don’t like his message? What if “they” did the same thing? One can’t be sure that one will always be on the “socially acceptable” side of the barricades in the likely free speech battles that Jones’ removal might prompt.

Jones’ power is over-exaggerated. He has a large audience, but it covers a relatively narrow demographic. It would be a more ignominious fate for Jones to continue his slide in the ratings into ludicrous irrelevance, shouting into the void, rather than to be made a martyr by being “hounded” off the air while his ratings remain high. Let him self-destruct, like Glenn Beck in the US.

And while one can bemoan the lack of diversity in Australia’s newspaper market, the same is not true of radio. Melbourne in particular has thriving community radio stations. Alan Jones’ ilk clearly doesn’t impress Melbournians, with shock-jock stable MTR dying a ratings death earlier this year. For whatever reason, some Sydneysiders are impressed with that stuff. The removal of Jones due to campaigns by his ideological opponents wouldn’t, I expect, reduce that apparent appetite for shock jocks. And the digital revolution means that the scarcity of the broadcast spectrum is no longer an issue: Jones’ use of airwaves doesn’t crowd out a more worthy participant.

One is of course free to boycott Jones’ remaining advertisers, though I am doubtful that a large percentage of those who have signed the petition will do so. The campaign against the sponsors does however raise interesting issues, as noted obliquely by Todd Sampson on the Gruen Transfer on Wednesday night. Do we want to entrench the idea that private companies are the guardians of what is and what is not allowable speech? I wrote about this in a previous post in regard to social media companies. And certainly, MacQuarie Radio is a private company that owns 2GB and has the power to sack Jones, just as Fairfax Media’s 3AW has recently sacked Derryn Hinch. But do we want that power extended to companies like Freedom Furniture and Hyundai, who have both dropped the Jones program and who can be expected to have zero expertise in the “acceptable speech” arena?

Maybe this concern is naïve. Advertisers already exercise enormous power over broadcast speech. The Jones campaigns may be a positive development in at least injecting an overlay of citizen input, particularly via social media, into the exercise of that power. However, corporate advertising power over speech, in my view, is something that should be discouraged. Rather than encouraging and therefore legitimising the practice, social media is probably better used to call out corporations when they use their advertising power to censor.